“Feeling and longing are the motive force behind all human endeavor and human creations.”
- Albert Einstein
“All actions are judged by the motive prompting them.”
Vague writing is bad. Vague character motivations are even worse. Poor motivation turns what could be good characters in flimsy shells whose actions appear to the audience as random, arbitrary, illogical, or completely fake.
You hear actors ask “What's my motivation?” What they mean is they do not understand why their characters do what they do, either because there is not enough information in the script or from a lack of communication with the director. Actors cannot believably imitate human behavior until they understand the actions of their characters from a psychological standpoint.
To create believable, lifelike characters that actors and audience alike can understand, a storyteller must first understand the basics of human behavior. To help, I have broken down human behavior as it pertains to character action into three simple rules.
1. No human being performs any action without a motive.
Now, let me first define 'motive,' since for some it has gained unintentional negative connotations. Some think a 'motive' to be a bad thing thanks to phrases like 'ulterior motive' or the 'motive of the crime.' The word 'motive' itself does not imply anything sneaky or underhanded. Instead, it comes from the same root as the word “motion.” A motive is a force that causes movement. As it pertains to behavior, a motive is the reason why someone chooses to move into an action.
No action taken by any person, regardless of how simple or mundane, is done so without a good reason behind it. No one walks across the room for the sake of walking. They do so because they expect to reach something at the end of their trip. Or to get a better look at something. Or to burn half a calorie. Or whatever. No one talks just for the sake of talking. (Although it may seem like some people do.) We only bother to waste the precious energy to speak when we have a need to communicate something, or wish have an effect on another person, or because we want attention, or at the basest level, relieve the social awkwardness of standing around with others in silence. An action without a reason behind it is senseless. Anyone who acts without reason is labeled a schizophrenic.
No choice is random. Your choice of clothing today was not random. You had a motive behind what you wear. Maybe you chose the sweatpants because you want to be comfortable. Maybe you chose against the sweatpants because you will be going out in public and want to fit in. Maybe you chose to dress flashy because you want attention. Maybe you picked that shirt because you think it makes you more appealing to the opposite sex.
But, if every action we take is done due to a motive, what is it about that particular motive that appeals to us? Why not take a different action with a different motive? Why not save the energy and do nothing at all? The reason behind the choices we make comes from the second rule:
2. All actions are motivated by a desire to gain something for oneself.
All actions are taken, in one way or another, for the purpose of self-benefit. We do things because there is something in it for us. We work to gain money. We speak to a friend because we gain a feeling of companionship. We sit down to gain comfort. We stand back up to gain mobility. This instinct for constant self-benefit is the result of billions of years of biological evolution. When it came to the survival of the fittest, those creatures who were single-mindedly looking out for themselves were the ones that came out on top. Any creatures who did not act out of self-interest stood a far slimmer chance and were slowly weeded out of the genetic pool. The instinct for constant self-benefit is rooted so deep in our genes that it is impossible to deny.
Actions are motivated by a desire for a personal, positive gain. Take a simple action such as eating. Eating gains something positive. Either it gains a relief from the unpleasant sensation of hunger, or an alleviation from boredom, or at least the simple pleasure of tasting something enjoyable. When people become so full that eating no longer gains them anything positive, they stop. No one feels motivated to do themselves harm- unless there is a benefit that outweighs the harm. Even people who mutilate themselves do so because the act gains them some sort of pleasure. Neither are people motivated towards displeasure. No one wants to eat dirt. That would not gain anything pleasurable- unless one person were so wracked with hunger that the benefit of relieving the hunger outweighed the displeasure of putting dirt in one's mouth.
Even actions that appear completely altruistic are motivated by the desire for a positive personal benefit to the performer. People don't give to charity to punish themselves by losing money. They do it because the action gives them something positive back. Maybe it is the respect of one's peers. Maybe it is the self-pride gained from thinking oneself as a good person. Maybe it is just the happiness one receives from seeing their money used to help others. Even the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades gains something by the action. In his last seconds of life, he gains joy from the knowledge that he has saved the lives of others. If, on the other hand, he were the only soldier in the foxhole, it would be complete stupidity to throw himself on the grenade, since there is nothing to gain by the action. He would instead be motivated to run away to gain a chance at survival.
Various studies in biology and anthropology alike have shown that in both the human and animal world, there is no such thing as true altruism. This even applies to the rearing of one's own offspring. Protecting one's offspring, even sacrificing one's life for the offspring's survival, is still, in the biological sense, done out of self-interest. Biological evolution occurs as a direct result of which members of a species do the best job of preserving their own genetic line so it may be passed on to successive generations. Those members who, by whatever coincidence, were compelled to do all they could to ensure their offspring's survival did themselves the benefit of winning the evolutionary game. This instinct ensured that their genetic line would continue to survive, passing along the instinct towards protecting the young along with it. Those who developed a sensation of love and responsibility for their children were even more successful, thus we have become genetically coded to love our families out of a primitive biological self-interest. Studies have shown that humans and animals alike are more likely to sacrifice their own lives to save the life of another to a degree that is directly proportional to the amount of genetic material that is shared between them. You are far more likely to sacrifice yourself for a child or parent who shares 50% of your genetics versus a sibling who shares 25%. The degree becomes much lower for a cousin who only shares 12.5%, and even less for a non-relative who shares none.
These cold facts illustrate extreme examples of the rule, and most of the cost/benefit reasoning we make behind our actions is instant and subconscious, but it still goes to prove that all actions taken by any human being takes is done so because it will grant them some sort of perceived*, positive gain.
(*The modifier 'perceived' is an important addition. Just because one thinks something will result in positive gain, that doesn't necessarily mean it will.)
3. No human being will take action until they understand (consciously or instinctively) what specific, physical benefit they will receive.
People are motivated by specifics. A motivation must offer a benefit distinct enough that a person can clearly understand why the benefit is desirable; and what specifically they have to physically gain.
There is a technique in the world of sales known as “benefit selling.” Benefit selling is based on the premise that customers do not buy a product because of that product's features. They buy a product for the physical benefits those features will give them. The goal of the salesperson should not be to gush on about how great and fancy the product itself is. They should instead seek to communicate the desirable results the customer will physically gain from owning that product. For instance, if a customer is told, “Buy the new Toyota. It has an improved braking system,” the customer's response may very well be, “So what? What's that mean? Big deal.” If on the other hand, the customer is told, “Buy the new Toyota. It will keep your family safer in an emergency because of its improved braking system,” the customer will understand the physical benefit he or she has to gain from purchasing this automobile, giving the customer a motive to act. The salesperson should not emphasize the car's soundsystem itself, but instead the enjoyment the driver will gain from the soundsystem. Instead of commenting on how nice the luxury add-ons are, the salesperson should communicate the prestige the customer has to gain from a vehicle with such high-class features.
The point is that people are not motivated by abstractions. They are motivated by the perception of a specific gain they stand to receive, whether that gain be physical, mental, or emotional. People cannot be motivated by “love.” Love is an abstraction. They are instead motivated by the warm feeling one receives from the affection of a loved one. Likewise, no one is motivated by “hate”. Rather, they are motivated by the emotional satisfaction one receives from venting one's negative emotions towards someone or something that gives them displeasure.
Why this is Important, and How to Use This
Storytellers need to know why it is so important to give characters clear, specific motivations. Vague character motivations prevent audience identification. An audience cannot empathize with a character's actions if they cannot first understand those actions. If characters seem to act without good reasons to explain those actions, the audience will perceive the behavior as random, arbitrary, and meaningless. An audience cannot emotionally experience the story through the character's eyes if they are not allowed entry into that character's mind to understand what they do and why. The audience will instead be left as distant, unemotional observers with no emotional stake in the story's outcome.
Sometimes vague motivations are the result of poor communication. The storyteller has not provided enough information through dialogue or visual evidence for the audience to fully understand the character's behavior.
More often, vague motivations come about because storytellers fail to make the effort to understand their characters' motivations themselves. These writers fail to treat their characters like fully psychologically functioning human beings, instead they treat them like wooden puppets that they can move to and fro, do this and that just because the story needs them to do so. The result is a script full of dull, flat, cardboard cutouts. They are considered “flat” because there is nothing beneath the surface of their actions to give them a meaning the audience can understand. When creating a story, writers must make the effort to see the potential actions their characters may take from a standpoint of what physical, specific benefit the character wishes to obtain. Then, the storyteller must communicate this motivation on the page through visual evidence in a manner that clear, dramatic, and natural.
Once again, characters cannot be motivated by abstractions. Saying that your hero is motivated by “justice” or “duty” is a mistake. How does one actually achieve “justice?” This is impossible since justice is an abstract concept. In reality, your the hero is not motivated by justice. Instead, he is motivated by an internal urge to accomplish a physically attainable goal, that, once accomplished, will gain the hero the psychological benefit of confirming that his belief in an abstract concept such as justice or duty is worthwhile. For example, let's say we have a story about an ethical young lawyer involved in a court battle against a corrupt corporation. The lawyer believes in truth, justice, and the American way. But her beliefs are not her motivation to act. Why? Because to be a considered a motivation, it is required to have, a. perceived benefit from that action, and b. a desire for that benefit. The appropriate way to phrase the lawyer's motivation would be that she -- 'desires to win the court case (the action) in order to prove to herself and the world that truth and justice still exists, subsequently gaining her the comfort of knowing that she is not naïve and simple-minded for believing in them (the physical benefit).'
Until a storyteller clearly knows what motivates his or her characters, that storyteller does not really know his or her characters at all. Until a storyteller knows his or her characters, s/he is left with only half a story.