If you’ve ever had a screenplay critiqued or read any basic-level screenwriting manuals, then the idea of finding the motivation that pushes your characters throughout the story is nothing new. However, throughout my experience I’ve found that most screenwriters do not employ certain techniques and thought patterns to find the true motivation behind each character.
Uncovering the motivation of each character does not mean outlining surface level motivation. Rather, this writing technique requires delving deeper into the subconscious land of your character.
Surface Level Motivation
While this is not what this article is about, it is important to identify, document and store the surface-level motivation of your character within a particular scene as well as the arching motivation that pushes the story along. When I say “surface level motivation” I’m referring to the easiest answer when you ask, “why is my character doing/saying this?”
For example, if your character walks into the grocery store and chooses to walk down a different aisle to avoid a particular person. Of course, the actual reason as to why he avoids this person is deeper than surface level; however, for examples sake, the surface level motivation behind his actions may be to avoid discussing how he just lost his job (as this was made clear earlier in the story, hypothetically).
When identifying surface level motivations, look for what someone who isn’t aware of the character and what he has gone through would think by witnessing his actions.
Using the example above, the true motivation of this character avoiding aisle 9 is because he doesn’t wish to discuss his being laid off as it further solidifies the fear he’s had as a child about being a loser – a nobody. To him, speaking about this change in plans triggers him and puts him into a mental tailspin.
The true motivation of your character will likely be closely tied to the surface level motivation; however, the details within true motivation are far more detailed and linked with his subconscious and secret self no one is aware of.
Before delving too deep into a scene, ask yourself what the true motivation is for this particular moment in time. Do not be afraid to continually ask why in order to uncover the actual reasons your character is acting and saying what you have him saying and doing.