Character Motivation Is A Bitch!

   As Shakespeare said, “strong reasons make strong actions.” The reason this is so profound is because if you don’t know why a character, especially your protagonist, is doing something or wants something, you will have a rambling screenplay.
     Your plot will be unclear and your dialogue, no matter how clever, will mean little once your audience starts wondering why your main character is saying these things.
     An old rule of writing: every line of dialogue should reveal character, move the story forward or get a laugh. If it doesn’t do any of those things you need to rethink it.
     And it’s not just one thing in the script. You need to justify every line in every scene. If your protagonist goes into a dry cleaning store she better have a reason. If it’s just for her to pick up eleven dresses so we can see that she has excellent taste in clothes, that’s not enough of a reason for the scene (unless her taste in fashion is key to the character and plot). We can learn that by looking into her closet.
     If she has an exchange of dialogue with the proprietor that’s about the difficult stains he was able to remove—-not enough—unless it’s a thriller and as he’s telling her how he got the stains out it triggers a memory that will move the plot forward.
     If you have her go into that dry cleaners it must be for a reason germane to the plot or her persona.
     I have a friend whose mother is super grandma. He has four kids under twelve. When he was growing up he didn’t have a grandmother because his mother’s mom died when she was a child. So his mom’s children (my friend and his two sisters) grew up without a grandmother.
     When my friend started to have children, along with his two sisters, his mother very quickly became the greatest grandmother in the world.
     I’ve known this woman all my life. I asked her about being super grandma and she said that her kids had to grow up without a grandmother and she didn’t want that to happen to her grandchildren.
     How’s that for a strong reason resulting in a strong action?
     Whenever I have trouble pinpointing why a character is doing something, I think of her. And it helps me concentrate and giving a character proper motivation.


  1. That guy's mother's thing with her grandchildren hits home. My brother is like that with his kids. Our dad died when we were young and we didn't really have a father figure so he goes overboard with his kids to give them what he missed out on. Very insightful.

  2. Thanks! I plan on getting back to regular posts next week.

  3. Very good observation. It's especially true when it comes to fear. My wife hates to swim. Hates it! Won't go near a pool or the ocean. Why? Her parents drove her to be a championship swimmer when she was a kid, so swimming meant work, pain and pressure rather than relaxation.

  4. This hits home with me too. My wife won't travel because when she was little her family went on a vacation and her brother got lost. They thought he was kidnapped. It was a big scene. Turns out he wasn't, he just wandered off, but she associates travel with bad things.

  5. That's a tough one. Best, if possible, to start there. I run into the situation where I have to go back and refit the motivation to the scene - always a real pain. Good advice!

    Your pal, Roger

  6. I won't ride in elevators past the seventh floor because I got caught in one once for two hours. I'll ride lower, but never higher. I once turned down a good job because it was on the twelfth floor.

  7. You and Shakespeare make some good points. Thanks.

  8. There's a lot of great insights into life and writing from the Bard. Thanks for pointing out this one.

  9. It's hard to remember all this stuff about character's and dialogue when you think of a funny line or scene. However, sometimes I'll then see something like that in a movie and think what the hell? So best to stick with your advice DB as always!

  10. Great post DB... seems like not only is this post about writing but about life. If you have goals... if everyday (or page) you actions push you forward... if you are interesting... You will have a successful fulfilling life that makes it worth getting out of bed every morning and marching on.
    Maybe if I put these lessons in play for my life I could make a friend or two... hmm probably not Wah Wah...

  11. My fear of snakes resulted in my getting a rewrite job. I wrote a script about a guy petrified of snakes who falls in love with a herpetologist. The producer didn't want to make it but hired me to rewrite a project he had for the Sy-Fy net work. Now I love snakes. :-)

  12. Giving a character a specific fear is great motivation. Sometimes the problem is finding the right fear and tailoring it your protagonist.

  13. What I've done is just look at the people I know. My family, co-workers, friends and pick their brains to find what they're afraid of. Most have ordinary fears, but sometimes you'll strike gold when somebody has a totally outrageous issue.

  14. Good timing on posting these thoughts...I'm in the middle of a rewrite and going through dialogue like a lawn mower...getting rid of the crab grass and keeping the greener pastures..

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