Main Character Motivations

Published by funkybassmannick in the blog funkybassmannick's blog. Views: 353

This means even side characters, although here I am going to focus on main character motivations.

There are different levels to character motivations, which we will call the "Abstract Ambition," "Concrete Goal," and "Immediate Want."

1) The most broad level of character motivation is abstract ambition. Examples are "happiness," "wealth," "power," "excitement," "normality," etc. A full list of abstract ambitions can be found HERE. However, an abstract ambition is not enough to make a story. Without a concrete goal, abstract ambitions are as superfluous as Miss America saying she wants "world peace."

2) Next down is the most complex motivation, the character's concrete goal. The question to ask is, "How do they plan on attaining their abstract ambition?" For example, a character may plan on wooing a hot girl in order to gain happiness, to sell drugs in order to gain wealth, or to become a CEO in order to gain power. The character's quest to attain concrete goal provides the main source of conflict in the story.

Attaining the concrete goal, however, does not always lead to also attaining their abstract ambition. Wooing a girl may not lead to happiness, selling drugs may not lead to enough wealth, or your CEO promotion could actually be a puppet position for someone behind the scenes. The same concrete goal could also lead different characters to different abstract ambitions. Attaining a job, for example, can lead to happiness, wealth, power, stability, impressing a woman, etc.

In Breaking Bad, (Nothing in there will ruin the show, very light spoilers, but I just want to give a heads up).
Walter White has the concrete goal of cooking and selling meth. This leads to gaining many abstract ambitions, such as removing the financial pressure on his family, gives him confidence in himself, and even slowly gives him power over other people. The one abstract ambition it never leads him to is happiness. Man, is he an unhappy person.

The main character may not ever attain their concrete goal, but they must ALWAYS attain their abstract ambition. The character may find happiness without ever finding a mate, may find wealth without selling drugs, or find power without needing to be a CEO. It is possible that they switch abstract ambitions from their initial one, but they always attain it in the end. Even in a tragedy.

For example, in Terry Guilliam's "Brazil," (This one contains major spoilers. Do not read if you plan on ever watching this excellent film.)
The main character is searching the whole movie for happiness. He hates his job, bureaucracy, the world, and his concrete goal is to escape with his girlfriend to the country, which will lead to attaining his abstract ambition – to live happily ever after. However, his girlfriend is killed, Harry Tuttle disappears, and he is captured. Also, there never was a countryside to escape to. He then escapes into a fantasy world where he is rescued and lives happily ever after with his not-killed girlfriend in the countryside.

3) A third level to character motivation are smaller goals, which we can call their immediate want. The conflict that comes from the immediate want is the driving force of the scene. Each scene must contain an immediate want, which in some way contributes to the journey of attaining the concrete goal, which will (hopefully) lead to the abstract ambition.

Here is another way to think of these things:
  • Abstract ambition is the theme.
  • Concrete goal is the plot.
  • Immediate want is the scene.

You need to be logged in to comment