Thor, Iron Man, and Character Motivation

thor v iron manThere’s a fanboy in me. Please hold your judgment until the end of the post.

You see the Avengers? Of course, you and the rest of America?

But have you seen it twice? Yes? You and the rest of the America.

There’s a lot I could say about the film, but what I want to call attention to now is when

*SPOILER ALERT*

Thor steals Loki from the Avengers. What follows is an all out brawl between Thor and Iron Man using very fancy, sophisticated ways of saying, “Don’t steal what I’ve stolen.”

We can learn two things from this. First, good dialog is people telling each other “no” in interesting ways. This creates conflict and can ratchet up the tension.

The second point is this: Even though they eventually end up on the same side, they’re not when they first meet. They have their own motivations.

Quite often, as writers, we fall prey to the beginner’s writer’s trap of giving our characters the motivation of the author. Simply put, our characters behave and speak in such a way as to further the plot which we, the writer, want it to go. We don’t allow them to have their own motivations.

Example: Joss Whedon wants Thor and Iron Man on the same team. So Thor steals Loki and says, “He’s my brother. This is family business.” Iron Man says, “Actually, we just arrested him. He killed a few dozen people.” Thor says, “I understand your point. By all means, take him, and allow him to face your justice.”

Would this work? Yes. Would it be epic? No. It removes the conflict, and thereby the reason to have two amazing superheroes unleashing on each other.  More heinous, it would strip Thor of his true motivation—returning Loki to Asgard for the sake of justice and love.

When creating your characters, resist the urge to start with a list of characteristics. Instead, focus on what they truly want. Once you’ve identified that, put something between them and the object of their desire (let’s say Iron Man). Remember, whatever stands between them must have an organic (as opposed to contrived) reason for being there.

Think of your character’s motivation. Ask yourself this: did you push that motivation on them? What would your character say is their one desire? Allow their answer to surprise you. When you do this,  you create a surprising, organic, memorable character.

3 Comments on Thor, Iron Man, and Character Motivation

  1. Interesting observation, and spot on. The conflict b/t those two WAS epic…”He really likes his hammer.” I like the idea of letting the character determine his/her motivation, w/out us pushing our own motives. I think most authors would agree–we love it when a character surprises us.

  2. I actually haven’t seen “The Avengers”. So your reference to it doesn’t really mean a lot to me, but that’s not the point.
    The point is that character motivations differ and that’s what makes the story work. Your protagonist will clearly have a conflict of interests with the antagonist. They don’t necessarily need to want different things though. After all, there’s got to be a dozen contrived little teen dramas about two different girls wanting the same thing–to be prom queen/date that hot guy/to rule the school/be head cheerleader/etc.
    However, their sole motivation can’t all be directed for the convenience of the plot. Even if two characters have the same goal, they can be pursuing it for different reasons.
    For example, let’s say we have our two main characters who are chasing a dangerous killer. Jim might be after the killer to clear his name because the only evidence points to him as the baddie, though Jim was really on vacation when the killings took place. By contrast, Liz wants to find the killer because of the million dollars that will be forked over to anyone who can bring the murderer in. Though they have the same goal, their reasons for doing so couldn’t be more different–honor and greed.
    Write well, write often.

  3. Dude, love the post. I’ve read a few things here and there about completely writing an entire back story for each of the main characters in a story. This seems like a lot of work, but maybe worth it if the desire and ambition from each character can naturally evolve? Thoughts?

    I’m working on a time travel adventure screenplay set in the present. The plot completely laid out. It’s pretty sick. :p Although, after reading this I feel that I am constraining the characters to what I feel they should do so they fulfill my plot requirements. I feel this is going to leave them stale and flat? I don’t want this, obviously. The character of each individual person is what drives the plot. It’s their ambitions, feelings, beliefs, and desires that move the story to where it should go. Right? So how do I take the kick butt plot that I have right now, and naturally allow the characters to follow that story line?

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