Character Motivation: How to flesh out a character by writing less!

character motivation, screenwriting.

Fleshing out characters can ruin your script. Focus instead on character motivation.

I get road rage (road rage!) when I hear anyone tell a writer that such-and-such character needs to be “fleshed out”. 

This well-intended comment never helps writers arrive at a better scripts. If anything, this comment leads writers to overstuff their scripts with meaningless details that bog down the story and water the character down.

Let’s not drive our hapless writers into adding boring nonsense to their scripts, getting buried even deeper in self-doubts about their talent, and lead them into a three-year dry spell of existential angst about whether they’re a real writer.

Don’t ruin your own script by “fleshing out a character”. When it comes to screenplays, less is almost always more.

When people say that a character isn’t fleshed out, what they actually mean to say is that they’re not clear about what the character wants. That’s ALL.

When you’re super clear about what your character wants, you can cut out all the extraneous stuff and flesh out your character with a single sentence and two lines of dialogue – if that.

Relying on character Motivation, an example:

INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY

Jackie, sitting at a corner table overlooking the rainy city, surveys the busy but rustic room of the coffee shop. She watches people come and go, shaking off their umbrellas as they enter. She smiles, as only someone who enjoys the city bustle would. Jackie takes out a knitting kit and proceeds to work on a half-made turquoise scarf. Ah… that is the life.

Among the coffee shop patrons, Jackie notices Rodeo sitting at another table. Rodeo delicately sips a cup of hot tea while Jackie focuses on her needle and yarn, glancing occasionally.

MUSIC fills the air. Rodeo, cold, takes a simple hoodie out of a backpack and wears it. Jackie watches as she sways absentmindedly to the music that envelops her. Inhaling the aroma of her coffee cup, Jackie notices Rodeo take out a book and flip through its pages. Yes. That is indeed the life.

…Are you asleep yet? I am.

Let’s “flesh out these characters” by focusing on character motivation:

INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY

Jackie pretends to focus on a hot cup of coffee in a bustling coffee shop, as she watches Rodeo from across the room. As soon as she catches his eyes, she smiles and nods.

Rodeo hurries to look away and pulls out a book, pretending not to notice Jackie.

End scene.

Easier to read? More interesting? Do you know more about these character? Do you see how less is more?

Yes, yes, and yes. We know much more about these characters in the second version because they want something. Jackie wants something with Rodeo – we don’t know what yet and that’s ok. We assume as a reader that we’ll get to find out. And Rodeo is clearly wanting to avoid whatever that is.

Let’s dive into another example. But first I want to invite you to my hour-long training on character development, which I offer my members.

Membership is free and so is this training!

Character motivation: my own script


I was once rewriting a scene in one of my scripts that felt meh… While I knew what my main character wanted, the supporting character felt like a cliche.

Two-dimensional cardboard characters aren’t the result of you being a bad writer. They’re the result of not being clear yet on your character’s motivation.

I have nothing against cardboard characters; they’re often a necessary place holder so you can get to the end of a draft.

In this instance, my main character, Emmett, a man in his 60’s, found his wife packing to leave. In this particular scene, he calls his boss for a sick day so he can deal with his wife. The boss felt like a cliché “mean boss” and the scene, as a result, was boring and contrived.

So I did a little freewrite to brainstorm ideas what this supporting character, the boss, actually wants. Why would he give Emmett a hard time about taking the day off?

I decided that this boss is a much younger guy who took over the store from his dad, and that this young guy worries that Emmett and the other veteran employees who work there aren’t taking him seriously because he’s young. He wants to make it clear to Emmett and everyone working there that he’s not the “substitute teacher” there to be taken advantage of. He must command respect!

Once I came up with the boss’s motivation, I rewrote the scene from scratch and BOOM! It. came. to. life.

My hapless main character was getting grilled and humiliated in the worst way; every time people watch this scene they writhe with delight and discomfort.

Don’t flesh out a character by stuffing your script with endless details that don’t actually matter. Clarify what your character actually wants and then let nature take its course.

Happy writing, Ela

Join my free membership to receive courtesy trainings for screenwriters and filmmakers.

9 thoughts on “Character Motivation: How to flesh out a character by writing less!”

  1. Great post. You make it simple and clear.
    But you mention an invitation to watch an hour long training on character development. I don’t see a link? What am I missing? //Michi

    Reply
    • hi Michi, thanks for your interest! If you’ve joined my email list, I’ll be sending an invite for this training in the next couple of weeks. (Sorry for the delay, it’s coming shortly!) If you’ve not joined my list, use the button here to request membership, and I’ll invite you to this training the second it’s ready! 🙂 Thanks again.

      Reply

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