Watch most movies and you’ll often miss the hero’s motivation. Yet it’s clear right from the start. Most people think “Independence Day” is about the human race fighting back against aliens, but that’s not the real story. If you watch an early scene of “Independence Day,” you’ll find that the president (the hero) is being attacked by his critics as too weak and unfit for the job. Thus the hero’s motivation is to prove himself fit and strong enough to be president, and he achieves this goal by helping blow up the alien spaceship after the shields get knocked down.
Pick another movie like “Aliens” and you might think it’s nothing more than Ripley (the hero) fighting a bunch of aliens with the help of space marines and advanced weaponry. Yet the real story is that Ripley has been in suspended animation for so long that she never got to see her daughter grow up. Now her daughter’s dead.
Thus when Ripley finds the little girl surviving alone in an alien-infested colony, Ripley’s motivation is to protect this girl because it’s like protecting the daughter she never got to meet.
In “Terminator 2,” the story might seem to be about a terminator fighting a more advanced liquid metal terminator to save the world. However, the real goal is for the hero (the good terminator) to learn that killing is wrong.
When you look at “Independence Day,” “Aliens,” and “Terminator 2,” your an early miss the real story hidden underneath the action. The action serves only to give the hero a path to achieving the motivation.
Thus every good hero has an inner motivation and an external motivation. The inner motivation is something that happened in the past.
In “Independence Day,” this past occurs when critics constantly attack the president for not being strong and fit to be president.
In “Aliens,” this past occurs when Ripley learns she’s been asleep for so long that she never got to see her daughter.
In “Terminator 2,” this past occurs when the hero (the good Terminator) has been programmed to kill and arrives on Earth thinking that’s his sole purpose in life.
Your hero needs inner motivation from the past. Then to achieve this inner motivation, your hero needs outer motivation in the present.
The biggest mistakes screenwriters make is they omit the past from the hero’s background. Without a past, you have no inner motivation.
So make sure your hero has an inner motivation (from the past) and an outer motivation to achieve this inner motivation goal. That’s the key to writing a complete and well-rounded story.