character motivations -


We read an article about Florida Man using a live alligator to hold up a convenience store, and we laugh. We laugh because this gator-stick-up is an absurd thing to do. It seems absurd because we can’t imagine how or why a person does something like that. So he’s alien, the other. We relegate him to character status. “He’s a dumb guy.” “He’s crazy.” “That’s just how Florida Man rolls.”

Now let’s say we’re called upon to write that scene, put it in a script. We might start with the broad choice: He’s dumb, crazy, Florida Man, etc. But that’s the surface; it’s just level one. If we come at the scene from that shallow direction, then all we’re doing is telling an obvious joke at the expense of a caricature, which is inherently redundant. We’re settling for the easy choice.

To go deeper, we have to remember that human beings are almost always motivated by ideas that seem good at the time. There is always a thought process. Even if someone does something they know might be dumb or bad, there is still a justification.

To truly write this scene, we must become Florida Man, and walk through the thought process that gets us to the point that holding up a convenience store seems like a really good idea.

The rationale might be as simple as a friend of his makes him a bet: “I’ll betcha fifty bucks you won’t run in there with a live gator.” Or Florida Man knows the clerk behind the counter, and is playing a prank.

Or we might develop a little backstory and say… Florida Man lost his job earlier that day. He could really use a six-pack right now to drown his sorrows. But he’s broke. He thinks about simply stealing the beer from the convenience store. If he tries it unarmed, the clerk might try to get in his way. He needs a weapon to keep the clerk at bay. But Florida Man doesn’t actually want to hurt anyone, and a gun or knife might cause more trouble than he wants.

So he thinks of a middle ground: He’ll have something in his hands that’s just striking enough to cause fear in the clerk while Florida Man procures the beer and makes his escape. He looks around for just such a weapon… and since it’s Florida, he sees a three-foot-long alligator.

Ah-ha. Perfect.

And now we’re writing a scene inhabited by a person, rather than a character.

For an example on the screen, take a look at American Hustle. Jennifer Lawrence plays a character who is duplicitous and selfish. But when confronted, by a display of breathtaking, Olympic-level mental gymnastics she is able to find a way to see herself as the aggrieved party. Everything she said and did up to that point was a good idea at the time.  

Think through character motivations until they sound like good ideas, no matter what it is.

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