How to Use CliftonStrengths to Drive Character Motivation

People—even fictional ones—don’t run away from home, battle fire-breathing dragons, or lie to their boss for no good reason. There’s always a reason. And understanding what motivates each of your characters to act (or not) is key if you want to write a page-turner.

Sure, you could play the guessing game at what drives your characters to do what they do. But failing to pin down their inner motivations could make their actions feel inconsistent and their arcs less-than-believable. If you leverage a proven personality tool like CliftonStrengths to dive deep into your characters’ psyches, you’ll create both a more compelling ensemble—and a stronger story.

What are CliftonStrengths?

CliftonStrengths is a personal assessment developed by Gallup that identifies an individual’s top five performance-based strengths. It’s generally marketed as a workplace tool to help employees discover what they naturally do best so they can maximize their potential. But its applications can go well beyond the 9-to-5 grind.

Think about it: many character arcs are built around living up to or failing to reach one’s potential—be it a potential that’s been placed on them by others or one they’ve set for themselves. Stories that lean into a character’s strengths—or, conversely, their weaknesses—tend to resonate more with readers because they’re rooted in something bigger than just the plot. Strengths and weaknesses are universal human experiences that everyone can relate to.

By understanding your characters’ innate traits, you can craft authentic motivations for their actions and decisions throughout your story.

The 34 CliftonStrengths

There are 34 different themes you can receive after taking a CliftonStrengths assessment, and each of these themes falls into one of four domains: strategic thinking, relationship building, influencing, and executing.  Here’s a brief overview of each domain and some examples of how it can manifest in character motivation.

Strategic Thinking

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The strategic thinking domain includes strengths that involve solving problems, making plans, and analyzing information. Themes include:

  • Analytical: People who can factor in every possibility in a given situation and can come up with innovative ways to move forward.
  • Context: People who love history and know how to use the past to guide the present.
  • Futuristic: People who are energized by possibilities and can get people rallied up with their visions of what could be.
  • Ideation: People who have no shortage of ideas and an uncanny ability to make seemingly impossible connections.
  • Input: People who are always on the hunt for more information (as well as ideas and relationships) that they can collect, sort, and archive.
  • Intellection: People who are known for their introspective nature that allows them to delve deep into intellectual pursuits.
  • Learner: People who are always on the hunt to improve and love the process of learning and absorbing new information way more than the outcome.

Relationship Building

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Relationship-building strengths are all about connecting with others and building strong collaborative teams. Themes include:

  • Adaptability: People who can “roll with the punches” and prefer to take things as they come rather than sticking to strict plans.
  • Connectedness: People who believe that everything is connected and full of meaning rather than purely chance.
  • Developer: People who can recognize the potential in others and receive great satisfaction from seeing their mentees grow and develop.
  • Empathy: People who can put themselves in another’s shoes and feel what they’re feeling, making them great at understanding others’ perspectives.
  • Harmony: People who excel in finding common ground and diffusing conflict who seek unity rather than discord.
  • Includer: People who are always looking to bring others into the fold and have a talent for many other people feel instantly accepted.
  • Individualization: People who are inspired by the uniqueness we each carry and who love to figure out how vastly people can use their differing strengths to work together.
  • Positivity: People with contagious enthusiasm who have no problem getting other people excited about a new idea, project, or opportunity.
  • Relator: People who value close relationships and enjoy working closely with others towards shared goals.

Influencing

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Influencing strengths are all about making things happen by persuading others to take action. Themes include:

  • Activator: People who want to take immediate action on a thought or idea rather than just mulling it over.
  • Command: People who have an innate ability to take charge and get others to follow their lead, even in the midst of chaos.
  • Communication: People who are gifted at conveying information in an engaging way that makes it easy for others to understand.
  • Competition: People who love to win and thrive in environments where they’re required to measure their progress against others.
  • Maximizer: People who are driven to take everything they do and make it better, striving for excellence in all things.
  • Self-Assurance: People who believe in themselves and their abilities with a quiet confidence that allows them to feel strong in any decisions they make.
  • Significance: People who crave recognition and want to stand out in a crowd, always striving for success and recognition from others.
  • Woo: People with effortless charm who love meeting new people and are adept at winning them over.

Executing

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Executing strengths involve turning ideas and plans into action and results. Themes include:

  • Achiever: People with seemingly endless stamina who are driven by productivity and getting things done.
  • Arranger: People with the ability to organize people and resources in order to move projects forward.
  • Belief: People who hold strong to their core values and never stray from what they believe is right.
  • Consistency: People who need and want to maintain a stable environment and strive for fairness and balance in all things.
  • Deliberative: People who take decision-making very seriously and are adept at anticipating obstacles.
  • Discipline: People who can create order and love routine, believing that structure and planning pave the way to success.
  • Focus: People who are good at taking direction and then pursuing that direction with laser-sharp focus until it’s accomplished.
  • Responsibility: People who hold themselves accountable for their actions and commitments, never placing the blame on anyone but themselves.

How to Use Them

Identifying a character’s top strengths not only adds depth and complexity to their motivations, it also completely changes the story. For example:

  • A protagonist whose top strength is empathy will consider the impact on others before taking action, while a protagonist with high strategy and futuristic strength may take bold action without considering the consequences.
  • An antagonist with high analytical and input strengths could be meticulous in their planning, always considering every possibility before making a move, while an antagonist with high influencing strengths may rely more on manipulation and charm to get what they want.

Using these themes to guide your character development can take your story to places you never imagined. Leveraging the unique strengths of your characters helps you create more nuanced and realistic relationships, conflicts, and resolutions. So the next time you’re crafting a protagonist, antagonist, or even a supporting character, consider exploring their CliftonStrengths and see where it takes your story.

And if you need help in creating the kind of fictional people that make a real impact, check out our book coaching services. We offer 1:1 customized support for new and established authors who want to take their book from a simple scattered idea to a published masterpiece.

Click here to learn more.

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Story Coach, Story Development

I’m Pam, Your Story Coach

I help busy professionals write and polish the book of their dreams. Let’s bring authenticity to your speculations, flow to your structure, and heart to your words.

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