Throughout this series we’ve covered a variety of ways to build a better character using their actions, their dialogue, even their senses. We can add rich depth to our characters with these tools, elevating them from two-dimensional constructs to three-dimensional beings that practically live and breathe from the page. Now, let’s take a look at a fourth, crucial piece to the characterization puzzle: Motivation.
Enter the Ostrich Dossier
Back in the late ‘30s, director Alfred Hitchcock gave a series of lectures and interviews in which he referred to something he called “the MacGuffin.” The term was one he borrowed from screenwriter Angus MacPhail, and as described by Hitchcock it was the object of desire for everyone in a film or story, but one which the audience really didn’t necessarily care much about.
Basically, a MacGuffin is the thing motivating everyone in a story to behave as they do, to take whatever actions they take.
For example, in a spy film all of the spies might be racing to obtain “the Ostrich Dossier.” Getting their hands on this obviously important document was crucial—vital—to national security, the lives of millions, and the fate of the world. If the good guys got it, victory was sweet. If the bad guys got it, surely we would all suffer horribly.
The stakes for retrieving or failing to retrieve the Ostrich Dossier were as high as life or death or freedom and liberty for the spies in our tale. But for the audience—we might not ever know what was actually written in the thing, beyond some vague description given by the characters. We know it’s important, and we know that Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis or Chris Evans have to have it or something bad goes down. Really bad. Michael Bay films bad.
The MacGuffin is a common plot device, and we’ve seen versions of it that run the gamut from the Maltese Falcon to the Ark of the Covenant to the glowing briefcase from Pulp Fiction. It typically serves the function as the primary motivation of the characters within the story—the reason that Tom Cruise is hanging from the landing gear of a helicopter or Harrison Ford is running from Nazis in the middle of the desert. It’s the motive force—the thing that moves the story forward.
We can tell a lot about someone by examining their motivation. In fact, “motive” is one of the most common things we hear about in police procedurals and crime dramas. “What was the shooter’s motive?” “What’s the motive behind the robbery?” Police and Detectives use motivation as a starting point for working backwards to figure out who is behind a crime. Knowing the why behind a perpetrator’s actions can help to identify them.
The same is true for fictional characters.
When you’re building your characters, trying to figure them out and work out how they fit with your story, how they’ll respond to certain stimuli, you can use their motives, their why, to fill in valuable pieces of the characterization puzzle.
The MacGuffin gives us a convenient place to start in that process.
Why does our protagonist want or need to get their hands on the Ostrich Dossier?
Why does our antagonist need or want it just as bad, or even more?
What is each willing to do, how far will they go, to get their hands on it? What are they willing to give up or sacrifice to get it? Or what will they be willing to do to keep the other character from getting it?
Knowing these things about your characters means knowing their motives. Giving them a common goal, with diametrically opposed reasons for achieving it, can help you to quickly reveal key personality traits, habits, personal believes, biases, prejudices, and intentions.
In other words, you can learn more about who your character is by discovering what they want and why they want it.
Good Intentions, Bad Habits
One thing to keep in mind about both protagonists and antagonists: Real people are never quite black and white in their reasons for doing things.
Everyone tends to be the hero of their own story, locked into the notion that they, alone, understand the world and how it works, that their goals are for a greater good, even if their methods may not be strictly moral, ethical, or legal. People—real people—are messy. Even the most organized and disciplined among us aren’t always operating from a set of stringent and immutable personal rules. The world simply won’t let anyone live purely by their own code, with no deviation.
As such, our flaws tend to reveal more about us as a person than our intentions. And the same is true for our characters.
Consider Sherlock Holmes. He’s brilliant, we can’t deny. He has a keen analytical mind and is obsessively focused. His powers of observation are near god-like, and his ability to infer and deduce from even scant traces of information is profound to the point of being a superpower.
And yet, Holmes is an acerbic, socially maladjusted individual with few friends, an estranged relationship with his family, and a drug addiction. Those of us who envy his ability to turn a laser-like focus upon his cases would pity him for being a lone wretch in his personal life and social circles. The tradeoff of his brilliance is isolation.
That gives us a pretty interesting understanding of Holmes as a character. We see his flaws, and we see how those flaws impact his choices and the way other characters interact with him. We come to know him better by his weaknesses, as much as by his skills and strengths.
Now consider Indiana Jones. He has more social skills than Holmes but is no less isolated. And again we can blame his focus on the work over all else. Jones seemingly gallivants about in the world, seeking “fame and fortune, kid.” He reads as someone who is self-serving, hungry for the bounty of being a treasure hunter. But we learn, as we watch him in Raiders of the Lost Ark, that his motivation is different than we expect. They’re more nuanced.
Fame and fortune may play a role in some of what he does, but a deeper motive is his love for the preservation of history, and a sense of justice. Jones risks life and limb to make sure that the bad guys don’t use historical artifacts for evil means or evil ends. Treasures belong in a museum, in his thinking. And Nazis deserve to be punched in the face.
So as we’re watching Indiana Jones, we start to discover that his entire character is defined by his motives, and that definition becomes more apparent the more we learn about and understand what drives him. And not simply by his overt motives, such as rescuing the MacGuffin/Ark of the Covenant/Holy Grail, but also by the underlying and hidden motive to preserves history and to stop bad people from doing bad things. As we, the audience, learn the motivation of the character, over the course of the story, we learn who the character really is.
Which brings us to an important storytelling method.
The Floor is Lava
In the example of Indiana Jones, we saw that his motivation revealed more about his character as the story progressed. This element of duration—of time and a sequence of events—is important. You most often hear this kind of thing referred to as pacing (a future blog post topic, to be sure).
When using motivation to reveal a character’s traits, it’s a bit like the kids’ game “The Floor is Lava.” If you’re not familiar with this, the idea is pretty simple: Kids pretend that the floor is lava, and they have to get from one side of the room to the other without stepping on the floor. This means hopping from one piece of furniture to another, climbing along objects in the room, and if you’re my little brother, cheating outrageously by putting pieces of paper on the floor and stepping on them.
That’s right, bro. All these years, I have not forgotten. I’m watching you.
Building your character can work the same way. Once you’ve established the character’s motive—settled on the MacGuffin he or she is after and set up the stakes as to what happens if either the protagonist or the antagonist gets their hands on it—now you can start to hop from sofa to armchair with your characters, revealing how they deal with each new obstacle along the way.
In writing craft, we refer to those obstacles as plot points. They are the challenges and roadblocks and complications that pop up along the way as the characters move through the story. And the only thing that prevents the character from stopping at any given plot point, from turning their back on the whole thing and going back to their sofa to eat chips and drink soda and watch WandaVision, is… you guessed it… their motive.
Each plot point not only moves the story itself forward, but it also gives us a means to demonstrate character development. Readers can see the characters change and grow, or otherwise reveal themselves, with the way they handle each obstacle and confrontation in turn.
This character growth is important, because by most definitions of “story,” the goal is to demonstrate the ways in which a character changes from the beginning of a story to its end.
Indiana Jones starts off, in our eyes, as a scruffy nerf-herder…
Wait… wrong film.
He starts off as a travel-worn adventurer, a treasure hunter who survives by his instincts and his skill with a whip. And these things are true, as a basic character sketch. They are unique characteristics that shortcut our perception of Indy, telling us a bit about him.
But cut to a college campus, a room full of doe-eyed coeds hanging on Indy’s every word, and the entrance of Marcus Brody, archaeologist and museum curator. When Brody stops by to ask how things went on Indy’s latest adventure, we learn a lot more about Indy as a character. We learn that he wasn’t seeking fame or fortune alone, but was trying to retrieve that artifact for a museum, and to keep it out of the hands of Belloq, Indy’s arch rival.
Later, as Indy is pursuing the medallion that will guide him to the discovery of the Well of Souls, Indy confronts Marion, a love interest but also a minor obstacle to his success. His interaction with Marion starts off with some swagger, and then some earnest pleading. We learn that Indy cares for her but has put his work ahead of her. The characterization thickens!
Over the course of the film, our perception of Indiana Jones changes with each “hop.” As Indy avoids the lava floor, leaping from sofa to ottoman to rocking chair, every hop shows us more about him. He grows as his motives are revealed, and as a response to the obstacles he encounters, that would keep him from achieving his goals.
This technique is a great way to develop your characters in the mind of your reader, because it serves multiple purposes. Not only does it reveal the character as the story goes, but it also serves to move the plot itself along. Hopping from plot point to plot point is the movement—the motive force—of the story.
It’s Fun to Stay at the Why
Just like in real life, human beings do their best work when they know their “why.”
Why does the protagonist/antagonist want the Ostrich Dossier?
Why is the protagonist so sad at the beginning of the story?
Why does he or she push themselves so hard when the odds are against them?
Why do they keep going when it would be so much easier to give up?
Why do they hate snakes?
All of this why really translates to motivation, and motivation translates to characterization. The pace at which you reveal your character’s motives can help move the story along, while simultaneously giving your readers more to discover about that character.
To build better characters, define their motivation. Give them a why.
That wraps up this series on better characterization. I hope you found some useful tips for adding depth and nuance to your own characters. If you have questions, leave them in the comments. And be sure to share this series with your writing friends.