ARISTOTLE GIFChris from somewhere asks:

Character motivation — how do you make sure the characters are sufficiently and plausibly motivated?

Too many of my stories start with the main character deciding he “wants to do something,” and this leads to the main plot. I’m starting to realize this type of motivation isn’t very strong, and I haven’t been able to make a good story about someone who just “wants to do something,” no matter how bad they want it.

Does that make sense? I think it’s a problem of motivation, and I think people can tell when a story hinges on a character doing something that they really didn’t have to do, particularly when there are many other things the character could have done that were a lot easier, less dangerous, but unfortunately less interesting.

For example, to make money the character decides to start a porn business instead of simply taking a job as an accountant, for which he has training. Or any other job. Like flipping burgers.


When in doubt, ask Aristotle. In his Poetics, Aristotle says:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude.

The goal of your protagonist must be “of a certain magnitude”. It must be important to him or her. It is not merely something he wants, it is something he is compelled to do. His or her drive must eventually arise to the level of compulsion and obsession. Your protagonist will do anything, suffer to any extent, pay any cost to achieve his or her desire. It takes that level of commitment from your character to keep him motivated.

That level of compulsion/obsession does not come merely from external forces. It comes from something deep inside the character that he or she must do in order to be a complete person. And we as an audience must sense his deep need and know he must do this thing for the sake of his very being. Our understanding of his need is what makes us want to see whether he achieves this goal.

For example:

Sixth Sense – Malcolm believes he is a fraud and that he failed the first boy. When a second boy with the same problem comes along, he must help him in order to redeem himself. He cannot live with himself is he does not help the boy. He is driven to help Cole and suffers until he does so.

Gladiator – Maximus must exact revenge on Commodus. His happiness in the afterlife depends upon it. If he does not, he will not be happily reunited with his family. He is driven to obtain his revenge and suffers until he does so.

In The Line of Fire – Frank must protect the president at the cost of his own life. He does not know whether it was his cowardice that changed the world for the worse (when Kennedy was shot and he did not take the bullet). He will suffer until he answers that question by proving he is not a coward. He is driven to hunt the man who will shoot the president and driven to put himself in harms way to protect the president. It is not mere choice; it is compulsion.

The same compulsion you have to be a writer….

20 thoughts on “LET’S ASK ARISTOTLE”

  1. motivation is based on something which has happened in the past. backstory is the key. a character with no backstory may decide he needs to find a job after getting fired. that’s fine, but boring. so, you want your character – a regular family man – to rob a bank, not just look for work. you give him backstory.

    a guy whose father had to work two jobs in order to support 7 kids may be more compelled to rob a bank.

    add fuel to the fire. same guy gets fired. but this guy’s father didn’t just support 7 kids – one of the kids had (any medical condition) and the daily treatment cost a lot. this sibling died.

    now, the guy gets fired and has to go home and tell his wife they no longer have health insurance coverage and will run into huge difficulties paying for daughter’s dialysis. now, you have a character with motivation.

    take all these elements away and you have a ‘guy that’s been fired who decides to rob a bank’. not compelling. nobody will believe the guy would just up and ‘decide’ to rob a bank. you have to give him a push. that push is a compelling backstory.


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  3. It’s also important to consider the nature of the goal, because it will affect how the audience views the character.

    For example, a character who wants $50,000 is different (not necessarily better) than a character who wants $50,000 to buy a house for his Mom.

    There’s a great article on Word Play about this.

    Good luck.

  4. Thanks for tackling the question!

    I saw Fun With Dick and Jane over the weekend, it was better than I expected. They spend over half the movie building up Dick’s motivation to commit robberies. Although in this case the build up has many of the best comedic moments.

    It would be tough to do this style of build up in a drama, I think. To me, the interesting parts of a drama would happen AFTER the character starts robbing banks. Unless the movie is simply about how the character gets to that point. Suppose it isn’t? Laying the Pipe (as John Rogers calls it, I think) is the toughest problem for me right now.

    Do the pros have any techniques they consistently rely on?

    Maybe quality pipe laying is what separates the good writers from the bad.

  5. I am having a technical problem with losing some comments. I hope to get it fixed shortly. Somebody sent in a comment pointing out that “magnitude” to Aristotle meant the length of the tragedy. That comment has now disappeared. I am looking for it to repost it. In the meantime, please post another comment if you are out there to let us know who you are.

    Whoever you are, you are quite right and I took the quote out of context.

    Nevertheless, Aristotle makes the point in other ways. Here is Professor Larry Brown’s explanation:

    Aristotle distinguishes between tragedy which depicts people of high or noble character, and comedy which imitates those of low or base character (ch. 2). Renaissance scholars understood this passage to mean that tragic characters must always be kings or princes, while comedy is peopled with the working or servant classes, but Aristotle was not talking about social or political distinctions. For him character is determined not by birth but by moral choice. A noble person is one who chooses to act nobly. Tragic characters are those who take life seriously and seek worthwhile goals, while comic characters are “good-for-nothings” who waste their lives in trivial pursuits. While it may be true that, as Arthur Miller argued, the common man is a potential subject for tragedy (in the sense that one need not be a king or a demigod to act nobly), the one thing a tragic protagonist cannot be is common. Ordinary humanity belongs on the sidelines in tragedy, represented by the Greek chorus. The tragic protagonist is always larger than life, a person of action whose decisions determine the fate of others and seem to shake the world itself.

    In today’s writing, we do not need the protagonist to be a nobleman. However, his or her goal still needs to be of a certian “magnitude” as we would use the term today. If the goal of the protagonist is not as important as life itself, the writer will have difficulty keeping the protagonist motivated.

  6. I’m the one who made the lost “magnitude” comment: the particular quote from Aristotle (which I’ve seen in may places) does not use “magnitude” the way we often do today. (See Poetics, Part VII.)

    You are right that the point gets made by Aristotle in other ways.

    Yet another way to see this issue is the question, “What would happen if the protagonist failed to achieve his/her goal?” If the answer is a mere return to the status quo, then there isn’t enough at stake — the want is deficient.

    David Howard (quoting Frank Daniel) defines the “Basic Dramatic Circumstance” as “Somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it.” The “badly” part is crucial.

    I think that’s what you meant when you said that the protagonist shouldn’t be someone who “just” wants to do something.

  7. It’s all Greek to me!

    Very helpful post. I will be sure to look up the classics… it couldn’t hurt to go back and learn something from the true origins of drama (Ancient Greece).

    Best Regards,

  8. This is a great post. I found it right when I needed it.

    I’m currently wrestling through the outline of a fish-out-of-water comedy. I was thrilled when I finally fleshed out the first act enough to finally get a sense of how and when the backstory would be introduced. Then it hit me like a brick in the face. Although I was psyched about my hero embarking on his journey, I had no idea why he was really doing it! I’m writing the thing, and even I’M not convinced he has enough motivation to set off. My protag. has financial, romantic and personal identity issues, all of which can be cleverly resolved by his journey, but none of which seem to scream, “Leave now, or else!” If he doesn’t set out, he’ll be like the rest of the world, grinding away at his job, searching for love, and hoping that tomorrow is a better day. BORING!

    The problem may be that I’m adapting a memoir. Arthur Miller I’m not (who is?), so perhaps my protag. is too real, even though I’ve juiced him up a bit already.

    This post has given me a lot more respect for Tolkien’s Hobbit characters. I suppose there’s nothing less than the fate of the world that would drag any Hobbit away from their home.

  9. Hi “Enterprising Young Twixter”,

    I’m struggling through similar issues with both my ‘completed’ spec (“The Cult of Tzompantli” – Sci-Fi, 108 pages), and with my current project (a ghost story I’m tentatively calling “SPOILS”). In the first one, my main protagonist is truly a “fish out of water” type character. After my script was recently reviewed by a fellow scribe, he noticed that I don’t have a well-defined character arc — what was my protagonist’s motivation… what did he learn… how did he change from ‘point-A’ to ‘point-B’?! I’m struggling to figure one out that doesn’t seem manufactured or contrived.

    And as for “SPOILS”, things are going very well — it’s a ghost story with a moral lesson in it… so far, I’ve gotten up to page 30 in my first draft (Act I!). But this time around, I’ll hopefully have a character arc in place. Otherwise, the character becomes more-or-less forgettable and boring.

    Very few of us are “Arthur Miller”… and that’s a good thing! There can be only one of him. And likewise, if Mr. Miller were still with us, he couldn’t come close to filling our creative shoes either. 🙂

    Best Regards,

  10. Thanks for the input. Your comments on character arc make a lot of sense. When I sit down and reexamine my outline I’ll pay more attention to where my protag is starting and where he’s ending. I have a feeling I’m going to have to drive a wedge in there to really define the change.

    I recently read the Lost in Translation script as the protag. of my own work is thrust into a bizarre new world while at the same time feels alienated from the one he came from. I would like my protag’s arc to be more apparent than Lost in Translation, or even Broken Flowers, but I rather not have to beat readers over the head with it.

  11. Twixter – seems you like Bill Murray. 😉

    I’ve always been facinated by the movie Ghostbusters. It’s one of my favorite. But what is their motivation? Look at it closely and you’ll notice – they actually have no reason to do what they did! They put a third mortgage on Ray’s house, btu they could have done many other things. What made that the only logical and inevitable choice?

    Venkman: For whatever reasons, Ray, call it…fate, call it luck, call it karma. I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe that we were destined to get thrown out of this dump.
    Ray: For what purpose?
    Venkman: To go into business for ourselves. [Takes a swig of bourbon]

    That’s the motivation? The whole thing?

    But it works. I don’t know why, but I never question it. It seems right. but it’s logically weak and certainly doesn’t fit the advice I’ve read from McKee et al.

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