The Difference Between Character Motivation and Goal In Your Screenplay


These two screenwriting concepts are inter-related by exploring why characters behave the way they do.

MOTIVATION

This draws from a character’s backstory and morality driving their current need to take a course of action. It is a deep-seeded factor in a character’s make up. A character may often not be aware of their behavioral motivation.

Motivation is shaped by a character’s values, upbringing and circumstance. It influences the way they think and limits the types actions they will take.

Motivation is generally static in nature, especially in feature films. Even if a character initially pursues a false goal (driven by outer desire) before pursuing the correct goal (driven by inner need), the overall motivation, or logic driving it,  is fairly constant.

However, in long standing TV series, (or epic feature film) a character may undergo a dramatic awakening in their character arc and their motivation changes completely. This is part of character growth when the main character realizes and accepts their true nature.

Consider Walter White in “Breaking Bad”. His initial motivation for cooking meth was to provide for his family when he died. By the end of the final season, his key motivation was to fuel his ego, which ultimately led to his family rejecting him. This was verbalized during his farewell speech to his wife: “I did it for me”.

GOAL

This refers to a more immediate superficial action or aim to achieve an overall story objective. There can be one major goal to achieve a desired outcome, or a series of steps (mini goals) leading to the main goal. This is an essential component of story logic. The goals can be changeable as long as they serve the overall story objective.

Goals are preceded by motivation. Consider Elle Wood’s goal of winning her boyfriend Warner back. It signifies a superficial intent. Ultimately, Elle’s goal was to learn to believe in her abilities as a lawyer, not to win back the boyfriend who didn’t appreciate her.

Although her goal changed to mirror her growth as a character, her motivation was always the same; to be fulfilled. At first she thought Warner was what she needed, but later realized everything she needs rests inside her.

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