In almost every story, every main character is dealing with present problems as a way to overcome problems from the past. Using “Star Wars” as an example:
- Luke is bored on his uncle’s farm and wants to have an adventure
- Obi-wan is sorry for training Darth Vader
- Hans is in trouble with Jabba the Hutt as a smuggler
So each main character is not only trying to solve a current problem, but their motivation is often rooted in problems from the past. By solving their current problems, these main characters often also solve problems from their past.
Many stories start out by revealing the motivation of the hero right near the beginning. In the movie “Cliffhanger,” Sylvester Stallone plays an expert mountain climber who fails to save a woman who falls to her death. Now for the rest of the movie, he’s trying to redeem himself for failing to save this woman. So the main character is often motivated by the past to solve a problem in the present.
In “Aliens”, Sigourney Weaver’s character is trying to protect a little girl who has managed to survive on her own. Although it’s not blatantly obvious in the movie, in the screenplay part of her motivation was that once she went into suspended hibernation at the end of the original “Alien” movie, she was left there for decades and thus missed watching her own daughter grow up. By the time Sigourney Weaver’s character wakes up from suspended hibernation, her daughter has long since been dead. Thus her motivation is now strong to protect the little girl because it’s almost as if she’s protecting her own daughter in a way as well, especially because she never got to see her daughter grow up.
Even if the audience doesn’t know the full motivation or past of a character, it can help the writer sharpen the emotional impact of a story. Think of a past mistake or problem the main characters in your story might have that can motivate them to fix that problem from the past by solving the current problem in the story. This is just one way to create a deeper story because now it’s not just about problems we see in the story but also about problems from the past that we don’t know about until this information is gradually leaked out over time.