In my writing workshops, I always have the class develop a character biography for the protagonist and the antagonist. Here's an example of creating character motivation and back story for them.
In this example, I gave the entire class a husband and wife who are living in a bad relationship and they were to create a story for this couple, including their backstory.
At first they tried to develop a story, but they kept getting stuck. They finally realized it's impossible to create a story until they knew who the main character was and how the story would end. After they had decided whether the main character would be the husband or the wife, they then had to write character biographies for each character to motivate their actions. The students soon learned the importance of a character biography, because they've discovered they can't develop the story until they know their characters.
Let's suppose the husband and wife are having marital problems. The first thing the class must decide is which character to make the main character. Let's suppose they decide to make the woman the main character. By establishing the woman as the main character the class immediately knows the story will be told from her point-of-view. She will be the one to struggle toward a specific goal. And in the end she will be the one who changes and experiences an emotional transformation.
The class decided the woman's emotional pole-to-pole development would be from dependent to independent. This would give the main character an emotional structure which had to be consistent throughout the work.
Now the class had the ending, the main character, and the emotional change. Next, they had to create a goal to give the main character a vehicle to struggle toward.
Since character is story and story is character the class couldn't develop one without developing the other. They couldn't create the story and fit the character into it anymore than they could create a character to fit a plot.
The class soon discovered that the process of writing was to develop motivation for the character by asking the most important question, "WHY?" For every "Why" they asked, they had to find the right answer in order to get the character's actions properly motivated. And if they changed one aspect of the character they had to make changes in all the characters, since each character affects the other.
They also learned that in the same set of circumstances the story could be completely different, depending on the character traits of the main character. For example, if the wife is in her middle 40s and has been married practically all of her adult life, her behavior would be different from a married woman in her late 20s who has her own identity and career apart from her marriage. If each woman discovers her husband is having an affair, their reactions and actions would be based on who they are. The older woman might be afraid to be alone and might forgive him, trading her pride for financial security. The younger woman might leave her husband, since she has her own career and is already independent.
The class decided to make the main character the older woman and have her discover her husband's infidelity in the opening of the story. The next thing they did was start to delve inside the character by asking questions: "What will she do now?" "How do we motivate her to go from dependent to independent during the course of the story?" "Why would she tolerate such outrageous behavior on the part of her husband?" "What kind of woman is she?"
Besides doing an extensive character biography on her, the class also had to discover what her past life experiences were. Where did she come from? Why did she behave the way she did? What was her childhood like? They had to answer all these questions. Knowing them would give the main character a back story or past to draw from.
After a lot of discussion, they decided she had to be very dependent upon her husband because she got married right after high school. She grew up in the 1950s when a woman's acculturation was to be a wife and mother. Since she has been busy with raising their three children, she and her husband have grown apart. He has been developing his professional career as a business executive and spending most of his time away from home.
Her purpose in life was her home and children. Now, the children are grown and the last one has just left home for college. In fact, she was just returning from taking her child to his new university, when she came home and found her husband with another woman. Of course, she is devastated, because she loves her husband and desperately wants the marriage to work. He is all she has ever known and up until this moment he's all she ever wanted.
Her husband makes some feeble excuse and promises her it will never happen again. He tells her it was just one of those foolish things that sometimes happen to executives and their young, attractive co-workers, but it doesn't mean a thing. The wife wants to believe him and finally forgives him. But underneath, deep in her subconscious, something begins to gnaw at her. The tinge of doubt. Somewhere in her secret heart of hearts she doesn't believe her husband. Although it is still not conscious, she gets a slight awareness that things haven't been right in her marriage for a long time. But consciously she tells herself things will work out.
The two maintain the appearance of a happy marriage on the outside, but inside, our main character is slowly beginning to change. She slowly begins to realize what her marriage is really like, without having the children at home to act as a buffer, between her and her husband.
On the surface she does everything to make the marriage pleasant. But underneath the surface she's been burned, and the pain is changing her. She slowly takes small steps to change her life. She begins by taking an art class at a community college. She has always been artistically inclined, decorating her home and her husband's office. She was always the parent who created the art posters for her children's classes at school.
At first she is nervous about going back to school after all these years. But she soon discovers her artistic talent is admired and respected by her teacher, a young man in his early 30s. She is flattered. It's been a long time since she has done something for herself. With her teacher's encouragement, she eventually gets enough confidence to matriculate to get her fine-arts degree.
Her husband objects. Being a full-time student will take her away from her homemaking duties. But there is a change in our main character. She doesn't listen to her husband! For the first time in years she is feeling some self-worth and says she's going to get her degree. She is scared, but she feels a new sense of self-respect. She begins to develop an idea of who she is, apart from her role of wife and mother. Through hard work she soon discovers she is not only talented, but also intelligent.
She struggles with her classes and art projects and she receives an award in the college art show. She soon gets requests for her art and even sells a few of her paintings. Her first teacher, the young man who encouraged her, and she have become very close. He would like an intimate relationship with her, but she realizes she doesn't want to go from one man to another—that is not the answer.
In the end she discovers she wants to make it on her own, because she is no longer the dependent, desperate woman she was in the beginning. (The beginning relates to the end.) In the climactic scene she tells her husband, to his dismay, she no longer wants to be married to him and asks him for a divorce.
Our main character's transformation arc developed from dependent to independent. Her discovery or change in the climax is that she realizes she doesn't need to live through a man. She won't compromise herself anymore just to stay married. In the end we have a changed woman who has struggled for and finally attained, self-respect and a sense of independence. At least in the end she is going to try to make it on her own, which is something she wouldn't even try in the beginning of the story.
This class exercise always proves invaluable to the students. Through doing this exercise they begin to learn the process of character development and motivation. Try doing this exercise for your own story. Work with your characters and develop the necessary past and present life history for them. Build a solid foundation for your characters, so they won't fall apart and collapse halfway through your work. You'll discover that your screenplay will intrigue your audience, when you make your characters realistic human beings.
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