It's a known fact that a character with motivation is immediately more realistic and effective than one without. While it has its limits, the more motivation, the better.
Here's two basic examples. One good. One bad.
Joanne was tired, swaying in her grandma's mahogany chair. Summoning up the strength to move proved impossible. Yet, stifling a yawn, she managed and poured herself a nice glass of tea from the pitcher.
Kayla had spent a long day kissing her boss's ass. I mean, he had been the one who got her that new promotion--even if it came with very, very long strings. An ice cold glass of tea temporarily soothed her seething thoughts. Thank god. She was beginning to wonder if she'd ever make a decision.
As you can see, there's a lot of information about what Joanne's doing, but not much else. Reading the two examples, its easy to feel for one girl more than the other. Kayla has reasons for the way she's feeling, making her more relatable. Not to mention the ass-kissing. Seriously, who hasn't done that in one job or another?
Every movement, every chapter should have a meaning to it. Whether it's scouring the library for information on a murderer or finishing a scarf to beat The Old Ladies Weaving Society and stop their evil plot for world domination. After all, why should we care about the scarf is it's just to say, 'Look! I won!" Adding world domination into the mix and some inward struggles, we feel compelled to read what happens. We have to see to it that those old ladies are stopped.
Motives create sequential action. Thinks of hamsters running on their little wheels to get food pellets in science experiments. The hamster aren't running for the thrill (well, some do but they're stupid), they are running to scarf down those oh so yummy pellets.
However, this DOES NOT mean you need loads of stuff happening to make the reader involved in your story.
Motives can be physical or psychological.
Zoran Bekric has great information on motivation and how it relates to a story, which can be found here. But, I thought I'd quote him on here anyway.
In the classic formulation, 'drama is conflict.' This is often misinterpreted to mean that, in order to be dramatic, a story has to have combat in it. This is untrue--as sheer number of highly effective stories that exist without a single punch being thrown should demonstrate. This is not to say that combat is unexciting--a good fight can be very eye-catching and stimulating--but without any sort of context, it's ultimately meaningless.
And, that's what motivation is. Context. Meanings behind your MC's actions. Why does he/she do the things they do? You have to make the reader care about what's at stake. Who wins and who loses. Remember that the most intriguing clashes of motivation in a story are not only between the dueling motivations of two characters, but of the conflicting internal motivations as well.
I'm interested in hearing your thoughts.
Writers: What motivates your main characters? Is he/she someone you can relate to? Feel sorry for? How did you come to defining your character through their struggles?
Readers: What books have you read recently where you were engrossed in the main character's life? What books made you stop reading halfway through because you couldn't stand/relate to the MC? Why did you feel one way or another?