Even beginning writers know their characters need a goal to get through the movie or pilot. But one thing a lot of writers seem to forget is that every character needs motivation. In every scene.
Think about your daily life. Even when you're strolling through the aisles of target or sitting on the toilet, you have something you want to happen.
Chances are, you encounter people who want the opposite to happen. If this occurs in the bathroom, sorry to trigger any terrible memories. But keep reading.
The point is, two opposing forces create conflict, which creates drama. And drama is the foundation for a great story.
And when I read a ton of scripts, that drama is missing in every scene. Let's change that.
Why Every Character Needs a Motivation
The biggest offender? Characters we only meet once.
When giving coverage or notes, I see many scenes play out like this: Our lead character enters a store. They want information. They meet a quirky person. Get the information. Then leave.
The quirkiness can cover a lot, but it does not replace conflict. Try to balance creating a memorable character by creating one with clear motivations as well.
In a situation like that, ideally, the person does not want to help our lead. Or our lead knows they will not want to help and instead tricks them into helping.
One of my favorite examples of this is in Chinatown, when Jake goes to visit the water plant. He uses the business card of someone else to impersonate them, thus tricking the stodgy secretary into letting him search an office.
It's a minor conflict, but it elevates the drama because we know Jake is lying and we know there's a good chance he'll get caught as he looks for clues.
It forces our lead to use ingenuity to get past a gatekeeper. The secretary has a motivation, she wants to protect her boss.
Let's look at a few other examples.
Examples of Minor Characters Having Motivation
Maybe the clearest example of this kind of minor character motivation comes in No Country for Old Men, when Moss needs to cross the border. He runs into some college kids headed out for a night of drinking.
He needs their clothing. They want to get past him.
These are clear motivations. Let's watch them play out.
The way past? Cash. The cash they need to continue their bender.
It seems simple, but this minor conflict shows Moss' ingenuity and gives the actors opposite him something to work with
What about in TV? Ralph Wiggum is usually used for one-liners in The Simpsons, but his best jokes come from the inner want and desires of the character.
In the above scene, Lisa doesn't want to be seen with Ralph. Ralph just wants to be liked.
These are pure motivations that drive this episode. but they drive Ralph all the time. By defining Ralph by his desire to be liked, we get lots of funny quips from him as his motivations are dashed against the rocks over and over.
So the next time you work on any character in any scene, make sure we know what drives them, and let the drama come from those moments.
What's next? Learn character development!
There are lots of terms thrown around when you try to write a character in a screenplay. But what sets character development apart from the pack and why is it crucial to your story?
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