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You Need To Know About Character Motivation

Character motivation is one of the most important aspects of creating a screenplay that resonates with your audience.

As a professional script consultant with experience in reviewing over 1,000 scripts, I’ve noticed that so many stories don’t craft compelling character motivation.


What Is A Character’s Spine?

In the intricate tapestry of storytelling, characters are often driven by a multitude of external factors which can change from scene to scene.

However, there is often an overarching force that affects character motivation throughout the whole narrative. In screenwriting, this is commonly referred to as a character’s spine. 

Character Motivation – Conscious and Unconscious Desires

In action films, the spine often manifests as a conscious desire, such as the protagonist’s mission to defeat the archvillain—a theme recurrent in James Bond films.

This conscious desire is overt and known to both the character and the audience. It lies the story’s surface.

However, a character’s spine can also emerge from another layer that adds depth and complexity to the story—the unconscious desire.

This innermost motivation operates beneath the story’s surface. It’s a potent force that may be unknown or suppressed through denial.

character motivation

Character Motivation in Whiplash

Consider the film “Whiplash,” where Andrew Neiman’s conscious desire is to perform in the final concert with the college band.

Yet, his unconscious desire is more profound; he seeks the approval of his formidable teacher, Fletcher.

This hidden character motivation is what truly propels Neiman throughout the story. This is Neiman’s spine. 

While the audience is never explicitly told about this unconscious desire, it is revealed through Neiman’s choices and actions.

Subtext plays a crucial role in occasionally surfacing this innermost motivation, creating conflicts with other characters in the story.

#006 - 'Obsession' in Whiplash

Understanding and leveraging character motivation, both conscious and unconscious, is a powerful tool for writers.

The character’s spine forms the bedrock of engaging storytelling.

By delving into the depths of your character motivation, you will unlock the potential for nuanced, compelling narratives that resonate with your audience. 

Nick Fore Script Doctor / Script Consultant

Nick Fore is an experienced script consultant who reads screenplays for the British Film Institute.

He has written comprehensive coverage on over 1,000 scripts and has helped screenwriters get their work into development with production companies such as Imagine Entertainment and Screen Ireland. 

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