What Motivates the Hero?

We can only care about action when we know and care about what the hero wants. However, what makes us care even more is when we know why hero wants to achieve a particular emotional goal. The reason driving the hero to achieve an emotional dream always originates in the past.

That past can be seen or unseen. When the past is seen, then we as the audience share in the immediate impact of that trauma. In “Cliffhanger,” the hero fails to save a woman from falling to her death. Now he’s driven to avoid letting an innocent person die again. 

In “A Quiet Place,” a little girl accidentally gets her little brother killed by a monster. That traumatizes the entire family so now we can see exactly what motivates all the characters until they resolve this issue in the end.

When we can see and experience the past event that traumatizes the hero, the story will suddenly fast forward from that past but we’ll be emotionally invested in the hero’s ultimate redemption. However in many cases, the past traumatic event is hidden. In “Die Hard,” we gradually learn that the hero wants to get back with his wife. Only near the end does the hero finally acknowledge that he was to blame for breaking up with his wife in the first place.

In “WALL-E,” we never witness the gradual demise of the Earth as the hero finds himself alone, but we do see him rolling past all the broken down robots and see how lonely he is. Now we can understand why he wants to find love because he’s been alone for so long.

The past must haunt the hero in the present. This haunted past motivates the hero to pursue an emotional dream. Only by achieving this emotional dream can the hero finally redeem him or herself from the problem. Once we know how the haunted past hurt the hero, we can understand why the hero wants to achieve an emotional dream. 

Whether we witness the haunted past in the beginning or get hints of it throughout the story, we must experience what the hero feels. In “WALL-E,” we see WALL-E holding his own hands as he watches an old movie of a couple holding hands. That lets us see what WALL-E wants and why as he sits alone in front of a TV.

In “Back to the Future,” we see Marty struggling with living in a family of losers where his own father is bullied. then we see Marty express his own doubts to his girlfriend about how good he is as a musician. By seeing the hero’s frustration and pain, we’re now emotionally invested in the hero achieving his or her emotional dream.

The haunted past must traumatize the hero in the past (either seen or unseen) and it must constantly make the hero miserable in the present. When we know that both the past and the present are making the hero miserable, we can truly understand the hero’s need to achieve the emotional dream.

You must identify the hero’s haunted past. Without a haunted past to motivate your hero, your story will be much weaker. Once you create a haunted past for your hero, then we can understand the hero’s motivation to redeem him or herself. When we know the hero’s motivation, we truly know why any action that threatens the hero or a loved one really matters after all. Once we see visual, physical action as a threat to the hero’s emotional dream, then that visual, physical action takes on a whole new meaning beyond just more explosions, special effects, or gunfire. 

Visual, physical action must make us care about the hero. If the action doesn’t make us care, then we won’t care either. When visual, physical action threatens the hero’s pursuit of an emotional dream, then we care and the story becomes much stronger emotionally as a result.

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