(Part one of a series on Character)
“Cut!” the movie star says.
“You don’t yell, ‘Cut,’ baby,” the director responds. “That’s my job.”
“But I don’t get it. I’m running from rooftop to rooftop, carrying a pig under one arm and swinging a nine iron in the other. What’s my motivation?”
“Baby, what are you making on this picture?”
“You wanna make another twenty on the sequel?”
“That’s your motivation.”
So goes the joke. But it raises the question: Do we think about why our characters do what they do? Or do we just let them do? Do we know their motivation?There are two major motivators, and some would even say that these are really just flip sides of the same motivation. I’m talking about DESIRE and FEAR. What do your characters want to get out of doing what they do, both in the long term and in the short term? What are they afraid of losing? The child who desires love fears rejection. The man who desires wealth fears poverty. The woman who desires community fears isolation.
Your characters’ motivations drive their actions. The child may write a valentine, but never send it. The man may trade on inside information, or he may refuse to donate to charity. The woman may join a club… or six.
Knowing your characters’ motivations creates empathy for them from your audience. They become relatable to your audience and your audience then becomes emotionally involved in the story.
This is just as true for your antagonists as it is for your protagonists, as well as for your supporting characters. One recent superhero movie I saw (this is the one about the guy with the bling, if you really want to know) fell apart for me because the primary antagonist’s motivations were never made clear. I didn’t get why the antagonist wanted what he wanted, nor did I understand what he feared. This character seemed to simply be evil for evil’s sake. I couldn’t get emotionally invested in that character and by extension I couldn’t get behind the hero, whose motivations should be the polar opposite of the villain’s. And later on, one of the supporting characters for the hero is set up to become the villain for the sequel, but again the motivation for the change isn’t given (maybe his motivation is to be in the sequel?). As a result, I don’t have very high expectations for that next movie.
So as we continue to write, let’s keep in mind why our characters do what they do. Let’s stay aware of their motivations.