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How To Use Motivation 
To Form Characters And Plot
*Dynamic page: subject to change
Copyright © 1994, 1998,
Dorian Scott Cole

Often you have several little ideas in your head, but no story. In this section, I'll walk you through, step by step, the process of creating characters and a workable plot. Let's say for example that you have been toying around with a story about the shady dealings of Ralph Fergmeister because right now a character who is a little shady but good hearted appeals to you. You're not sure yet what your concept is or who your other characters are. Maybe he's the main character, maybe not. But your gut feeling is, he's not going to be the bad guy in the end.

You've also been thinking about rock groups and the local civic auditorium, and all the money these guys make for a performance. Possible setting. Still no clue what your story is about.

You start thinking about all the people and things that go into these performances. There are ticket sales people, janitors, sales people, advertisers, promoters, groupies who follow the groups (groupies: sexual excitement, directionless people obsessed with glamour, very interesting possibility). 

So you take a closer look at groupies. What would make a person abandon her life to trek across the nation following some band member who could care less about her? What kind of morals does she have that she will let herself be used in this way? Or use someone else in this way? 

What do you think about their behavior? Immoral? Obsessive? A summer of fun that they can remember the rest of their life? Let's say this thing is going to be about obsession. But what about it? Tentative concept (it may change): Obsession brings a person to ruin. OK, we have some characters who appeal to us, so we need to develop them and see what happens. 

Ralph: Ralph is twenty six. He was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and his father was a record promoter. Ralph didn't like the country scene, but he does like rock - partly because he didn't like his father. Ralph's father was never honest with him. He lied to every client to get business and he lied to his mother and he lied to Ralph. Ralph hates lies, and vows never to tell one, but Ralph misleads people in other ways. He holds out the carrot but never delivers. He leads people on, but never fulfills the promise. He does exactly what his father did because he never learned any better way of doing it. He never had the role model to help him learn. 

So Ralph is a showy person and a big talker. He can talk people into anything. He has talked his way into being the booking agent and promoter at the civic auditorium. Ralph has had a lot of experience. He has had a lot of jobs. When the job starts to fall apart, Ralph blames it on things beyond his control and moves on. So he moves faster than his mistakes. This time, Ralph has seen a local group he likes, Trash, and he is going to promote them and help them become famous. He is going to rub his father's face in his success by taking the group to Nashville and recording on the label his father promotes. 

Ralph can be religious with the best of them. His background is Southern Baptist. He knows about morals and being disciplined. About every three months he gets an attack of religion and does his best to clean up his act. For a whole week he drives everyone around him nuts, then it fades. He gets back to the business of rock, which he thinks is about sex and rebellion. Ralph justifies it because the sex part is all fantasy and is up to the individual just how they interpret the lyrics and how far they go with it. Rebellion - that's just youth - everyone has to do it. OK, we have a shady character in a setting where he can be as shady as he wants and has the position to cause all kinds of trouble.

A major group, Tor, comes through town on a tour, complete with an entourage of groupies. One of the groupies, a nineteen-year-old nicknamed Stix - "Just Stix, thank-you" - is found by a cleanup man where she was sleeping under the stage, actually collapsed where she had passed out. Ralph is walking through the auditorium and sees she is distraught, argumentative, but very weak. The group and her ride have left town. He takes her to breakfast, then to a local doctor who tells her to take it easy for a month. He tells her to go home - she says, "No way." She has very little money. Ralph lets her crash at his place until he can help her figure out what to do.

Stix: OK, you like this character and her situation. So making a profile is warranted. Stix's mother would do anything for security. After her husband divorced her, leaving her destitute, she threw herself at every man who would have her, making Stix a bystander. After several live-in lovers and relationships that ended in disaster, she married the first man who would have her. That man didn't happen to have room in his life for kids - especially some other man's kids. He squeezed in and squeezed Stix out. Anytime Stix was around, she was made to feel unwelcome. As Stix pushed harder for acceptance and a place in the family, he only pushed back harder. Conflict turned into battles. Battles became a never ending war. The man only had enough love for one person, and her mother could not leave him. In the area where Stix lived, an upper middle class area, step families were typical of eighty percent of the families. Everyone had problems. Stix could see what her mother had done for security and vowed never to let it happen to her. She went on the road having fun.

What about the normal things that anchor people? Family, religion, love, education, the pursuit of a career? Obviously family and love were at a deficit. Education? No one cared if she studied or not, and Stix was really a people person, not an academic person. At nineteen she would have still been a Junior in High School, but she dropped out at seventeen. She had no educational or career goals. Religion? It was never an issue in her home, although her mother claimed to be Catholic. A cross hung on her mother's living room wall, and a dusty Bible kept its symbolic place on the fireplace mantel next to the picture albums that never grew in size. 

What would save this person? Certainly not a lecture on the need for people to have stable secure lives - she had already seen the result of making that the focus of your life and has a strong emotional rejection of it. Love? Would she really trust anyone after seeing a long string of her mother's lovers reject her? She is hungry enough for love to chase after a rock group and prostitute herself for affection from the most admired (to her) people around. But she would undoubtedly test the limits of anyone who tried to really love her, and would probably end up losing them. 

Counseling? Might help her add some real direction to her life - although itís doubtful she can select a direction at this point - but this probably isn't going to happen in this situation. How about if she has to save someone? At the moment, Ralph is saving her. But what if she suddenly sees that Ralph is headed for disaster. She hears Ralph say he wants to get Tor to let the rock group Trash open for them. By traveling with the rock group, Tor, she knows some dangers that Ralph is going to lead this group into. He will be defeated once again, and the rock group, Trash, will be ruined in the business. Now she will save herself by saving Ralph and the rock group.

What about our tentative concept: obsession brings a person to ruin? No. After drawing the character, Stix, we see that she is a much deeper person, as we all are, who probably won't come to ruin if she is given half a chance. So for a concept, try: by saving someone else she saves herself? Probably a good concept. 

Now, suppose you begin writing the story, work with the characters some, introducing them, get Stix to Ralph's apartment. You have a feel for them and how they act. It's time to develop the plot. Ralph wants to make this local group, Trash, the opening act for the group, Tor. But Stix learns that Trash's lead guitarist has a jealous wife who won't put up with him traveling. So as soon as they go on the road, there is going to be trouble, and the strain may pull the group apart. 

Even worse, she knows Tor has a destructive bent. She knows this because when other rock groups open for Tor, they badmouth the other bands, especially if they appear to be better than they are, and this local band, Trash, has more raw talent. As soon as Trash performs better on stage than Tor, the battle will begin and their reputations will get ruined, as well as their chances of ever making it big. But neither Trash nor Ralph can see it. They dismiss Stix as a vengeful over-reactor and think they can handle things. How does Stix react to this rejection? Does she cave in or leave? No, she has become toughened by years of rejection. It hurts, it does nothing positive for her, but it doesn't drive her over the edge. 

A benefit is being organized in town. Stix uses her connections to get Torís lead vocalist to do the benefit, and gets Trash on just prior to them. At the rehearsal, the name band leader makes them rearrange the schedule so they don't follow each other on stage. Ralph sees Stix is right about the Tor groupís jealousy. Stix is seen in a new light. But the conflict has actually brought Stix and Ralph closer together. Not marrying close, but has shown them that they can work together. Wait, we haven't shown that - we only know that now Ralph trusts Stix's judgment. We need to show that Stix can trust Ralph, even though he is a shady character. 

In Stix's eyes, Ralph's motives for allowing her to stay with him are unclear. So to begin with, this is made more clear by the fact that he likes her - some scenes have to make that obvious - but he never takes advantage of her. After all, he already has relationships that bring him fun, affection, sex. What if he refuses to go out with others so he can be with Stix? He never lets Stix know that is what he is doing, but Stix hears about it without his knowledge. Does this make Stix trust? She is pleased, but unsure of him. Stix also hears him lead other people on, so there is an obstacle to her trusting him. 

What if Stix throws herself at him? Sooner or later that is bound to happen. Not for love, but for quasi-love - affection, acceptance, sex, fun, a partial relationship - something bordering love. What would happen? Ralph, liking Stix, but determined not to take unfair advantage of the situation and act like a Cretan, refuses her. Now she is really confused. Ralph seems to really like her, but he refuses her. Is this another step toward a deepening crisis? How deep are Ralph's motives? How determined is he to not touch Stix? 

What if Ralph's opinion, stated in the early scenes, is that "These wild groups are sick people who don't know their limits and have the money to get away with murder with no regard for the people they hurt or the damage they do." Someone's counterpoint to this - to make the situation real - is that, "They wouldn't attract an audience if they didn't rebel and cause trouble. Youth is about growing up, and these groups are just unbridled youth." Now, if Ralph is honest with himself, he won't touch her. So, is Ralph a person who is honest with himself? Yes, he thinks of himself as an honest person even if he doesn't know how to be honest with others. 

We need one more trust situation (three) to make an effective plot. Stix has been working on Ralph about being really honest with people and not offering them more than he can deliver. At the climax, in some as yet to be determined scene, she sees her influence on him as he changes and tells some group what he can really do for them. That scene will come later as we work the characters and plot through. It has to be very intense and climax both storylines - his and hers. 

As you work the story through, or even do the first writing, many scenes will unravel problems which will remain open. Many things will occur to you that need explored. From these things will come more scenes which lead to the climax.

This is the point to stop and ask yourself some serious questions. Knowing the concept will help keep the story focused as you write. The concept is: "A lost young woman saves a deceptive man from himself and in the process saves herself." Everything that is written in the story has to be in sync with the concept. If you veer off into another storyline, for example following the outcome of the local band, you will ruin the story unless you can somehow tie the meaning of its success to your main plot and concept. Side stories, with few exceptions, should be subplots which help develop the main plot. 

Second, is the character believable in the part? Stix, by being a groupie, may come off as an airhead. We're asking her to know the music world and to be able to influence rock musicians and help put together a benefit. Maybe a little much to ask. So let's redraw her a little - put just a little more age and experience on her. Her past remains the same, and she started with the group as a groupie, but became the on again, off again lover of one of the group's vocalists. She travels with them and is learning "the lights" - stage lighting. 

Her lover, Tor's vocalist, is trying to lose her, takes girls on the side and rubs her nose in it, but she doesn't get the message. She's used to rejection and weathers it because she likes the image she gains from the group. When she gets mono, and collapses beneath the stage, he forces her off the tour. In a final crushing blow, he won't give her the money for an airline ticket, or a hotel - just a bus home - and the bus out isn't until late the next day. Ralph offers her a place to stay. So we have the same basic character with the same basic problem, but with enough background to handle the task. We would need to work on Ralph also.

Third, is the drama big enough? What elements do we have? Romance, a lost woman, and a man who outruns his dishonesty problem. How does romance fit? Our concept says the story is not about romance. We either throw it out, or include it in the concept. Romance is the catalyst that makes the story work, so romance becomes a subplot and we may want to add it to the concept: A lost young woman saves herself by saving a deceptive man from himself and gains true love. 

These two people should create enough drama working through their problems. Let's see if they did. Stix gets rejected from the tour, she puzzles over Ralph's feelings for her, she recommends he not get Trash involved with Tor, she throws herself at him but he dodges, she argues with him about leading people on, she brings Tor for a benefit and is proven right, and a climactic scene (which we haven't written yet). Barely enough drama for Stix, but more things will come up as the script develops. 

For Ralph, he plays a part in most of what Stix does. That isn't enough. He isn't making anything happen. Main characters are much more interesting and create more drama if they are proactive, making things happen. Is he going to try and change Stix, save her from herself? How will he react when she tells him to quit leading people on with promises that depend more on fate and talent than on what he can do? Who is he leading on? Just the local group, Trash? What if he makes promises, then finds he can't run to a new job because he likes Stix? He will have to chose one or the other: run away, or stay and take the pain, and have a chance with Stix. Now we're beginning to see the final conflict scene that we hadn't yet outlined. But is one broken promise enough to make him run? Probably not, so we need to find more reason - raise the stakes, increase the tension, create more drama. 

The tension through the script right now appears fairly flat until we reach the climax. But since both characters have differences that can't be easily resolved, they have to clash. As you write, if you follow the character's natural inclinations, the clashes will naturally get more intense. 

Fourth. Through the story the characters have to change. Ralph has to start out denying he has a problem. (He does - he thinks of himself as an honest person and opposite from his father. He will be insulted when Stix tells him he is misleading people about what he can do.) Incidents have to occur to rub his nose in the fact that he does have a problem so that he has to react to it. (Stix does this when she brings in the Tor lead singer and he distances himself from the local band, but more things have to occur. We can see the story needs improved here.) At the climax, there has to be a lot of tension about the problem. Ralph must be denying it at all costs. (He would rather run away than face it.) The same growth has to happen for the character Stix. 

Show The Motivation

Some motivation audiences will accept at face value. A guy is in love with a girl. We understand that situation and know that people in love will tolerate a lot from each other. But if you take a businessman who is so pressed for time that he hasn't time to even see what is happening around him, and you have him suddenly decide to help a poor guy on the street, no one is going to buy that because most people won't help others on the street. That has to be shown. You have to start with a scene two years earlier when he or his brother were the person on the street and someone helped them. 

Many motives are normal typical human motives that everyone has. They don't really need to be shown. Love is an example. Sentiment for a poor orphan girl - that grabs everyone. Caring for a baby. Parents looking out for the welfare of their children. Compassion for someone who has an accident or loses his home.

As your character is changing, it is best to show the motivation. At least show the triggers - those situations to which the character responds. But some motivations are so cerebral that there is no way to show them (or if you did the entire film would be dedicated to explaining a small change). People can change because something makes sense to them, or because they react emotionally. Usually the emotional component is stronger, and creates the change. Show what is creating the emotion. But how would you show a man, who tried to commit suicide, finding a reason to live? If it is a person to live for - OK. But just wanting to live? Or losing the reasons for wanting to die - old wounds healing. Sometimes the only way to show it is to talk about it. This is best handled through an emotional exchange of words coming from a conflict situation. The worst way to show it is to have two characters sit down over coffee and chat about it.

For more information about concepts, see Using Concept To Focus The Story.

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