Thursday, November 10, 2011

What's My Motivation?

It's a phrase that borders on trite. So much so, that this question has become shorthand in movies and t.v., indicating that the actor is a pretentious primadonna. What a shame.

Sure, there's some folks out there who are so high on their own talent that when they ask the question, it's more about why they can't just do the thing their way. But, the actors who are genuinely asking for assistance ask because they understand something very important: if you don't have a "why", your "what" is going to suck. I'm going to pick on a movie I saw recently, "In time".

This is a big budget action movie starring Justin Timberlake. The concept is exceptional. In the future, everyone stops aging at 25. After that, your body receives one extra year, on a built in electronic "clock." This year can be bought and sold as currency, and the more time you have, the longer you live. Cool, cool concept, right?

However- none of the characters in this movie have any real motivation for what they're doing. There are "reasons" given for their behaviour, but nothing deeper to explain why that character is behaving this way. Ultimately, I left unsatisfied, and bewildered that I didn't enjoy it more, until the lack of motivation dawned on me.

Motivations also change as characters change. In the US re-release of "A Clockwork Orange", Anthony Burgess, in his new introduction, disowns the first American release of the novel, and the movie that was based on it, because both of these left off the final chapter in which Alex has been seen to finally change. "If characters in a novel don't change," says Burgess, "Then it's not a novel. It's a puppet show."

So - the question is, how do we know what our characters want, and why do they want it? That, folks, is part of the "game" of writing. You've got to be listening to those characters as you move them around, or you've got your own variation of a puppet show. (Nothing against puppet shows, mind you.)

One thing that may help, going back to the world of "theatre" (which is where I first heard this) is that human desire and need can be summed up into "the four f's":

Fight, Feed, Flee, and Reproduction (get it?).

E.g. Why does Character A buy a new car?

a) he just wants it

b) he needs to have this car because later the Ant. is going to steal it.

c) he's got a new job, and everyone at the office drives high priced cars. If he wants to move up, he needs to fit in.

d) there's an incredibly beautiful woman who's just moved in next door, and Char. A has heard her gushing about beautiful cars.
Two of these are weak, and two of these are strong(er). Taking things back to that level, you can start to get an idea for who your characters really are, and what they want out of this world you've plunked them into.

Lesson over - time for games:

There's a million great exercises out there to work on motivation, but I've been playing around with one of my own, that has been sort of fun. By taking one of the primal "f's", you can help yourself "warm up" to doing a writing session by trying this. I've been referring to it as a "Writer's Scale", because you're not going to be using any of this text. You're specifically just doing this to get your brain going, like a pianist would use scales to warm up their fingers before really practicing/playing:

The Writer's Scale

A) write the numbers 1-10 down one side of the page.

B) at the top, pick a primal "f"

C) on the line marked "1" - you have one word to use that embodies that need.

D) on line two, you have two words to work with. Important - you are not continuing on a thought from the previous line. You now have only two words to convey the whole "story."

E) and so on with three, four etc.

F) If you're still having fun after you get to "10" you might try going backward from 10-1.

G) Your top word can be anything, but I've had the most fun so far using this as a motivation study.

Here's one of mine. I tried to think of different sorts of "fear" as well:


1. Inoperable.
2. It's yours.
3. What was that?

4. We need to talk.

5. Please don't hurt me anymore.

6. There is someone in the house.

7. What the fuck are you looking at?

8. You'd better get down here, she's almost gone.

9. I can't hold on anymore, my fingers are slipping!

10.Quinn walked into the enveloping darkness that filled the barn.

There you go. If you're humming along with your project, then you may not need much exercise right now, but I've started to appreciate having a few in my pocket, especially if I miss a day or two from doing writing.

If you're inspired, I would love to see what you guys come up with in the comments below for your "10".

Good luck with what you're working on!



  1. Great post. You know, it's not really something I've given much thought, but motivation does make a huge difference in the end. There have been many times I've read a book and been left disappointed by the logic of it all. This is exactly what was missing.

  2. Motivation in a character will draw the reader in or turn him/her off. A man who steals drugs ... for money ... to fend off the infection that is killing his baby daughter. Great post. Thanks for visiting my blog just now, Roland