So, I wanted to talk about why things get started for a bit.
Motives are my character’s core reason for doing something. They’re the answer to the question “why is this story happening?” I’ve mentioned once or thrice before the issues that crop up when my character isn’t so much motivated as dragged along into a story.
It’s not unusual to have motives shift a bit in a book, but in shorter formats (screenplays or short stories) they tend to be pretty focused. Sometimes I’m hiding a character’s motives from my audience, but they still need to be there. As the writer, I need to know why someone’s doing something. Because my motives are going to a key when it comes to what kind of story I’m telling.
For example, it’s tough to do a revenge thriller when my heroine’s goals are world peace. Try to figure out a way that could work. It's tough to solve a mystery when my protagonist's big goal is to go the prom with the quarterback. Likewise, if the only reason I’m fighting the dark Uberlord who’s enslaved New York is to save my niece... that’s not exactly heroic. When I’m fighting for me—my family, my purposes, my revenge—that’s just personal.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to superheroes.
I’ve blathered on about superheroes a few times, and one of the major stumbling points I see a lot is when someone with a non-heroic motivation is crammed into the superhero genre. It creates a stumbling block. One phrase you may have heard before is “doing the right thing for the wrong reasons,” and I think this is what confuses people. The end result is the same, even though we took two very different paths to get there... so the two paths must be the same, right?
Hey, look—here’s an example.
Years ago I worked on a pretty awful superhero show. This was before anyone believed you could do costumes without camp, and it hit a lot of stumbles. The biggest ongoing one was the main character’s motive for putting on this super-powered suit and fighting crime.
Well, actually, that was part of it right there. He didn’t fight crime. Most of the time he just settled scores. He, his friends, or his family would get drawn into some struggle and he’d put on the suit to get them out. And... that was kind of it. Once or thrice someone would show up specifically to challenge him and he went out to fight them. Hell, one time the suit’s creator had to actually talk him out of using the suit to get even with someone who’d shoved him in a club.
No, dead serious on that. One episode started with the hero being kind of arrogant, getting pushed aside, and then deciding to use a state-of-the-art weapons system to show that other guy who’s boss...
Like I said, it was a pretty awful show.
But you should be able to see the problem here. No matter how often they tried to insist this guy was a hero, even with the times he stopped an actual super-villain or monster, his motives were always personal. Bordering on selfish, really. He wasn’t heroic because his motives weren’t heroic. He cared about himself, his circle of friends... and that was pretty much it. No dealing with muggers, corner drug dealers, any of that.
To be clear, there's nothing wrong with personal goals, but I need to be clear how this paints my character in the bigger scheme of things. Yeah, going up against a street gang is great, but if the only reason I’m doing it is to protect my friends and family... this isn’t about heroism. It’s just personal. When Bryan Mills (Taken) goes up against European gangs and white slavers and crushes a lot of their organization, he’s not doing it to make the world a better place. He’s also not trying to help the hundreds of other families these people have hurt. He’s just doing it to get his daughter back. That’s it. So if I'm doing this and trying to make him look like some great heroic figure for doing it... my story's probably going to stumble.
Another important point. With a lot of these personal motives, they have to end. Killing the gang member who killed my sister—that’s vengeance. We get it. Killing some random guy from another gang because he dresses kinda like the guy who killed my sister... well, that sounds a bit wrong, doesn’t it? If Mills just kept killing various European gangsters long after his daughter was safe at home... well, this is leaning into serial killer territory now.
Heck, even trying to recreate those personal circumstances seems weird. The Taken movies got progressively more convoluted as they kept coming up with reasons for Mills to use his particular set of skills. The old Deathwish films just devolved into unintentional comedy, they were so ridiculous. Stretching out this kind of personal motive either becomes laughable or disturbing. Or both.
Y’see Timmy, it’s really hard to have someone be a hero, in that larger sense, if they’re doing things for personal reasons. They can be the hero of my story, sure, but not a hero in the “heroism” sense. One of the reasons Wonder Woman was such a standout superhero movie is because from the beginning of the story she was 100% doing this for a greater cause. She was going to head out into the world so she could find (and kill) Ares, thus ending WWI and saving millions of lives. Her mother didn’t want her to go. Steve didn’t want her to go. Honestly, it’s not even like she wants to leave her home behind. But she sees it as her responsibility to do this, to go out and save total strangers from this faceless threat.
That’s pretty much what being a hero is.
Next time, it’s contest season, so I wanted to toss out a quick screenwriting tip.
Until then, go write.