It’s not hard to toss in a few “I have no other options” and “this opportunity is huge” scenes near the beginning of your story. Writers avoid this because they believe these scenes are overused. But everybody uses them for a good reason. Stories—especially big, exciting stories—won’t work without them. Without big motivation, we won’t buy it when the heroes tackle big problems.
Let’s start by looking at an exception that proves the rule: In children’s stories, there is often very little jeopardy. The problems are small, so they can be tackled by heroes with small motivations. Fred's, Daphne's, and Velma's motivation on Scooby-Doo is entirely capricious: “We heard about a mystery, so we decided to solve it.” That’s enough for them, because nobody ever gets hurt, so they never have reason to reconsider their casual decision.
But in adult stories, things are going to get tough, and the hero will need a big reason to stay on the job, or else your audience won’t believe that the hero will stick with it. That’s why your hero’s motivation should have these three qualities:
Strong. Too little motivation is never good. For a while, it seemed like every comedic film was motivated by two characters making a casual bet: “I bet I can transform a bookworm into a prom queen,” “I’ll bet you that I can go forty days without sex,” “I bet that I can get that guy to dump me in ten dates,” or whatever.
The problem with these stories is obvious from the premise: A bet is a weak motivation. Heroes may stick with it through early complications 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 substantially change the heroes (which is something that always needs to happen), or the heroes will go through hell and really change, all for the sake of a casual bet—and that is totally unbelievable.
Simple. But too much motivation is just as bad. Let’s look at some examples from the heyday of overmotivation, the late eighties. In Lethal Weapon 2, Mel Gibson has a huge amount of motivation to catch criminals:
- First and foremost, there’s his civic duty.
- Second, there’s his paycheck. It is his job, after all.
- Third, he’s suicidal over the death of his wife, so he’ll do anything that will put him in the path of a bullet.
- Fourth, he’s the one cop who cares about the victims, damn it!
- 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 group that killed your wife all those years ago!”
Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie is another example. Everybody knows Batman’s motivation. It’s one of the strongest, clearest motivations 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 1989, fighting for society was considered a sucker's 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 heroes being supermotivated? The problem is that it makes them less heroic. Saving the city from a criminal is a heroic goal, but now he’s just on a revenge mission, and that’s not heroic at all. He’s overmotivated, so he becomes less interesting.
How on earth do you provide a huge motivation without overmotivating? Here’s a warning I got from my mom: “Whenever someone gives you a lot of reasons, none of them is the real reason.” Don’t increase the quantity of motivation; improve the quality of motivation.
Piling on additional motivations is bad, but don’t be afraid to lift your hero’s primary motivation all the way to the stratosphere. If your hero gets to page 70 and says, “Ugh, I’m done. This problem isn’t worth dealing with anymore,” you should definitely listen to that, but you shouldn’t have a new motivation walk in the door at that late date.
Don’t multiply the motivation; simplify it. Mom was right: Giving too many reasons invalidates them all. It feels desperate and unfocused, and it makes the hero seem weak and vacillating, jerked this way and that by outside events.
Revealed Early On. If you read a lot of work by aspiring writers, one thing you repeatedly see is stories in which the hero’s goal and/or primary motivation are mysterious until the final act. This never works.
Certainly heroes can have an air of mystery. In The Great Gatsby, the backstory of the title character is a big mystery and comes out very slowly, but we always know what he wants. He wants Daisy. He wants to make it to her dock with the green light.
Aspiring writers know they’re supposed to create an air of mystery, so they figure the audience will enjoy solving the mystery of what the main character wants and why. But in fact, the audience hates to have to do that. By the time the story gets going, we demand to know enough about the main character’s goals and motivations to follow along and engage with the story.
Can’t heroes just selflessly pursue heroism for heroism’s sake right from the beginning? No, because it’s totally alien to human nature, and never convincing. Bridge of Spies ably demonstrates this.
The scene that introduces Tom Hanks is the movie’s best, and promises a great movie that never arrives: Our hero is at his dayjob as a hard-nosed insurance lawyer, denying a large claim using legalistic pedantry in a cold-blooded-but-friendly rapidfire monologue. The hope is generated that Hanks will finally grow some teeth, for once, but no, he soon falls back into dopey good guy mode and gums his way through the rest of the movie.
It didn’t have to be that way. Here’s a quick summary of the movie:
- Soviet spy Rudolf Abel is arrested, and the judge randomly selects a respected non-criminal lawyer (Hanks as James Donovan) to “defend” him, assuming that he’ll give no pushback. Instead, Donovan gives a surprisingly strong defense and refuses to push his client to work with the CIA. Abel is convicted, but Hanks saves him from execution. A few years later, the Soviets shoot down American spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers so the CIA has Donovan negotiate a trade of Abel for Powers. As they brief him for the trade, they advise him that the Soviets may try to keep Powers and offer up instead an American student who got stuck on the wrong side of the Wall. Donovan suddenly decides that the kid deserves to get out, too, and defies the CIA by insisting that the Soviets turn over both prisoners in return for Abel.
Spielberg, as always, refuses to acknowledge the moral ambiguity of Donovan’s actions, but more importantly, he fails to acknowledge the character’s volatility. Yes, Donovan’s taking a stand for the little guy in both cases, but he’s also acting out of spite, and it’s that sense of spite that’s sorely lacking.
Donovan has spent his life screwing over accident victims, and so the judge thought that he would be willing to go along with the show-trial, but he underestimates Donovan. Does he underestimate Donovan’s American idealism? Of course not, he underestimates Donovan’s obsessive need to win. Not just win, in fact, but to humiliate, as he does in that first scene. He himself feels humiliated by his new role, and he won’t put up with that. When he ends up with a loss on the books, he smarts about it until he gets a chance to settle things with the CIA, by not only springing his guy but defying their orders again and saving another little guy they want to throw under the bus. Yes, he may incidentally be doing the right thing, and he may use “America the Great” speeches to accomplish that, but ultimately, this is revenge.
But all of this rich subtext is simply ignored by Spielberg and Hanks, both of whom sell the hell out those catch-in-the-throat speeches as if they were convincing. They earnestly present a selfless, generically idealistic hero, ignoring the version that would be more compelling, more believable, more ironic, and, ultimately, more genuinely heroic: one in which our hero just so happens to do the right thing by pursuing his own self-interest in a uniquely volatile way.
By divorcing Donovan’s actions from his personal feelings, Spielberg puts himself in an impossible position. Why does Donovan care about doing the right thing by Abel, if not for the sake of spite? Well, Spielberg just has to make Abel a likable guy, so we get some cutesy dialogue between them. But wait, why does Donovan later take a stand for some student he’s never met? Here Spielberg falls back on that lamest of all possible justifications: Donovan hears just enough about the student to say that he reminds him of someone else he does care about (his assistant back home).
Never, ever, ever, do this. People do decent, heroic things every day, but they don’t do them solely out of their passion for decency and heroism. With a few exceptions (see the comments), heroes are simply people whose self-interest happens to coincide with the public interest. As a writer, your job is to make that self-interest come alive, because it is the heart of what makes us human.
She’s not a pro bono volunteer at the FBI, it’s her career, and there’s no doubt what her motivation is for most of the movie: advancement. She follows instructions to the letter, lets her boss hold her back or spur her forward, and genuinely respects him. She doesn’t burn with rage at “technicalities”, or society’s failings, or the thought of “injustice” as an abstract concept.
This was especially notable because there had been a lot of cop movies in the previous twenty years in which the cop was advised to think about his career, only to angrily retort that this wasn’t about his career, dammit, this was about the victims! Clarice feels for the victim, but she doesn’t pretend that she’s the only one who does, and she clearly knows that the victim’s loved ones must be kept away from a case with a ten foot pole, because they’ll just screw everything up.
In most modern comedies, the main character straddles the dividing line between “laugh with” and “laugh at.” Will Farrell in Talladega Nights is a good example of how to do it right: He’s an outrageously broad character that we can nevertheless (just barely) believe in and care about, with some real world problems (like all empathetic jerk characters, he has a crappy dad) and a satisfying arc.
As part of that arc, the moviemakers bring Farrell from the top of the NASCAR world to rock bottom by the middle of the movie. They could have had his place get eclipsed by any young upstart, but they maximized his motivation with a funnier and more humiliating choice: the instrument of his downfall is a cocky gay Frenchman (played by a very funny Sacha Baron Cohen), fresh off the formula one circuit, who is openly contemptuous of all Farrell stands for.
We like Farrell enough (“laugh with”) that we enjoy seeing him succeed, but we find him so comically insufferable (“laugh at”) that we wouldn’t mind seeing him get knocked down a peg, especially if it takes the form of an ironic punishment for his unexamined bigotries. When he fights Baron Cohen, we’re going to laugh no matter who beats up who.
But this becomes a problem in the second half. After Farrell hits bottom and becomes a better, humbler person, we start genuinely rooting for him …but we still don’t want to see him humiliate the gay Frenchman. Choosing a character that Farrell was bigoted against maximized his motivation, but the fact that he now might have to affirm those bigotries in order to triumph threatens to open up a big sympathy hole.
The movie finds a far-fetched but relatively elegant solution to this problem. Before the last big race, Farrell confronts Baron Cohen in person, and Baron Cohen reveals a secret: He has wanted to retire for some time, but he can’t until he finds someone great enough to beat him fair and square. He had hoped Farrell would be that person, but now he’s lost all respect for him and intends to beat him once and for all.
This is somewhat silly, but it neatly snaps our sympathies back in line. Baron Cohen will still go all out to win this race, but if Farrell wins, then they actually both win, since Baron Cohen gets the retirement with honor that he’s long desired. It shows that the moviemakers knew what they were doing: without that artful cheat, they would have filled a motivation hole by digging themselves a sympathy hole.
Another movie I finally got caught up this summer was Tintin. This was nowhere near as bad as John Carter or Green Lantern, but it was almost as disappointing, because in this case I’m a much bigger fan of the source material. What made it especially frustrating is that they picked three great books to adapt and they were very faithful, except for one small change in the sequence…which ruined everything.
The movie combined three Tintin graphic novels. In the The Crab with the Golden Claws, boy reporter Tintin stows away on a freighter to expose some heroin smugglers (he’s a little more hardcore than the Hardy Boys) when he runs into a drunken lout named Captain Haddock, who has had his ship hijacked out from under him. They retake the ship, then go on a long adventure that takes them from ship to lifeboat, to seaplane, to desert, to army base. In the end, they break up the heroin ring, but Haddock is still battling his personal demons when the story ends.
The next book in the saga, The Secret of the Unicorn, begins with Tintin walking through a street market where he sees a model of a ship for sale. He instantly senses that it would help Haddock feel better, so he buys it…but he’s soon surrounded by shady characters who will pay any price to get the ship away from them. He won’t sell, since he bought it for his good friend.
Sure enough, Haddock has a connection to the ship: It’s a replica or one sailed by his ancestor. When they find a clue to a treasure inside the model, they’re off on another 2-book adventure, ending in Red Rackham’s Treasure. In the end, they find Haddock’s long-lost family fortune, which finally ends his troubles.
The screenwriters wisely chose the Haddock epic as the strongest hook to hang a Tintin movie on, and it made sense to streamline the adaptation by cutting out the tangentially-related heroin-smuggling plot. But they made a fatal error by moving the street market up to the first scene as the “inciting incident”.
This time, it’s the model that leads Tintin to be on that hijacked freighter where he meets Haddock. As soon as they meet, we get all the action scenes from the original trilogy of books… but they’re now meaningless.
What a difference a little motivation makes! In the books, it all made sense: in the first book, he’s an investigative reporter on the trail of a heroin ring. In the second, he’s trying to do a favor for the troubled man who saved his life. In the third, he helps that man restore his fortunes so that he can stop being a miserable drunk, and gets another good story in the process. What a hero!
In the movie, it all falls apart: he buys the model for no reason, then turns down the offers of money for no reason, then follows the clues he finds in the model for no reason. We hear people say that he’s a reporter, but he never mentions it, and he’s not tracking down a story…in fact, his only motivation seems to be to get Haddock’s treasure for himself. But if he needs money so badly, why didn’t he just accept the fortune he was offered in the first scene??
Now obviously, I’ve read tons of Tintin comics, so I know who he is…on the page. But even I am not going to walk into a movie theater and cut this character any slack. When the lights go out, all that matters is what’s on the screen. And even though I love the comics character, the movie character struck me as unmotivated, greedy, and ultimately loathsome. And all because they flipped the order of one sequence. I’ll say it again: Heroes can only solve huge problems if they have a huge motivation!
Does the Movie Get Away With It? Certainly, yes. This is a partially a tribute to Bogart (He does it again in our next movie), who excelled at playing appealing inscrutability. After ten years on the Warner’s lot, they knew he could pull it off and he did. Also, as with Bridesmaids, they knew that we would be more likely to forgive the hero his vacillations because he represented real world suffering and uncertainty. It was easy to guess what he was going through, because the country was crippled by those same doubts.
- Deviation: The hero’s goals aren’t clear and he’s not the person working the hardest to solve the problem.
- The Potential Problem: Like Casablanca, Bogart once again plays his cards close to the chest, coyly prevaricating about what his character’s goals are. Does he want this adaptation job or not? Does he just want quick cash or is he determined to make art? Does he want to clear his name or does he actually want to implicate himself (out of a perverse impulse for self-destruction)? We never know for sure. And of course we aren’t sure until the end whether or not he killed one of our characters!
- Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes. Like The Shining (also about a potentially-homicidal author), this movie pulls off a tricky relay-race. Dix is only occasionally interested in solving his own problem, and when he loses interest, Laurel and his detective friend Frank take up the slack, trying to solve his problems for him (Laurel tries to get Dix to face his anger issues, Frank tries to clear Dix’s name). Writer Andrew Solt and director Nicholas Ray deftly bounce our identification back and forth between Dix and Laurel, symbolizing her vacillating loyalty and his faltering sense of self-preservation.
Obviously, one reason I’m tackling Blue Velvet is that it’s a more challenging movie than many of the others we’ve looked at, which means that it’s going to contravene the checklist more, so we’ll look at more deviations. Let's start with these two:
- Deviation #1: This is definitely a “Character motivates, plot complicates” movie and it has many potential problems associated with that: Our hero has almost no motivation to get involved in this case: (no one he knows or loves is at risk, he hasn’t been accused of the crime, etc.), he has no reason not to trust the police (they seem trustworthy and competent for most of the movie, and they seem to already know the information he uncovers)
- The Problem: Stories tend to work better when the hero is forced into the story by external plot complications, then in the second half, as the plot becomes less important, the hero’s volatile character chemistry begins to drive the situation. This movie is the opposite: the hero’s volatile psychology wills the situation into existence with very little motivation, and this only becomes a problem in the second half when he realizes how complex the plot is.
- Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes. This movie works as both a tragedy (where we lament the downfall of a self-destructive person) and a conspiracy thriller (where we root for the hero to uncover the truth). We both cheer for him to solve the mystery and disapprove of the moral degradation he experiences as he does so. We remain invested in seeing the problem solved even after we acknowledge that our hero is part of the problem, and he’s victimizing this woman as much as saving her.
- Deviation #2: It’s unclear if he’s the only one who could solve this problem.
- The Problem: The movie sort of hedges its bets on this problem. For most of the running time, we suspect that the cops could handle this better on their own without Jeffrey’s involvement (which should be death for the story), but as Act 3 begins, we have a more typical movie development: Jeffrey finds out that one of the bad guys is a detective, and decides once again that it’s all up to him.
- Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes. In theory, we should get fed up with Jeffrey and insist on rooting for the cops, who we trust more to solve this case, but our interest in seeing the case solved is co-equal with our interest in understanding Jeffrey’s creepy psychology, so we’re willing stay with him (and then they finally reveal that a cop is on it, which is a more traditional way of getting us to root for him to solve it on his own. But even then the chief seems to be taking appropriate steps, though we can’t tell for sure.)
- The hero is motivated by money for most of the movie, and even when he does decide to ditch the money and become a true hero, the heroic motivation is too small because he decides to save a planet that is not his own, nor is it the home planet of any of the Guardians. Why should he or we care about Glenn-Close-world? It’s bizarre that the movie remains compelling. The filmmakers must have been tempted to replace these weak motivations with a more straightforward emotion goal, such as searching for his missing father, or trying to avenge his dead mother, but the movie goes precisely the other way. In fact, you could say they break another rule: Instead of simplifying the motivation they multiply it: Pratt’s primary motivation is money, but his secondary motivation is something that seems equally superficial, but isn’t: he want to be cool. His social humiliation is delivered right away when he announces he’s Star-Lord and Djimon Hounsou says “Who?” (Nicely paid off when the same character later warns his boss, “That’s Star-Lord!”) This seemingly shallow goal becomes deeply heartfelt because we see how closely tied it is to his severed relationship with both parents. His hapless attempts to be cool ultimately are an attempt to search for his dad and bring his mother back. Threading that tricky emotional needle was a big part of this movie’s unexpected success.
- But wait, here’s another violation: The concept seems to be too complicated. The interplanetary politics of this world are bizarrely labyrinthine, and after the very-relatable first scene we suddenly jump into the middle of a complicated story that we never quite catch up with, so why doesn’t this alienate the audience (literally and figuratively) as badly as Pacific Rim? Obviously, beginning in a recognizable place goes a long way, allowing us to step into this world with the hero, at least briefly, but beyond that, the movie greatly benefits from a rule hidden inside this post: the value of “I’ll tell you later” Guardians pushes this to its extreme, because this was basically one big movie of “I’ll tell you later.” The filmmakers use weirdness as wallpaper, much in the same way that Star Wars does, but they never ask us to care about that stuff any more than the hero does (and he’s wonderfully dismissive of most of it.)
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. Desperate horniness and loneliness.
YES. Company loyalty, then self-preservation.
YES. She’s bored out of her mind, as established by the opening montage.
YES. save her son and herself.
YES. He just wants to save his own life until almost the end.
NO. He has no obvious motivation to investigate this case. We have to surmise that his actions are motivated by a deep-seated neurosis that predates the movie.
The Bourne Identity
YES. She wants to do a good job to keep Lillian as a friend.
YES. All of these except simple: First, he wants to keep the peace with the Nazis, then he (maybe) wants to use the letters of transit himself, then he wants his ex back.
NO. Not really. For most of the movie, he has no client, and he has little reason for uncovering this conspiracy. We’ll discuss this more.
YES. Well, it’s pretty selfless: take down the mob, but he’s clearly enjoying getting away from his family and going dark, in more ways than one.
Do the Right Thing
YES. He tries to bridge the communities not because he’s a good guy, but because he wants $250 a week plus tips.
YES. She loves her grandma and wants to tell her the truth, but ultimately chooses not to.
Sort of, he wants to be a champion, but he’ll sacrifice his chances to make money for his family. In the end, though, he realizes that that’s a sickness, and the best way to help them is to pursue his own self-interest.
YES. save her sister.
YES. Very much so. He’s determined to find his wife’s killer and he’ll be executed if he doesn’t do it.
YES. His motivation is that Rose is all he has in the world (other than his dog and Rod) but we don’t understand that until halfway through. Before he admits that, we wonder why he’s putting up with this.
YES. He desperately wants to get out of the loop, since he’s in his least favorite place on his least favorite day.
How to Train Your Dragon
NO. His motivation is complex. His initial motivation, to impress his father, is all of those things, but he loses all of that motivation as soon as he befriends Toothless, then he’s uncertain of his own goal for a while, then he forms a relatively selfless motivation of making peace, but he uses his knowledge to continue to impress the village while he tries to figure out how to do that, so his motivation is definitely more complex than most heroes, which is fine. It’s an ambitious movie.
In a Lonely Place
NO. it’s complex and contradictory: Does he want the Althea Bruce job or not? Does he want to write something for quick money or something meaningful? Is he looking for love? For sex? Does he have a death wish? A desire to be imprisoned? Does he want to deal with his anger issues or not? Unlike most heroes, he is a man or dark, murky, contradictory impulses. And yet, we love him and find him utterly compelling. He’s an exception to the rule.
YES. Just trying to stay alive at first, then trying to get his weaponry away from his captors.
NO. Her motivation isn’t strong: She strongly wants out of town, but nobody is sure why, including herself. She waffles about whether she even wants it.
YES. Get his wife a baby.
YES. He wants love, friendship, respect, etc.
Basically. We see the horror of the problem in the opening scenes (a woman is turned away from registering to vote, four little girls are killed) We don’t see these directly provoke him, but we assume that these are driving him.
YES. for both.
YES. Have a fun drunken week.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Career advancement
YES. Solve R2’s problem before it gets him in trouble.
YES. he wants to keep his car.