The Wide Margin: Creating Characters When There’s No Motivation

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So, I’ve been sitting here for over an hour.  An hour and 37 minutes, to be precise.

Staring at the screen.  Shifting in my chair.  Drumming my fingers.

Now it’s an hour and 38 minutes.

Jerry Seinfeld recently said “Writer’s block is a phony, made up, BS excuse for not doing your work.”

Dear Jerry:  It would be a lot easier to work knowing I never have to work again.

Photo: Drew Coffman under Creative Commons License

Photo: Drew Coffman under Creative Commons License

Total neurological breakdown.  Full frontal lobe freeze.  We’ve all been there.  For me?  More recently, more often.  But you too.  Right now, for instance.  That’s why you are here reading instead of there writing.

So, I’m not doing my work.  But is it because of a BS excuse?  Or perhaps a simple issue of motivation?

Actors are the ones who are supposed to be obsessed with motivation.  Whenever an actor would ask Alfred Hitchcock, “What’s my motivation?”, he would respond:  “Your salary.”

There’s a lot of truth in that.

One of the things I learned  when training with actors is that you never, ever ask, “What’s my motivation?”  The reason?  It’s too vague a question.  Art is never achieved through vagueness.  Art is about specificity.

When preparing a scene, it’s likely the good actor will instead ask, “What’s my need?”

Motivations are heavy.  Complex.  Murky.

Needs are basic.  Simple.  Clear.

For example:

Take the jewels.
Kiss the waiter.
Smell the glove.
Skin the cat.

Get the idea?

If you give a single need to each character in each scene, your script will immediately become active, not passive.  By definition, you’ll be showing, not telling.  Magically you won’t feel a need to write monologues of long exposition.  Or voice overs.

And you’ll be helping the actors help you bring your words to life.

Because you are writing for performance.  The actors are already struggling with a passel of thoughts involving lines, blocking, director’s notes, and the nagging concern that Ms. Haverlock’s damning critique in the third grade was correct after all.

They certainly don’t need to deal with an additional heap of heady wishes and psychological yearnings from you about their character.

Instead, give the actors clear, simple needs to work with.  Perhaps it’s paradoxical, but without the explanatory nature of a motivation, a scene based only on needs is a whole lot easier to understand.

Recall, for example, what was the near universal complaint about the script for Gravity.  Was it the Wile E. Coyote abandonment of the most basic laws of Newtonian motion to create a key plot point?  Sadly, no.  Rather, it was the tacked-on feel of the female astronaut’s superfluous backstory to explain her motivation to get back to Earth.

As if the basic need to survive wasn’t reason enough.

Let the viewing audience be the ones to fill in the interior dialogue of the motivations.  Audiences love doing that.  It gives them something to talk about while walking to their cars.  And, if you are really lucky, on their ride home.  Four hundred years later, people are still debating the psychology of Shakespeare’s characters.

A secret: The less you explain motivations, the deeper and more timeless your writing becomes.

So, while my motivation might be to provide insights for my reading audience or (more likely) convince my editor that I’m a valued part of her staff, my need is to complete this column.

There.  Done.

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