Tony Stark is one of the most widely debated, and widely adored, characters of the Marvel Universe. He started The Avengers, financed their entire operation, and figured out time travel. And saved them all on numerous occasions.
He also fought with Captain America, made entirely bad decisions that ended in numerous casualties, and had a very big ego that made him extremely hard to work with, to say the least.
But whatever your opinion of him, he has a lesson to teach you as a writer that is vastly important: a lesson on character motivation.
Giving your character a motivation, or a “why”—a reason behind all of their actions—is a key aspect of writing strong characters and deep plots. And yet, we can very easily fall into the brainless ease of looking at our outline and then writing our characters around our plot, or pushing our characters to do something very uncharacteristic, just to reach a plot point, and leave out that “why” in their lives altogether.
Yet if your characters have unrealistic, fake motivations—or the complete lack of motivation—you will have fake, unrealistic characters… and bored, complaining, unempathetic readers. The only way to fix this is to conform your plot, and the way your story goes, around your characters and their “whys.”
Tony Stark fits this bill perfectly. He has deep character motivation that drives the plot of his stories, instead of the other way around.
So let’s take a look at Iron Man’s life, and see how we can give those characters motivation. It’s not easy, but it’s crucial—something we can not miss.
And with it, believe it or not, we can create characters as deep and emotional as Tony Stark.
The Source of Tony Stark’s Motivation
You have probably heard of Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, at some point in your life. He is both a hero and a bumbling fool, loved by some, and hated by quite a few others.
But there is no question on the basis of his motivation (well, all except for one movie, where he was dying, and it very quickly returned).
He has a remarkable sense of duty, and that is his reason, his why, and his motivation for everything he ever does.
He does everything because he feels a certain duty to this world and the people on it. He may at times have made decisions that were twisted and not at all good in any way, but it was all being pushed along by his desire to keep this world safe—to give the people of this world peace.
So why is Tony Stark—Iron Man—the most widely known Avenger?
Because he has a real, strong motivation, and people can relate to that. They see that he’s making a bad choice, but they know why. And they know that his “why” is good so they still root for him, while not approving of his actions. (Other examples of strong character motivations.)
Give your character a motivation like that—a motivation that drives both their good and their bad choices—and your readers will relate. They will know that when a character makes a choice that is going to land them on the brink of disaster, at least they’re staying true to their motivation.
5 Things Tony Stark Can Teach Us About Character Motivation
1. A character’s “why” is created very early in their life, and sticks with them
Every person has a defining moment, or series of moments, in their early life that shape who they are, what they do, and how they act. In other words, it’s the moments that make them them.
Some people call this their backstory, and there are various ways to create a compelling backstory. But I think there is a better, more specific, name for this moment.
I call it their “why moment.”
For Tony Stark, it wasn’t one moment, but the absence of moments. He adored his father and just wanted him to be around, to be a father—to be there for him. But Mr. Stark had a business to run, a show to keep running, and a world to save, and barely enough time to do all that.
Tony hated the business his father devoted his life to, hated the way his dad never showed any warmth for his son, and eventually, hated his father as a person. To say that Tony had a rough relationship with his father would be putting it lightly.
But beneath all that anger and hatred, Tony just wanted to be loved. He wanted his father to see him and acknowledge him.
But then, his father was killed, and Tony inherited Stark Industries and was suddenly in charge of a whole ton of money and resources and power. And, he decided he would never be anything like his father, while at the same time realizing that he loved him with every fiber of his heart.
Tony wanted to do what his father did, but not in the same way.
And so Tony Stark, and then Iron Man, was born. Iron Man is who he is because of who his father was, how he was raised, and what happened in his childhood.
And this has to be the case with your characters. To have a strong motivation, a driving force behind all of their actions, your characters need something in their childhood that brings it all to life. A moment when their perspective shifted, or perhaps even their entire world. A moment when their life changed so drastically, that it changed their very motivation in life.
Take other characters from the Marvel Universe: Black Widow had a brutal childhood in the red room. Her motivation now is to find a new family, and show the world that she can do good, even though there’s red on her ledger. Star Lord watched helplessly as his mother died, and now he’s determined to never be helpless again. Captain America was weak and helpless. Now that he’s not, his motivation is to stand up for those who still are.
The list could go on and on, but you get my point: backstory, and those key moments in your past, form who you are now.
So give your characters a backstory. Give them that moment that makes them who they are, or perhaps, like Tony Stark, give them a lack of moments. Or a loss of a loved one, a disappointment, a failure of hope.
Your childhood and your past do not define you, nor do your character’s define them. But it does create the structure of your worldview and the basis for your motivation.
2. Your character’s “why” will dictate everything they do
Something you have to keep in mind is that once you find that motivation for your character, it has to impact every single decision they make.
Tony’s story and character arc are so incredibly strong because he does that very thing: every one of his actions is put through the filter of who he is and why he is that way.
He stays true to his motivations when he is in the terrorist camp and chooses to escape and gather as much information so that when he escapes, he can change his company and make a difference.
And yet, when he gets home, the first thing he does is get a cheeseburger and eat it during a press conference, because, unlike his father, he is not professional, restrictive, or cold—which are the things Tony hated about his father. He is relaxed, cares nothing for anyone else’s opinions, and does pretty much whatever he wants to.
So his motivation impacts every one of his choices, from getting a cheeseburger to entirely changing his company’s core focus.
Once you create your character’s motivation, using their childhood and past to create said motivation, everything they do has to be put through that filter. They don’t just do something, to do it.
It all has to point back to their motivation. For example, Captain America would not sign the Sokovia Accords, because his motivation in life is to stand up for the little guy who can’t stand up for himself. His motivation stems from the people, and what’s best for each and every individual.
Tony on the other hand would sign the Accords because his motivation is for world peace. He wants the whole world to be at peace, and this motivation stems from the top down. He doesn’t care as much for each individual person as he does for the peace of the world as a whole.
For your character, it might look like working super hard to have the best house and the best clothes and the best food for their children, because they grew up with none of that. Or they hate dating and relationships because they watched their parents’ marriage fall apart, and they never want that to happen to them.
Or maybe their motivation is to provide better healthcare, so they form a new healthcare system. Or their motivation is to clean up politics, so they run for president. Or they want to make a difference in world peace, so they join the army.
Whatever fits your character and story will work, you just have to remember that everything they do must stem from their motivation.
3. Your character’s “why” will dictate how they do what they do
And your character’s motivation not only impacts what they do, but the very way they go about doing it.
Tony Stark is the very essence of this because he does everything in a way that is both endearingly fresh and funny, but also annoyingly stupid and immature. Because he promised himself he wouldn’t be like his dad.
He paints his Iron Man hot rod red because, why not? He builds a tower that literally has his name in massive letters across the top of it, builds a literal army of robots, and names his AI machines first Jarvis, and then Friday, because, why not?
He does everything in the craziest, most outrageously cool way possible—I mean, his name backwards is literally y not, which pretty much encompases everything he does.
Your character’s “why” has to have an impact on how they do the things they do. They lost their mom as a young child? Well now they always wash the dishes with rock-and-roll music on in the background, because that’s what their mom did.
That young mother’s motivation is to build a healthy and strong home for her children? Well, she’s going to go to that job interview very seriously because she knows that if she gets this job, her son is going to be able to do football next season.
Nothing your character does can be done just for the sake of doing it, so the next time you write your character walking across the living room, stop a minute and make them do it in a way that reflects their character motivation.
Look at new kinds of verbs and synonyms for words, think of creative new ways of screaming a character’s motivations off the page by just the slightest tick of their jaw, and remember that how they do what they do will always point back to their motivation.
4. A character’s “why” is directly influenced by who they care about
As the MCU created more and more movies, the people Tony Stark cared about became more and more prominent and influential in his life. And influential to his motivation.
Pepper is the first person Tony really and truly cares about, and will do anything for. She changes everything about his “why,” from the number of risks he takes, to the way he designs his Iron Man suits, to where he lives.
Rhodey, though, was in Tony’s life long before Pepper, and has an intense love-hate relationship with Tony. Unlike with Pepper, Tony will most definitely not do anything for Rhodey, but he is furious when Rhodey gets hurt.
He cares about Rhodey in an almost comical fashion, because Rhodey is almost always berating Tony for his reckless life and terrible choices, yet Tony is still friends with him. (At least, most of the time.)
And then there’s Peter. The teenager from Queens Tony most definitely should not care about, but he does. He actually cares about Peter a lot more than everyone else, almost like he was his own son.
And that’s why this relationship is so deep. Tony Stark is trying to be for Peter what his father never was for him. And when he fails—when Peter is blipped—Tony is devastated, to say the least.
So despite Tony’s nonchalant, cold, cocky manner, there is proof that he has a heart. The fact that whole movie theaters were crying at the end of Endgame shows that people cared about him, and in his own special way he cared about other people.
And the people he cared about changed his “why.”
The people your character cares about will change their why too. Girlfriend comes into their life? Instantly, their motivation will shift to encompass her, and her motivations too.
Take stock of all the characters in your writing, and how they relate to and care about each other, and then look at the significant impact it has on who they are, what they do, and what motivates them. And then use that to make your character’s motivation even stronger.
If Tony cared about no one, loved no one, and had no one to love him, I can guarantee you his motivation and choices would look a whole lot different. So use the people around your character to shift them and change them and infuse depth into their motivation.
5. Your character’s “why” forces them to make choices
We’re finally at the last point and the end of Tony Stark’s life. (So if you don’t want spoilers for Endgame, don’t read this point!)
Tony’s whole life, together, all of the above points create a deep, intense motivation for Iron Man, but none of that would matter so much to his fans if this point was left out by his creators. And the point is this: your motivation forces you to make difficult choices, and more often than not, choices that go against what is expected and easy.
At the beginning of Avengers: Endgame, while the world was fallen and broken around him, and half of the people were gone, Tony still had Pepper, a quiet home, and a daughter.
So when the Avengers come to him and ask him for help, he says no. He conforms to the expectations of this world: you say no to danger to protect your family and the people you love and their safety. He follows his heart, and chooses safety and assurance over danger and risk. He does what is expected, and makes the easy choice.
And just a day later, he’s at the Avengers compound with Captain America’s shield, and an answer to their problems. Because he couldn’t just go to sleep, and know he could have done something. He still had that sense of duty that wouldn’t stop bugging him to get up and do something.
His decision to follow that itching, and give up the easy choice for the hard choice, went against all expectation, but it followed his “why.” It fell in line with his motivation.
When he snapped his fingers and saved the world, at the loss of his own life, he was making the hard choice, the unexpected choice, and following his motivation, even though he lost everything.
Your characters need to make that difficult choice as well. In one of my works in progress, at the climax, my main character is given the choice between the life of her friend, and the life of thousands of her citizens. She chooses her citizens, not because that’s the easy choice, or even the logical choice necessarily (her people hate her) but because it’s the right choice.
She makes the hard decision, one that’s unexpect and quite painful, to follow her motivation.
When you give your character that kind of a choice—the choice between what is easy and safe and secure, and what is right, but also painful and far from easy—you are giving their motivation depth and purpose and power.
Because if a character’s motivation is not enough to pull them through a difficult time, it’s not strong enough. If Tony’s duty to his country and his world and all the people that had been lost hadn’t been strong enough to pull him away from his safe little haven, it would have been a weak, worthless motivation that would have inspired no one.
So enable your character to follow through with their motivation, to make that difficult choice, even when their heart pulls the other direction.
How To Personalize Tony’s Motivation To Your Characters Specifically
With everything we have looked at from Tony Stark, I think we can take away one point: to have a strong character, you must have a strong character motivation.
It’s as simple as that. Give your character motivation, give them a “why,” and your readers will be able to relate. Without motivation, your character will be flat, boring, and produce no empathy in your readers.
What is the step-by-step process to give your characters this kind of motivation? How do we make sure their motivation is realistic and empathetic and pulls in readers?
We need to be able to identify the problem: our characters not having motivation. And then be able to fix that. There has to be a point where we take what we know, and then do something.
So, I have created a handy dandy PDF download for you that contains the five points we can learn from Tony Stark, and more specifically, how you can implement those five points for your characters, and create that motivation deep within them.
Just five things, and you will not only know what to do, but how to do it.
Now, who’s ready to create the next Tony Stark?