Thursday, July 2, 2015

Character Motivation: Creating a Push and Pull

Hi, all! I'm working on a new book proposal right now, and one of the things I've been working on lately is the concept of push and pull. I can remember first hearing this concept from Rachel Hauck at an ACFW conference and reading about it in some craft books. At first, it seemed complicated--at least to me!-- but I've realized if you take the time to sort through this element of your story, it can make the characters so much stronger and the plot more gripping.

So what do I mean when I say "push and pull"? When you think of character motivation, particularly for your main characters (like the hero and heroine in a romance, for instance), you want to have both a push and a pull motivating them. They should be pushed toward a goal and also pulled away from something they're trying to avoid. And if the other characters can provide both (especially in a romance), then you've really struck gold.
Photo by Stuart Miles from

Ultimately, this push and pull is what defines your character. What are they so afraid of that they'll avoid at all costs? Are they more afraid than they are excited? Are they so afraid of airplanes they'll forgo their chance to travel to Europe, for instance? Or does this excitement lead them to face their fears? Because that is where you see character growth.

Think of it like a rope tugging your character along. One force shows the struggle, and the other shows how badly your character wants a goal. If your character wants something badly enough, he or she will face whatever forces are against him/her.

Let's look at some examples:

  • You've Got Mail. Meg Ryan's character wants to fall in love with Tom Hanks' character, but she doesn't want to compromise her store, and he represents the enemy. Though she loses the store in the end, their love helps her find an even bigger dream of being an author (which she never would've had the courage to become if things had stayed status quo). The hero causes both push and the pull here, which makes for a great story.
  • Finding Nemo. Nemo's father is terrified of the ocean because of what happened to his mother. But when Nemo goes missing, he has to face that fear because something stronger pulls him (his love for Nemo). Ultimately, he not only finds Nemo but also overcomes his fear and grows stronger for it.
  • Indiana Jones. We all know what Indiana Jones is afraid of. But what does he routinely have to face to get the treasure? Snakes. This example is a much more obvious one because it shows a physical obstacle he has to overcome in order to reach a physical goal.

I would even venture to say that the space between this push and pull is the very space where the story actually occurs. So make it good! The stronger that conflict, the stronger your character will become because s/he has that much more to overcome.

Can you think of any examples of how push and pull works well for your favorite story?


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


kaybee said...

Ashley, this is good. In my current WIP the heroine is being PUSHED toward finding her long-lost daughter, whom she believed died at birth and who was actually spirited away by the child's father. The girl has been kidnapped by one of the father's enemies, and the mother is running FROM the father in a desperate attempt to get to the child first. I've got the Mafia in there somewhere, those are my bad guys, and they want to keep the mom from the child and use the kid to break the father. The hero, the son of a Park Avenue banker, is being PUSHED toward helping her find her daughter and running FROM the expectations of his family that he'll marry a girl in his "class." This is a good post! It helped me clarify their goals.
How is your baby?
Kathy Bailey

Ashley Clark said...

Kathy, it sounds like you've really thought through your characters! Great job!

The baby is doing wonderful! Thanks for asking! Seems he grows every day!