In the quest of cultivating the perfect screenplay, you must engage in deeper-level thinking in regards to your characters and their purpose throughout every scene. An effective means to accomplishing this goal is to clearly outline the motivation behind the characters and their purpose within a particular scene. However, many screenwriters tend to stop after they’ve uncovered the initial layer of motivation. While this first discovery is typically enough to create a very basic and flat character, to separate your story from the masses you must show depth and character familiarity.
The three layers of character motivation include: obvious, secret and dark/hidden. It’s only when you’ve outlined and married these facts your character will come alive. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box, because really, life is not predicable and fortunate so don’t let your story feature this unrealistic world.
The Obvious Layer
The obvious motivation of your character is what an outsider would view as his motivation. An example of obvious motivation is your character walks into a fast food restaurant and orders a small meal. Onlookers, and in your case someone who isn’t actually writing the story, may say his motivation is to satisfy his hunger and craving.
Even if the character is not entering the restaurant to order food, this obvious motivation works by engaging the audience and guiding them to conclusions that may not be accurate, but visually entertaining.
The Secret Layer
This second layer is where the true desires and wants of your characters are revealed. While your character may be walking into the fast food restaurant, he isn’t going because he’s hungry, but rather because he wishes to check in on one of the workers he’s interested in dating. While he would never tell his friends or the general public that is why he’s in this establishment, having this clearly marked in your writing notes navigates your phrasing and dialogue to truly meet character motivation.
The Dark/Hidden Layer
Lastly, the innermost layer of character motivation is the hidden or dark layer. This is the most unattractive layer of all three as it houses the emotions, fears and dreams of your character. If revealed, this information could be detrimental to the character or potentially alter how he accomplishes his goals and desires.
There is no real guideline for uncovering this layer. While some screenwriting courses and books attempt to guide writers throughout this layer, I’ve found the best way to handle this level of character development is to simply allow your mind to roam free.
Gather all information you can about the character, which include the obvious and secret layers of motivation, and then question every detail. By asking why and creating backstories to your character and his relationships you’re able to cultivate this hidden layer while still keeping true to who this character is.
Remember, the hidden/dark layers of our motivation are typically the most formative. It’s within this layer the other two are birthed. Therefore, utilize every ounce of creativity and don’t be afraid to go dark and ugly with the revelation of darker/deeper character motivation.