Monday, March 29, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #4: Over-Motivation Is Just As Bad As Under-Motivation

Under-motivation is never good. It sometimes seems like every modern comedy (especially workplace romantic comedies) is motivated by two characters making a casual bet. I’ll bet you that I can go forty days without sex, or that I can get that guy to dump me in ten dates, or I can transform a bookworm into prom queen, or whatever.

These movies never work, and the problem is obvious from the premise: A bet is a weak motivation. They may stick with it through the early complications, just because they’re up for a challenge, but if things get emotionally dangerous for them, if they have to change themselves in order to succeed, they won’t do it—It was just a bet. So either the story is not going to really change the hero (which is something that always needs to happen), or the hero will go through hell and really change, all for the sake of a casual bet, and that would be totally unbelievable.

But over-motivation is just as bad. When I see over-motivation, I always blame the producer. Producers love a lot of motivation, and too much is never enough.

Why is over-motivation bad? Well, let’s look at some examples from the heyday of over-motivation, the late ’80. In Lethal Weapon, Mel Gibson has a lot of motivation to catch criminals. First and foremost, there’s his civic duty, but that concept was considered pretty laughable in the ‘80s, so let’s skip over that one. Secondly, there’s his paycheck. It is his job, after all. Third, he’s still got a death wish from the death of his wife. Fourth, he’s someone who cares about the victims, damn it! Any of these would be enough reason to go after the crooks. But then, two-thirds of the way through the movie, the villain is taunting him and reveals something that puts all of these other reasons to shame: “Oh, by the way, we’re also the people who killed your wife all those years ago!” Yowza! Way to escalate!

It gets even sillier in the second Lethal Weapon movie. In addition to the usual motivations, the bad guys also happen to be the personification of South African apartheid! But that’s still not enough, because these guys then kill Gibson’s new girlfriend! Then, just to top it all off, one of them is taunting Gibson and suddenly reveals “Oh, by the way, we also were part of that large group that killed your wife all those years ago!” Now that’s a lot of motivation!

Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie was another example. Everybody knows Batman’s motivation. It’s one of the strongest, clearest motivations that any character has ever had. A criminal gunned down his parents. He blames all criminals, so now he hunts them down one by one. His personal pain has become society’s gain. But in the 1989 movie, fighting for society was considered a suckers’ bet, so the Joker accidentally reveals that, by an extraordinary coincidence, he was also the guy who killed Batman’s parents, all those years ago.

So what’s wrong with the hero being super-motivated? The problem is that it makes them less heroic. Saving the city from a criminal was a heroic goal, but now he’s just on a revenge mission, and that’s not heroic at all. He’s over-motivated, so he becomes less interesting.

Likewise, in Training Day, Ethan Hawke finds out two-thirds of the way in that everything that has happened has been done intentionally to frame him for Denzel Washington’s crimes. The movie is no longer about one good cop who stands up to corruption, it’s about a schmuck who has to take Denzel down or go to jail himself. Worse, the hero didn’t bring this fate upon himself with his heroics—Denzel had the whole thing planned out before he even met Ethan!

Ethan isn’t actually much of a hero at all. He’s just some dude who got framed, then was lucky enough to have the bad guy explain everything in time for him to stop it. We thought it was going to be about a dramatic decision: will Ethan go along with Denzel’s corruption, or will he blow the whistle? But once we find out that it was all a trap, there are no decision left to make and thus no drama.


christinembird said...

Infallible rule: Whenever someone gives you a lot of reasons, none of them is the real reason.

Dave M said...

My biggest problem with The Patriot is that the guy was not actually patriotic at all.

Stephen Tilson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Duke of Earl said...

Motivation of the Turks, background characters in Final Fantasy 7?

It's their job.

On the other hand Cloud starts as a soldier for hire, finds himself working for a girl he liked growing up, remembers a mission with Sephiroth going wrong and his hometown being burned down, has a new girl he likes killed in front of him, finds he's a clone, finds he's not really a clone,finds out that he's actually living the life of his best friend, has to save the planet, I might be missing a few but that'll do to start with.

The Turks are a lot easier to understand.