Character motivation is a huge element of any story. In order for an audience to properly relate to a character and understand them, they must know why a character does what they do. What made them this way? How do they see the world? What do they want out of it and how are they setting out to achieve it?
These are questions that I wouldn’t have thought of a couple of days ago. It was something that just didn’t occur to me. Why should I think about a character’s worldview if it isn’t spelled out to me in clunky exposition or unsubtle implication? I know Rorschach’s black-and-white worldview because it was fed to me by a review or a quick scroll down on Watchmen’s TV Tropes page. I wasn’t actively wondering about what motivates a character to do what they ultimately end up doing.
This mindset changed when I was re-watching Edgar Wright’s The World’s End on DVD. I was at the emotional climax of the film- when jerkass manchild Gary King has reached the titular pub to complete the epic pub crawl when the more responsible Andy Knightley knocks the pint out of his hand and the two get into a fist fight. The reason for this is that Gary is still adamant on finishing the crawl even though the town is being attacked by an army of deadly alien robots. As I sat there, watching Gary desperately reach for the beer tap as Andy was holding him back, I suddenly realised what this character wanted from the world and the true tragedy of the film.
The way Gary sees it, the world owes him. The world owes him the ‘good times’ from when he was 18, drinking with his mates on a legendary pub crawl. He thinks that the notion of ‘growing up’ is a complete farce- he hates that in this world, when you get older you are expected to settle down and become more ‘responsible’, a word that, to Gary, means that you must become a stoic golem and work yourself to death in an office job. At heart, Gary just wants to have a good time and party with his friends. All he wants is to have fun. However, the world that Gary lives in does not allow for what Gary wants- it is seen as completely normal for your friends to drift away, to have dreams that you never got to realise, to have to spend most of your time miserable so you can spend a few hours every week feeling happy. That is not Gary’s idea of a good time. It is when Gary realises that the world cannot and will not give him what he wants as a human being that he attempts to take his own life, as revealed (but not explicitly stated) near the film’s end. Gary does not fit in this world. He is incompatible.
And it is when this was understood, when I saw that one frame of desperation in Simon Pegg’s face, that I felt I truly knew Gary King, and could explain why he takes every action he does. He makes his friends go on the golden mile with him because he wants to defy the world- he wants to have one last night of fun, and the best way he can think to do this is to re-create the pub crawl from when he was 18 that he never got to finish. He thinks that if he re-creates the last night that made him happy (and the only time he remembers being happy) and conquers the mile, his life will finally be fulfilled and he’ll prove that he can overcome the stigmas of being an adult. This also explains why Gary is so adamant on getting to The World’s End even when alien robots are attacking them- this is a battle, and if he doesn’t get that last pint then he will have lost, and the world will have proven to him that he doesn’t belong, that his way of life doesn’t fit and that he will never be truly happy. To Gary, this is more than a pub crawl. To Gary, this is the night that will either vindicate or condemn him. And that is why he is so desperate for that pint at the end of the film to the point where he will fight his best friend for it. That is also why he is in the clothes he wore as a teenager and doesn’t really care about what is happening around him- he has accepted that he may commit suicide at the end of the night, should he lose that last pint and realise that the world will never let him have a good time.
This got me thinking about other movies. It made me realise that a lot of other mainstream movies have protagonists that lack clear personal motivation for the actions they take in the film. An immediate and obvious example of this would be James Bond. James Bond is never given a personal reason to stop the villains other than that he has been told to by M and that, obviously, what they are doing is awful and will negatively affect the world. But we never see Bond’s worldview- what does he think about it? What drives him to persevere through everything other than the fact that he needs to be delivered to the next action setpiece? Bond, as a character, is quite flat. He likes women, he likes cars, and he likes shooting people. He also has a general sense as to what is right and what is wrong. The most complex part of his character is the fact that he is sometimes too reckless and arrogant, but his arrogance and recklessness always ends up having no effect on the film other than a small telling-off from his superiors. He always ends up being in the right. There is no real motivation given as to why Bond would go through everything he ends up going through. Obviously, not every little thing about a character needs to be over-explained to death, but it is somewhat troubling that I know way more about Gary King in 90 minutes than I know about 007 in 24 movies.
And this problem of character motivation is rife in modern cinema. I could perhaps write one sentence on why Optimus Prime decides to save humanity every Transformers film. I couldn’t tell you why Jyn Erso suddenly decides to head the rebellion’s mission to retrieve the Death Star plans. A lot of films do establish motivation for their protagonist, but most of it has nowhere near as much depth as the character of Gary King. Usually it’s something like ‘that guy killed my family’ or ‘I want that prize’. These protagonists leave much to be desired- we only know them in relation to what they do in the movie. We don’t feel a connection to these characters. However, The World’s End manages to give a complex motivation for its protagonist that informs the audience as to how he sees the world and how he sees life. The audience completely knows Gary King inside and out, and as a result they are able to relate to him on a more personal level. They are invested in what happens to Gary, and want to see him succeed and be happy. As a result, when it is revealed that he attempted suicide, it evokes a sense of sadness in the audience- and when he triumphs overs The Network and his own personal demons, the audience cheers for him and wishes him luck in his new life. More films should strive to have characters that have as clear and complex motivations as Gary, as it can make all of the difference between audience connection and audience apathy.