I want to thank quillhill for inspiring this post...
Can we write a book without any character motivation whatsoever? I think I've just written an oxymoron, because guess what?
Motivation is Character.
The real question is: can we be people without any motivation? Sure, some people have "no motivation" - they don't have jobs, they sit on their patoot all day, but they're actually quite motivated to do nothing at all. There's still motivation there to do something. Even when you do nothing with your life (so to speak), you're doing something by doing nothing.
Okay, enough with the verbal carousel.
Can you have a main character with no goals in mind; with no particular motivation as he/she/it walks through the narrative?
No. Because, as I said, if your character has no goals or motivation, then your character is not a character at all - they're a piece of cardboard. Go ahead and defend your piece of cardboard, but in all honesty, do people want to follow a character/s that aren't alive? That they can't connect with emotionally - even if it's to hate them?
I don't think so.
Two movies that come to mind that don't follow the obvious "loss=motivation" rule are Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange. But what do both of these have? Strong main characters.
Alex in A Clockwork Orange just wants to pillage, and Travis in Taxi Driver is taking a course in existentialism. Neither has a clear goal in mind - they wander - but both have characters so strong that those traits become their motivation.
The government puts Alex through a Pavlov's dog treatment and he can no longer be violent. There's your conflict right there. The boy that stands for all that is destruction can't be destructive.
Travis struggles with himself, with the world, but in the end actually "saves" a young prostitute. The man who can't understand or justify his and the world's existence becomes a quintessential hero.
So in conclusion, if you're struggling to find that motivation or goal, take a look at your character. Get right up close so you can see all of their pores and the nitty-gritty good-stuff. See what they're made of. If they have strong characters, then they will be able to lead a story. An effective, intriguing character will find a story for themselves. Who needs a writer? It's your job to give them the mojo to do that.
Keep at it.
Any questions or comments? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org