What Motivates Your Character’s Actions?

In real life, people act with a reason. And screenplay characters need to do the same. Every character action requires motivation and intention. To create a logical story with strong, identifiable, and understandable characters, a writer needs to be aware of what drives his or her character’s actions, and create behavior that is consistent with the characters he or she has developed.

So, what motivates your characters to do, say, react, and think as they do?

1. Previous Incidents or Backstory
Past events can influence a character’s actions. In Aliens, the character of Ripley distrusts the “synthetic person”, Bishop, because she previously had a bad experience with a robot (a really bad experience). Ripley’s driven to protect the young child Newt, because she lost the opportunity to mother her own child. How do past incidents or backstory influence your character’s behavior and choices?

2. The Unconscious Dark Side
No one is “all good” or always does the “right thing”. The unconscious dark side of a character can drive him to act in ways that go against his conscious self, whether it be as small as a little white-lie to avoid hurting a loved one’s feelings or as significant as bilking clients out of millions of dollars. What makes the police officer, devoted to justice and helping the vulnerable, take a bribe or look the other way at corruption within his department? The law-abiding, good, decent, and loving father in the film In the Bedroom is driven to kill his son’s murderer in an attempt to alleviate his wife’s suffering. What would make your character lie, cheat, steal, or even kill?

3. How a Character Gains and Processes Information
People experience life differently. Some gain information through direct experience, while some derive information through others’ experiences (note that, in films, your main characters will most often experience life directly). Some people process information emotionally and base their decisions on feelings, while others process information intellectually and base their decisions on principles and facts. How does your character gain and process information and how does that affect his actions?

4. Personality Disorders or Quirks
In Lethal Weapon, Martin Riggs’s depression influences his actions – including his willingness to take chances and his flirtations with suicide – and causes conflict with other characters, such as his partner, Murdoch, who questions Riggs’s sanity (Riggs’s depression is a personality disorder triggered by a past event – his wife’s death). What personality disorders or quirks would explain your characters’ behaviors and choices?

Knowing what drives and motivates your characters’ actions will help you create fully-developed, plausible characters, and a solid, logical storyline.