Among all the lists that tell you exactly how many “types of story” exist, I like this one about the Seven Quests. No, I don’t mean the famous The Seven Basic Plots but this one in this more obscure, plain, and unsourced website: Love, Money, Power, Glory, Revenge, Survival, and Self. I don’t know the source behind it, and I don’t think it’s an exhaustive list —I can think of two other important motivations— but it’s useful, simple, and surprisingly powerful.
What I like about that list is that it actually focuses on human emotions and motivations, not abstract Jungian narratives like “Killing the Monster.” After all, what does that even mean? Killing it, sure,… but for what? Because you want to loot his treasure, revenge, or simple survival? It changes the story quite a lot whether the motivation of our hero is one or the other, and it also highlights the pitfalls of each motivation, its dark side if you will (Love -> Jealousy, Money -> Greed, Power/Glory -> Arrogance & Wrath, Revenge -> Obsession & Moral downfall, Survival ->? (this one is morally neutral as I will explain later.)
By focusing on the human motivation behind the plot, you can also see how contemporary fiction works. Or, rather, doesn’t, because our culture hates almost all of those motivations. The Seven Basic Plots, as described by Christopher Booker, are still being written, but their emotional range, as described in this list of seven motivations, has been narrowed considerably. Let’s start with the obvious:
Money/Wealth: Money may make the world go around, but most writers like to pretend it doesn’t. There aren’t many stories when the primary motivations is a desire for wealth, and most moral and literary authorities would condemn such a motivation. Nonetheless, it’s a real motivation and, by the way, it’s the one behind the game that almost spawned modern fantasy: Dungeons & Dragons. In the original game, treasure was the primary motivation of the player characters and how they gained experience.
But in literature, you are rarely going to see wealth as the primary motivation of anyone doing anything, and the subject is usually ignored with puritanical ferocity. Unless the goal is, simply, to get by, “to pay the bills/get the job done” so to speak, the issue of money is usually avoided. Anything above bare survival or middle-class stature is considered crass, and I can’t remember the last time I read a story with a protagonist afraid of poverty.
Love: Ah, “love,” the most exalted of emotions and the source of greatest joys and pains (not counting getting kicked in the nuts or being eaten by an alligator.) Surely this motivation is allowed! Sure… in certain genres (romantic comedies, obviously,) but… as a “quest”?
If you are attuned to current sociomaniacal cultural trends, you may have felt a bit uncomfortable when you read that “love as a quest.” Why? Well, because it’s a masculine quest, one whose goal is to “conquer” a woman. Sure, very romantic, uplifting, whatever, but… problematic.
And it doesn’t work the other way (the woman trying to conquer the man’s heart,) or, at least, it’s hard to do it correctly and it’s way more uncommon.
Also, keep in mind that there’s a difference between love and sexual inclusivity. Contemporary fiction likes to state that their characters are sexually diverse, but love is certainly not a quest or a goal that drives the story, it’s just something they have tacked on, a character’s trait, at best.
So scratch love from the list of possible motivations.
Note: I’ve been quite conservative in my definition of love. There are others, like brotherly love and caritas, in the religious sense, but these are also out of the question.
Power: No way any contemporary writer is going to write about power (or “influence” if you want a more neutral word) unless it’s based on the binary distinction of oppressed/oppressors. In fact, I suspect that to the modern mind, the desire for power is seen either as impossible or inherently wicked and malevolent.
Scratch this one too.
Glory: Similar to Power but less institutionalized but, unfortunately, too masculine. Power is gender neutral, Glory rarely is (“Prestige” could be, though.) Glory as a motivation is so ancient, so archaic to modern brains, that you’d have to read the Iliad or something like that to see an example of it. One of the few (relatively) recent characters motivated mostly by glory I can think of would be Conan by Robert E. Howard, although in most of his stories he is just trying to survive.
Killing the monster to earn glory and renown was once a perfectly valid motivation but it’s considered too quaint or even “dangerous” nowadays, so ignore this one too.
Revenge: This is a more acceptable motivation. In fact, there are whole genres dedicated to it, but the target of revenge needs to be a member of certain classes. It’s not hard to sell a story of a woman seeking revenge on the man who hurt her, or perhaps the usual “my wife was murdered so now I will kill you all” story (although you will be reviled by the culturati,) but that’s pretty much it.
Also, note that Revenge as a motivation requires a certain sophistication and maturity to be proper stories or you risk writing a demented revenge fantasy.
Survival: Unlike the other motivations, which are active, this one is passive. One is not actively searching for Survival quests but thrown into one. Moral Guardians may criticize characters motivated by Wealth, Glory, or even Love, but it’s hard to argue that the crew from the Nostromo is doing anything morally dubious when trying to survive the Xenomorph. They may still chastise you because of the excess of violence, though.
Survival makes for great adventure and action stories, and it’s not a surprise that most entertainment literature include simple survival as the primary motivation (surviving a monster, a villain, a serial killer, etc.) Even many Good vs. Evil epic stories are actually Survival stories in disguise since the Evil forces seem bent on destroying the protagonist (perhaps because he or she is unique, the Chosen One, whatever,) driven by a blind determination that borders insanity. In such context, destroying Evil = personal survival, so any annoying moral issue that one could find with other motivations here disappears.
But here’s the problem, Survival may be allowed, but it’s certainly not rewarded. Most literary priests and critics look down on this motivation, even in genres (like adventure and fantasy&scifi stories) where it’s somewhat essential. Since survival usually involves punching stuff or being overly aggressive, not to mention that the average writer knows about harsh survival as much as your average fantasy writers know about the real Middle Ages, the result is that stories focusing on such crude motivations will most likely be relegated to the bin of juvenile, pulp, or trashy entertainment.
So, if you can’t write stories where the character is motivated by any of the six previous motivations, what else is there, especially if you want literary prestige?
Self: What “Self” means is not clear, not even on the webpage I’m referencing. Self is not a motivation, even if it’s in a list of motivations. Self-discovery is a meaningless word or, rather, it’s a consequence of something else, but not a motivation per se. You could say that the Quest for Immortality in the Epic of Gilgamesh is a “Self” Quest but it’s actually a Love Quest since Gilgamesh actually wants to bring his friend Enkidu back. Finally, realizing he is not going to become immortal or bring his friend back, he accepts his mortality and makes some sort of “self-discovery.” Again, it’s not a Quest, but a revelation, a consequence.
Still, in some indefinite way, Self seems to be the central point of many contemporary stories, especially those considered worthy of literary value and respect. Look at the Hugo finalists I sometimes review and criticize, and try to apply the previous six categories to them. It’s almost impossible. Character rarely have any motivation, things just happen to them, and sometimes there’s not even a plot. There’s, however, a lot of Self-expatiation, and that seems to be the motivation, but for who? Self-expression is a bit of a silly motivation for a character (or a real-world person,) but it’s a valid motivation for an author.
So, if you can’t write characters motivated by Love, Glory, Power, Wealth, or proper Revenge, and even Survival is suspect and relegated to unworthy genres… What remains? Authorial self-gazing.