Is it clear to the reader what makes your characters tick?
In my last blog post, I talked about writers needing to have a clear, relatable reason as to why they want to tell a particular story or script. Today, let’s discuss your characters’ why - what makes them tick. In other words, clarifying your characters’ motivation.
Your script might have an amazing plot, a breathtaking setting, and sparkling dialogue. But none of it is going to mean a thing if are your characters' motivations aren’t crystal clear to your audience almost from page one. Most great characters typically operate on two distinct levels of motivation: desires and needs.
Desire vs Need
First, let’s clarify that I realize I didn’t invent this concept. Everyone who talks about stories discusses this idea in a slightly different way. Lindsay Doran talks about characters kissing the girl or saving the world. Positive accomplishment vs positive emotions. (If you’ve never seen her TED talk, check it out.) Other writers talk about motivation in terms of needs vs. wants.
In features, there should be only one desire OR in rare cases, one that leads to a second one. In “Raiders of the Lost Arc” Indy wants the arc, that’s it. (Marion was his need, his positive emotion if you will.) In “The Last Crusade” first he wants to find his father (RIP Sean Connery ) and once he finds him then they both continue with dad’s quest for the Holy Grail. In television, however, it can get quite a bit messier with different characters wanting multiple things, but they are still things you can see, taste, measure, etc.
For example: your protagonist is a down-on-his-luck private investigator chasing a suitcase full of cash. The desire is crystal clear—the money will solve his immediate problems. It's tangible, measurable, and provides a clear motivation for him to make the choices he makes.
On the other hand, their need is intangible. It’s the lesson they need to learn for a more fulfilled, happier life. It's the emotional and thematic backbone that elevates your screenplay from actions characters take to a story that emotionally resonates with the audience.
What’s at the emotional core of your characters? What drives them on a visceral level? Show the audience their fears, desires, and vulnerabilities. This emotional undercurrent gives your characters depth, authenticity and above all, relatability.
Consider the private investigator. Beyond the need for the bag of money, his need might be to understand that true fulfillment comes from connection, not currency. This underlying lesson adds layers to the narrative, transforming it into a journey of self-discovery.
Next week I’ll talk about ways to include both desire and need in your story.
In the meantime, can you define what your main character desires? What do they need?
Do you want practical, actionable advice about your script? I can help! Schedule a call now!