What’s My Motivation? Why Writers Need to Motivate All of Their Characters

Plot driven stories focus on external conflict. Character driven stories focus on inner turmoil. Plot driven stories are more situational than personal. While characters may evolve in plot driven stories, they never change as much as the world around them. Plot driven stories are action oriented. Characters don’t have the luxury of self examination before they make decisions. Their situation is too urgent.

The plot driven story approach is ideal for fast paced globe trotting adventures, sci-fi fantasies, and anything with a clock counting down to Armageddon. That’s why most blockbuster movies take the plot driven approach. It keeps the characters in danger and makes the audience feel like they’re on a rollercoaster.

The problem with plot driven stories is when their fast pace leaps over gaps in the plot.

Often the villains’ motivations are skimmed over like a slight of hand magic trick that becomes obvious reexamination. In most instances the writer couldn’t make the villain’s motivations relatable so they settle on making them unintelligible.

In the new James Bond movie Specter we’re left to wonder why Blofeld spent his life killing Bond’s girlfriends from behind the scenes. The reason we’re given is because Blofeld’s father adopted had Bond and showed him more attention. So then why didn’t Blofeld just kill Bond outright? Why go to the trouble of working his way up through the ranks of Hydra or Specter or whatever? Hey, it’s just a movie try not to think about it too hard.

Blofeld seems more interested in motivating Bond than he does achieving his own evil scheme, which had something do with computer surveillance or capturing the last unicorn or whatever.

Why did Vincent D’Onfro’s character in Jurassic World want to militarize the velociraptors even after seeing that they couldn’t be controlled? Because… movie.

Why did the villains do anything in the Mission Impossible series? Because… movie.

In order for plot driven stories to feel satisfying they need to take the time to motivate ALL of their characters. They can do this by trimming the fat in other areas.

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How to Give Yourself the Room to Develop Your Characters

Most screenplays for action movies are 90 pages long. Most dramas are between that and 120. In screenwriting we call the length the script’s economy. Many of the problems viewers have with movies is that the writer struggled to fit their stories relevant information within these restrictions.

One way you can solve this problem is tell your stories in less locations with fewer characters and fewer scenes. This way you’ll have fewer characters to give clear motivations, you won’t have to justify transitions, and when you have fewer scenes you’ll have more time to really draw out your most important moments.

You can reduce the size of your cast by combining characters with similar roles. If your story has a pathologist, a toxicologist, and blood spatter analyst feeding your detective information, and it isn’t really about forensic science, you could combine each of those roles into one person.

You can reduce your scene count by getting rid of obligatory transition scenes too. If your FBI agents are ordered to travel to Nevada we don’t need to see them getting on a plane. Just take a page from The X-Files and preface the scene with the name of the location.

Enter your most scenes as late as possible and leave them as early as possible. This way you’ll have more time for scenes that need to stretch out. Longer scenes are better for creating suspense, showing character development in the moment, and giving the audience a chance to catch their breath between action sequences.

Not Every Character is Worthy of Dialogue in the Moment

Every character in a scene needs to want something. If a character doesn’t long for anything vital ask yourself if they should speak at all. This is especially import in screenwriting where every actor with a speaking part gets paid more.

This is also important in narrative writing because every speaker you add to conversation is another person the reader has to keep tabs on. Before you bring a background player into the foreground weigh their desire to dialogue ratio.

Balance the Hero and the Villains Motivations

There’s a heroic motivation for every dramatic situation whether the hero wants to rebel against a reprehensible regime, restrain a ruthless wrongdoer, or rescue a relative from risk. Just make sure the villain’s goal is somewhat relatable as well. Whether the villain wants to get get revenge over a perceived wrong, retrieve a relic for a reward, or rubout a romantic rival you have to let us know.

As much as you want to pack your story full of action you need to slow things down to justify the villain’s motivations. How many movies have you seen where the villain’s sole motivation seems to be to do things that would look evil if they were being filmed?

Closing Thoughts

A rule of screenwriting is that one page of a screenplay translates to one minute of screen time. When action movies cram 90 scenes into 90 page scripts they feel more like montages than movies. The sets pass by in a blur, leaving viewers no time to settle in. The characters talk so quick their words don’t sink. The plot moves so fast, it’s hard to follow. The journey feels like a race.

Have you ever felt like you’ve forgotten a movie the moment the credits started rolling? That’s a byproduct of a film with too many scenes. Make your story memorable. Balance out your fast paced action sequences with some moments of character development.

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This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.

5 thoughts on “What’s My Motivation? Why Writers Need to Motivate All of Their Characters”

  1. Excellent points re pace, and making your villain’s motivations clear. This is often left by the wayside as writers get caught up in the forward momentum of their own plot, and thanks for the reminder as I consider my own WIP!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved that sentence: ‘How many movies have you seen where the villain’s sole motivation seems to be to do things that would look evil if they were being filmed?’ – how true. I’ve not got into writing screenplays yet (I’m still getting the hang of writing novels), but I was party to a conversation between two published authors at the weekend. It was at a book signing and they were both thriller/crime writers. One had written screen plays, the other hadn’t. The first gave his sage advice after an editor gave him feedback on a recent offering: ‘You can’t have this scene happen on a yacht – our budget won’t cover it.’ Looks like there are a lot of considerations to take into account, once you have dealt with motivations.
    Great post as usual, the comments about motivation have given me a new focus for editing my novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m with Tom’s comment: “I loved that sentence: ‘How many movies have you seen where the villain’s sole motivation seems to be to do things that would look evil if they were being filmed?’” I think the Austin Powers movies did a good job of pointing out this glaring issue (i.e., being “evil” for evil’s sake) in spoof fashion

    Re: “Enter most of your scenes as late as possible and leave them as early as possible. This way you’ll have more time for scenes that need to stretch out. Longer scenes are better for creating suspense, showing character development in the moment, and giving the audience a chance to catch their breath between action sequences,” I feel that the Showtime series Homeland does an excellent job with this.

    Like

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