Character Motivation: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What is Character Motivation?
  • 1:15 Examples of Character…
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

What makes a character tick? In this lesson, we will examine the concept of character motivation and why it is so important in telling a believable story.

What Is Character Motivation?

Ever have a good friend who acted totally out of character? You may think you know her; then all of a sudden, she does something that throws you into a loop. When an author writes a book or a scriptwriter pens a screenplay, he must always consider why his characters behave in certain ways. Essentially, what makes them do what they do? A writer must also consider the character's goal or endgame. In order for a reader or spectator to believe the story, they must get to know the characters in the narrative.

Several factors go into determining what motivates a character. A reader is often given pieces of a character's backstory, also known as exposition, in order to make him three-dimensional. Where was the character raised? What was his family life like? Was he rich or poor? Does he treat people well, or is he mean? Is the character intelligent?

If we know that a character's father suddenly left one day when he was eight years old and the little boy cried every night for a year, then when the father returns to visit 20 years later, we can expect the character to be angry with his dad for abandoning him. So, if he yells at his father or refuses to see him, the reader understands the character's motivation, or the character's reason to act.

Examples of Character Motivation

Rocky Balboa

In Rocky IV, Drago kills Rocky's trainer and best friend Apollo Creed inside the boxing ring. At this point in the film series, Rocky is getting old and tired. On the other hand, Drago is a Russian Adonis. He is a beast of a man, in the prime of his life. When Rocky challenges Drago to a boxing match, the audience is not surprised that the Italian Stallion is willing to risk his life and step into the ring with an opponent who is bigger, stronger, and younger.

Rocky's motivation comes from his desire to avenge the death of his friend. We know Rocky from his previous films. We understand that despite the great odds against him, he will never back down from a challenge. His wife doesn't want him to fight Drago, and his trainers tell him that it's a suicide mission. However, it's in Rocky's character to be brave, to be a good friend, and honor the name of Apollo Creed. So, when Rocky steps into the ring with Drago after several weeks of intense training, we're not surprised to see him never give up and ultimately have the heart to defeat the Russian.

Ralph in Lord of the Flies

Ralph is a natural leader. When the group of young boys gets stranded on the deserted island, Ralph only cares about getting rescued. Every action that he takes comes from his motivation to get the boys off the island and safely home.

Ralph knows that in order to get rescued, they first need to survive. While the other boys are enjoying their newfound, adult-free freedom on the island, Ralph gets to work. He assigns duties to the others: always keep the fire going, find food, and build shelter.

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