I stumbled across an intriguingly entitled motivational exercise called How to discover your life purpose in about 20 minutes, by someone called Steve Pavlina. A tad ambitious perhaps and a little too Californian for a European like me, but a revealing and worthwhile exercise nonetheless.
Especially for exploring your character’s motivation.
Here’s how it works: You sit down and start answering the question: What is my purpose in life? Just write short, single-sentence answers, one after another, without thinking too much about what you’re writing.
Bear in mind, the term “purpose” here is not intended in a philosophical or theological sense, but rather in a concrete, motivational sense. What is it that drives you? What are your most important values? That kind of purpose.
As the list grows longer and longer (50 - 100 "answers" is quite normal), you find yourself honing in more and more on what really drives you, as opposed to what you think should be driving you. The more emotion you feel for an answer, so goes Steve Pavlina’s reasoning, the closer the answer is to your true purpose in life.
Unless, like me, you’re a completely integrated, fulfilled and grounded individual, the exercise will confront you with incongruity, ambivalence, conflicting desires and unresolved emotional obstacles … in short, all the things that make a fictional character interesting.
So the screenwriter’s version of this exercise is to don your character’s cap and then start answering the question: What is my purpose in life? Keep on writing down whatever answers come to mind until the answers begin resonating emotionally with your image of the character.
That’s when you know you’ve identified one of the character’s core values, something the character will strive to adhere to, whatever happens. And it needn’t be something the character is even consciously aware of. In some genres it’s actually more appropriate that the character is the last to discover what is really driving them.
Once you have this clear sense of what is most important for your character, consciously or otherwise, then comes the fun part: Inventing sadistic ways of frustrating your character. More about that some other time.