Whether it’s Iago driving Othello to madness because he wasn’t promoted, or Ross Geller defending a dalliance with the cry of, “We were on a break!,” a character’s motivations drive their behavior and narrative arc. Excavating character motivation is necessary for screenwriters and actors alike to develop rounded, robust characters.
“Uncut Gems” Courtesy A24
Character motivation is the “why” behind a character’s actions: Why does a character behave the way they do? To answer this question, acting coach Heather Hiatt says to look for the intention behind a character’s thoughts, words, and actions.
“One way to think about it is to decide what’s driving their emotions or thoughts,” advises Hiatt. “What was the thought behind that? And behind that? It’s the thoughts between the lines that trigger their next line. That’s the juicy nuance you’re after.” Just like real people, characters should think, organize and analyze their thoughts, and apply those thoughts to action in response to wants and needs.
“Black Swan” Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures
Understanding what drives a character to act makes characters more realistic and adds to the interior logic of a story. Here’s how.
Character motivation fleshes out characters: Knowing the motivations, central conflict, and stakes driving a character’s thoughts and actions means creating more realistic characters. Even if the world a character inhabits is fantastical, audiences want to understand why they behave the way they do. For example, we know that in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Evelyn wants to save her business and preserve her relationships. It’s these realistic motivations that drive her to explore an unrealistic infinite multitude of parallel universes.
Character motivation differentiates characters: Although characters might share surface-level similarities, their unique motivation differentiates and deepens them. In “Black Swan,” for instance, Nina and Lily both covet the lead role in a ballet performance. However, the repressed Nina is motivated by obsessive perfectionism, while the confident Lily is motivated by the desire for power. Their unique motivations lead to vastly different outcomes—particularly when Nina sacrifices herself in the name of perfection.
Character motivation creates consistent narrative logic: Audiences are willing to suspend disbelief and buy into a story if character motivations make sense. Reasonable desires, emotions, and needs keep viewers invested. The most nihilistic villain still has reasoning behind their behavior—even if that reasoning is wanting to prove that life is devoid of meaning.
“John Wick” Courtesy Lionsgate
Character motivations drive plots. In the action movie “John Wick,” for example, the titular character is driven by his desire to honor commitment and defend himself and others (and, of course, avenge the death of a beloved dog). These motivations lead to the intense, visceral fight scenes that propel the story forward film after film.
In productions that are driven less by action (character studies), character motivations are even more important, as this type of work explores the interior world of a character’s hopes, dreams, desires, and difficulties to see how they impact the exterior world of their life path.
Further, the liminal space between a character’s stated motivations and any hidden true ones escalates tension and further drives the plot. Think of the agoraphobic, ever-watchful Anna Fox in “The Woman in the Window.” While it appears as though her motivation is nosiness, it’s really the desire to protect others, since she could not save her husband and child.
“Decision to Leave” Courtesy Mubi
Something happens each moment in your life that changes you. You are a product of the influences from within and without. Your home environment, nature, and the dogmas that have been stamped upon your mind by others influence you. The way society sees you, the way individuals see you, the way some don’t see you at all influence you. You are constantly being affected by life. And everything you do or say is a reaction. Why?
There is always a cause—a “why”—that produces a reaction. It’s the simple physics of cause and effect that comes down to motivation.
A character is a human being just like you. And just like you, a character is flesh and blood and has senses and feelings. Just like you, a character doesn’t do anything, say anything, or think anything without a reason. To understand character motivation as a screenwriter or actor:
Build their backstory: A character is built upon the triggers that happened earlier in their life. Consider the character’s background and build their backstory. Look for inner struggles that they must overcome. These will give you psychological buttons to push. You want the character’s buttons pushed constantly.
Think of cause and effect: When you break a scene down into objective beats, justify every shift and change and find the cause. What just happened to trigger the expression, action, or line? Pay attention to what causes the character to act. This is easier than it sounds—but the more you pay attention to causes, the better you understand the character.
Feel the character: Get into the character’s body and pay attention with the senses. Perhaps the motivational trigger to their behavior is the wind blowing, which might cause them to physically become cold. Maybe watching the sunset relaxes them, or the smell of cookies reminds them of a childhood memory. Feeling the touch of another character might cause them to draw back if they’re uncomfortable. The sound of the ocean could make them loosen up and fall in love.
Create connections: The character’s relationships with those around them might motivate their behavior. What other characters say and do, and how they say and do it, could push a character’s buttons.
Explore the environment: Their environment can cause a character to react in certain ways. Are they in a claustrophobic setting? Are they lost in the forest? Is the motion of the boat making them nauseous? Are they snuggled up in a cozy blanket? People are largely products of their environments, and characters are, too.
Always think of why: Pay attention to the “why.” Look at big driving motivations as well as tiny momentary ones. Allow the character to live and breathe by paying attention to what is happening right in front of them. If you understand what is causing them to do and say things, they will have more spontaneous, natural reactions.