Character Motivation Defined

Characters are more than the labels they are so easily defined with.

As explained in the previous article introducing the Dramatica Archetypes, each character is defined by their function within the main story line. Protagonists pursue goals while Guardians aid the effort towards that goal. While these quick definitions make it easy to understand their purpose in a story, they fall short of actually providing an author with the means to use these characters in a story.

To find those tools within the archetypes, they first must be broken down into a finer resolution.

The Elements of Character

If you want to know what motivates your character, you must move beyond the labels of Protagonist and Antagonist and look at the elements that created that label in the first place. Looking this closely at a character, we can see that there are motivations that lead to action and motivations that lead to decision making. An archetype happens when just the right action element is matched up with just the right decision element. Put the two together in the same character and the labels we’ve grown so familiar with will “ring out” as if striking the right harmonic chord.

I focus my attention on defining the elements that work well together in the second part of my presentation on Archetypal Characters.

So a Protagonist is driven to Pursue a goal (their Action element) while at the same time possessing the motivation to Consider (their Decision element) the pros and cons of attempting that goal. The Antagonist is driven to Prevent that goal and to force the characters in the story to Reconsider whether or not they should take action in the first place. Match the right Action element with the right Decision element and you get an Archetypal Character. While there may indeed be some cultural significance to these characters (as witnessed by Jung/Campbell/Vogler), their real power lies in their objective reality.

At first glance, it may be difficult to decipher the difference between Consider and Reconsider. The former describes a character who weighs their options, makes a decision and moves on. The latter describes a character who has already made a decision, but now finds themselves debating whether they made the right decision or not. It’s difficult to make sense of at first, but once you see it at work, over time it will start to become apparent (I promise).

In addition, it’s important to note that these elements do not necessarily have to be “within” the character themselves, they can be attributed to or seen as properties of that character by others within the story. The Antagonist represents the motivation to Reconsider, whether they are driven to do it themselves or whether they motivate others to Reconsider. Regardless of how it is exposed within a story, all that matters is that they represent that part of the story’s larger argument.

Character Archetypes in Star Wars

You’ll find examples of each Archetype broken down by their motivation elements at the end of this article.

You can see how the murder of Luke’s aunt and uncle is really an attempt by the Empire to get the Rebels to Reconsider their rebellious efforts. It’s not so much that Mr. Tarkin is pacing back and forth deliberating whether or not he made the right choice as it is that he and his compatriots represent the motivation to Reconsider. Lucky for the galaxy, Luke decided to stick with his original Consideration.

Now What?

But Archetypal Characters are boring, right? For the most part, I agree. Sure, maybe one or two within a story is OK, but all eight? Probably not a good idea nowadays (unless you’re purposely trying to create a throwback to 20th century fiction). The trick is to realize that you don’t have to match up the right Action element with the right Decision element. You can mix and match to your heart’s desire. In other words, you can let your creativity take over.

Woody Harrelson’s character in Zombieland, Tallahassee, is a unique mix of elements from the Guardian Archetype and the Contagonist Archetype. As Guardian to Jesse Einsenberg and the girls, Tallahassee represents the drive to Help the group reach the amusement park. But it would be quite a stretch to say that he also represented the other Guardian element, Conscience, in the story. If anything, he is motivated by Temptation. You don’t have to look much further than his addiction to Hostess Sno Balls for proof of that. This is what makes his character so unique and interesting. The fact that he is motivated by conflicting elements creates an interestingness factor to him that Ben Kenobi can’t quite live up to.

You can even combine Archetypal Characters as they did in the original Toy Story. Woody is both the Protagonist and Reason character of the story. As Protagonist, he Pursues the goal of reuniting with Andy while also Considering the pros and cons of taking Buzz back with him. As Reason, he applies Logic (as in the opening sequence when all the other toys are freaking out during Andy’s birthday party) while at the same time maintaining Control over the group and the situation.

To Creativity and Beyond

This understanding of Character Archetypes is precisely what makes the Dramatica theory of story superior to all previous understandings of story. As opposed to the Campbell/Hero’s journey paradigm, the Dramatica Archetypes are seen as stepping stones towards more complex storytelling. While you can use them as is, their real power lies in their ability to easily communicate a real understanding of character motivation. In fact, once you understand the elements that make up an Archetypal Character, the only limit to character development is your own imagination.

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