Monday, March 20, 2006

Character Motives

So to follow up my questions about "fascinating" characters which nobody attempted to answer, by the way, probably due to "fascination" with my photo which I've since removed in response to my irrational fear of stalkers and affinity for identifying with Underdog, I'm -- what? Where was I? Oh yeah, I'm now wondering what good a complex character is if we don't have the faintest idea about the character's motives. Isn't that something you learn the first day of screenwriting 1.01?

I read a script this weekend about a road trip. The characters were complex, although at times I believe vagueness was being used as a substitute for depth. Hate it when that happens. But the road trip was fun, the adventures were fun, the people the protag met were fun, and the whole thing was fun -- but pointless. I had no idea why the heck our educated white collar hero was on this trip scrimping for money, digging in trash cans, doing odd jobs and putting himself deliberately in harm's way. Did he crack at work? Was he nuts? Did he catch his wife in bed with another man? Was he a fugitive on the run or on hallucinative drugs? The question is never answered.

Perhaps "motive" is not one of those things that many readers need spelled out for them but I really need to know why a good looking educated guy is living a nomadic road life.


oneslackmartian said...

A new Post It Note for me:


Let's see if I can recap without looking:

Empathy (I cheated, and it doesn't sound parallel.)

Again, thanks for ze update.

mernitman said...

Everybody's got their own system and magic formula, but I look at the four basic building blocks of character as PURPOSE (a want, a desire, a goal -- that's the motivation), CREDIBILITY (evidence that the character is indeed capable of and deserving of achieving that goal), EMPATHY (encountering formidable obstacles to that goal but nonetheless persevering, and thus making us identify with their struggle) and COMPLEXITY (showing us evidence of an inner life, and the inherent inner flaws or contradictions that handicap them or complicate their situation).

Those are my "four legs to stand on" that make a sturdy chair for the character to sit in (awful metaphor, I know, but it functions) and if you put them all together, they create a person you can root for and remain interested in, thus producing that elusive quality of FASCINATION.

Sounds like your road trip guy was missing that all-important #1 -- purpose -- and so, as you report, you couldn't get with his program, no matter how quirky or complex he seemed to be...

derek said...

I actually consider what you're talking about a bigger flaw than just character. What all of you are saying is correct in that the character needs those things. But those aren't just character traits, they're story traits.

If you don't know his motivation, then what's the story? If you like the character, and he's fleshed out ok, but don't understand why he's doing what he's doing, then the story and the character aren't working. You'll never get into the story because you don't know where it's supposed to be going. You lose emotional investment with both.

I don't necessarily break my characters into formulas or buzzwords anymore. They're helpful at first, but I think after a while you either understand those things intuitively or you don't. Trying to apply them to your character can sometimes make them seem artificial.

The idea (for me) is to craft a story that works hand in hand with the character. His motivation (goal, need, want) is ingrained in the story. If he's not growing, getting closer to his want/need, then the story isn't working, regardless of the pretty package it's wrapped in.

This works vice-versa of course. A good script uses character and story hand in hand. If one's lacking, it's all lacking IMHO.

Sorry for the long-winded response, just my 2c.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Agreed. It's a massive story flaw.