Character Motivation in Screenwriting

People make hundreds of decisions every single day. For example, when you woke up this morning, you might have taken a shower, got dressed, ate some breakfast, and brushed your teeth. As the day went on, you might have went to a job or to school. You may have met up with the man or woman of your dreams, then left before dinner was over upon discovering the two of you had little in common.

In screenwriting, your characters make hundreds of decisions as well. Their lives are playing out in the pages of your script. As you’re writing your story, it can be really easy to hit a wall where you feel like your good ideas have run dry and you don’t know where to take the story next. When that happens, you need a strategy that will keep the story moving forward.


When Characters Take on a Life of Their Own

The characters in your story are people. You’re their creator, and, ultimately, you decide every action they take and everything that happens to them.

But characters have a way of taking on a life of their own sometimes. It’s in the moments where we feel like the character is taking control of the story and moving it forward that we’re hitting a sweet spot in our storytelling. Sure, we’re going to have to go back and edit later, but if the characters we’ve created are making decisions and moving the story forward, that’s a great place to be.


The Art of Character Motivation

What separates a character that merely lives on the page and one that gets us engaged as the writer?

Character motivation.

You see, people don’t just make decisions and take actions. There’s always something beneath the surface that drives them to make the decisions that they do.

Character motivation is the key to creating complex three-dimensional characters for your stories.


How Do You Find Character Motivation?

Finding character motivation really depends on two important questions:


1. What Does Your Character Want?

One of the primary driving factors of any story is the desire of the main character. What does the main character want? What’s he fighting for? What does he feel like he can’t live without?

My favorite example of this is Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Cobb, puts a team of people together to plant an idea into Robert Fischer’s mind. He’s determined to make it happen. But why?


2. Why Does Your Character Want It?

This is where we move to more complex characters. Whatever your character wants, there has to be a reason why he or she wants it. It’s the why that truly drives a story forward.

Character motivation gives us a character with a full belief system, who makes decisions based upon their unique perspective. We may be the storytellers, but if we’ve done our jobs well, the motivation comes from the character; not from us.

Character motivation makes a story more interesting and more engaging because motivation resonates with us. Why people do things feels more relatable to us than the actual doing.

Back to Inception. As interesting as getting inside someone’s mind while they’re dreaming is, that’s not what makes Nolan’s story interesting. Instead, it’s the character motivation of Cobb.

Cobb has a son and daughter in America he hasn’t been able to see because his wife framed him for her murder. Performing inception on Fischer is an opportunity to see his children again.

Why he does what he does is what makes the story engaging.


Why You Should Know Your Character’s Motivation

When you’re writing a script, you should know your characters so well that you know exactly what they would do under any possible circumstances. This is vital because if you know what they would do, your creative potential is unlimited. Simply create any scenario you want, throw your characters into it, and watch what happens.

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Tom Farr

Tom Farr is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who believes in crafting lies to tell the truth. When he’s not enjoying the good life with his beautiful wife Lindsey and their three much-adored children, he’s striving to create stories that thrill and inspire and preparing for the day Disney calls him to write a Star Wars movie. He’s also a contributing editor for daCunha, a curiosity-driven publisher of fiction and nonfiction. His work has also appeared on Panel & Frame, Wordhaus, Curiosity Never Killed the Writer, and The Unsplash Book. Check out his writing on Medium and sign up forhis author newsletter.