5 Ways to Find Your Character’s Motive

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Something happens each moment in your life, which 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. You can’t do anything unless something causes you to do it. (For example: you can’t catch the ball if I don’t throw it.) In acting, we call this cause your “motivation.”

Your character is a human being just like you. And just like you, your character is flesh and blood and has senses and feelings. Just like you, your character doesn’t do anything, say anything, or think anything without a reason. Therefore, as actors, we are always justifying why our characters react or speak. Look at everything as a baby would: with the curiosity to know why.

READ: “Be Yourself In Order to Be the Character”

How do you find your motivation?

  • Your character is built upon the triggers that happened earlier in the character’s life. Take all of the information the writer has given you about your character’s background and build that backstory for your character. Look for inner struggles that you must overcome. These will give you psychological buttons to push. You want your character’s buttons pushed constantly.

  • When you break the scene down into objective beats, you must justify every shift and change and find the cause, or why you say every line. What just happened that triggered it? Pay attention to what causes you to do or say everything. This is easier than it sounds. The more you pay attention to the cause, the less you worry about just saying lines.

  • Get more into your body and pay attention with your senses. The motivation could be something triggering your senses (see, hear, feel, smell, taste). Perhaps the trigger is the wind blowing, which might cause you to physically become cold. Or perhaps watching the sunset relaxes you. Or the smell of cookies remind you of a memory as a child. Feeling the touch of the other character might cause you to draw back if you are uncomfortable with them. The sound of the ocean could make you loosen up and fall in love. The taste of a lemon could trigger you to react with a funny puckered face.

  • Your relationship with another character could motivate you. What the other person says or how he says it could push your buttons. The way the other looks at you or even ignores you could solicit a reaction from you.

  • Your environment could cause you to react. Are you in a claustrophobic setting? Are you lost in the forest? Is the motion of the boat making you nauseous? Are you snuggled up in a cozy blanket.

Pay attention to the “why.” Constantly focus on the cause, the motivation, the why. Look at big, driving motivations as well as tiny momentary ones. Allow your character to live and breathe by paying attention to what is happening right in front of you. Stop thinking about how you say your line and concentrate on why you say it. If you pay more attention to what is causing you to do and say things, you will have more spontaneous, natural reactions.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Cathryn Hartt
Cathryn Hartt, founder of Hartt & Soul Acting Studio, is known to many as “the UN-Acting Coach.” She coaches all ages (children through adult) and all levels (from beginning through masters).
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