Our Masterpieces...Err, Our Novels

Monday, September 19, 2011

Character Motivation w/ Alexander Skarsgard!

Writing Song of the Day: "Motivation" by Sum 41

So recently, Quita and I went to go see Straw Dogs. Now, were we expecting Oscar worthy performances and writing? No. But we expected to be more than a little creeped out, especially since the movie trailers promised this would be a story about a loving couple being terrorized by a pack of rednecks. However, our reaction both during and after the movie was more like this:

You see, we spent pretty much the whole time asking: "Why did she do that?" "Why did he do that?" "Why did they do that?" "Why didn't we see Contagion instead?"

Every question (aside from the last one) had something to do with character motivation. Quita and I were clueless about what these characters wanted, and why they reacted the way that they did. On the plus side, it helped us reflect on the characterization in our own writing. This movie proved to us that CHARACTER MOTIVATION is crucial in making your story believable...and if you want yours to shine, here's what you need to do:

1. Ask yourself what does your character want. Well, duh. But this does not always have to happen in your first draft. The first draft is for you to figure out everything--almost like a getting to know you phase with your characters. The revision process is when you really understand your characters. So help us, the readers, understand them through their thoughts, their dialogue, and their actions.

2. What is standing in your character's way? At some point in the movie, something really awful happens to the Kate Bosworth character--and then she makes a decision that completely baffled Quita and me. We didn't understand her obstacle because...well, her character was pretty muddled and lame. So once you've established what your characters want on the page, the obstacle should be just as clear. But it should also make sense. If your character has a terrifying fear of cats, don't make him just enter a room with a bunch of strays to create an obstacle. Why does he need to be in that room?

3. What would your character sacrifice to get what he wants? If you've seen the previews to Straw Dogs, you can safely assume that there is a LOT of sacrificing going on. But Quita and I still didn't get it. Again, this is because we were clueless about ANY of the characters' motivations. So, if tips #1 and #2 were done in a clear, yet creative, way--we're going to understand why your character sacrifices his safety and freedom to run his truck through a farmhouse (this may or may not have happened in Straw Dogs).

Quita and I aren't fans of being spoon fed information in stories, but we have to understand the point in order to enjoy it. Oh, and since I did mention Mr. Skarsgard in the title, I only think it's fair to include a small sample of him in the movie:

I've never been of fan of Eric from True Blood, but I'm telling you that scene had some serious eye candy.

Now where was I?? Oh yes--motivation! What are your thoughts on it, lovelies?


Meredith said...

Totally. There is nothing that takes me out of a book or movie faster than characters making bafflingly dumb choices. I used to be a 'plot first, characters maybe eventually' kind of girl, but I've learned my lesson. Character is everything.

Amparo Ortiz said...

Without character motivation, I get bored. I need to understand what's going through their minds, and understand why they want the things they want.



Jamie Manning said...

Excellent points, ladies! Character motivation is a most important (and most difficult) necessity to every story told...thanks for reminding us!

And after seeing this picture, how can you NOT be a fan of Eric?! *hothothothothot*

KO: The Insect Collector said...

yowza- smokin' photo!
Okay, what was I going to say?

I read about the older version of this film online last week b/c the previews were freaking me out. (I'm curious and also a total wuss, so I read the wikipedia pages of horror films. Lame.) Anyway- it sounds like the original also had some issues with motivation. Thanks for seeing this so I don't have to. :0)

Stephsco said...

I agree about character motivation. Even if a character does something dumb or terrible, if you don't see them wrestle with it in some way, or see some kind of resolution to why they did it, yeah it's infuriating. Some movies have this way of driving the story with plot plot plot, but don't take time to consider each character and whether they would do something. I think it's a disconnect btwn the writer and director/producer who are often cutting or reshooting scenes.

Anonymous said...

Seeing so many interviews with Alexander Skarsgard before I actually saw the movie helped me to understand it. Plus, I'm originally from the deep south. ;)

*Spoilers for the movie*

I thought that Amy/Kate flashed the men to 1. Get even with her husband for his insensitive remarks (I think most husbands wouldn't want their wives flashing men) and 2. Get even with the rednecks who had been ogling her by teasing them.

I thought this provoked Charlie/Alexander because he fully understood her second point. Plus, he was already very jealous of her husband and very pissed off that they would come back and think that they are too good for everyone. In addition, like the other men on the roof, he took it as an invitation for sex.

Why did Charlie rape Amy. He thought she wanted him as much as he wanted her. But, he's also got a lot of other really dark things going on in his mind.

Why did Charlie let the second man rape Amy? Because she rejected him by making it clear that she did not consent to sex. He was saying, "You lost my protection because you won't be mine." I think watching her get raped was as damaging to him as it was to her.

Why didn't Amy tell her husband about the rape? Because she thought that he would blame her -that he'd think she asked for it.

Why did Amy go to the football game? Again, I think she wanted to punish her husband for making her stay in the town, she wanted to fit in with the town and get their protection, she wanted to put an end to the anger generated by their "too good to participate" attitude and also, because she wanted to stand up to the rednecks, not be made a coward hiding.

When the crew returned to the house to retrieve the mentally handicapped guy, they were drunk and fired up by the notion that they were saving the coach's daughter. Charlie, however, jumped on board because he was beginning to come unwound and saw an opportunity to kick James Marsden's @ss! Once the sheriff was shot, Charlie completed his unravel and 1. didn't want to give up the @ss kicking opportunity (made harder to give up because of James' decision to play taunting music right at the crucial moment) and 2. didn't want James M. to live as a witness. I agree this is a weak point in the plot. But at least they did provide some explanation (James Marsten: "We're witnesses to what happened, Amy! If they get through that door, we're dead.")

Why did Charlie not let the redneck rape Amy again? Because he was claiming her as his (what would have happened if Amy would have rejected Charlie again, who knows?). Both men considered James to be a dead man walking and they were fighting over the bone, Amy.

That's my take on the movie.

Jennifer Hillier said...

Alexander is dreamy... I'd see the movie for that reason alone!

Very good points about characters. If we can't answer these questions, our characters will be very flat and shallow.

Marquita Hockaday said...

Yay, we're so glad that you all got some benefit out of the torture we experienced from watching Straw Dogs.

@Anonymous...thanks for your take on the film. I guess we can see some of those points you made as being valid, but overall we just don't think there was ENOUGH motivation to make us FEEL anything for these characters. Therefore we just didn't care enough to come to those conclusions.

Racquel Henry said...

First let me say that I agree. If you're completely lost and can't figure out what the character wants...that's a problem. Two, I was just talking with my sorority sister today about how cute Mr. Skarsgard is. :)

Marie Rearden said...

Oh, good! Glad it wasn't just me asking why the Kate Bosworth character did ANY of the things she did. *sigh* Much love to all 6'4" of Mr. Skarsgard, though. ;)
Nice post!
Marie at the Cheetah

Jessica Love said...

This movie is SO not a Jess movie. I didn't realize until I saw the preview that one of my ridiculously major fears is irrational bullies in groups with weapons. :-\ And then after reading Anon's spoilers...yeah, not my thing.

Anyway, you're so right about character motivation!