Saturday, August 6, 2011

Dark Floors: Poorly Motivated Characters Weaken the Horror

Method acting teachers instruct their students to always ask: What's my character's motivation? The actor should know who is this character? What is his history? What does he want? What just happened that got him to this place or situation?

Then the kicker: What is his next, most logical action based on his past history, wants and desires, and most recent experiences?

Writers should likewise keep those issues in mind when creating and propelling characters from scene to scene. There should be a reason -- motivation -- for a character to do something.

Poorly motivated characters are a horror film cliché. The most cited example is stupid teenagers who wander aimlessly about dark forests and empty houses, long after all their friends have mysteriously disappeared. Why would anyone do that?

Poorly motivated characters arise when writers focus solely on the events in a story, such that they treat the characters as mere props.

The writer wants Joe to kill Mary in the locker room. So the writer makes Mary go into the locker room, even if she has no logical reason to go there -- even if she has strong reasons to avoid the locker room.

Because characters engage an audience, strong characters heighten the horror. Conversely, poorly motivated characters weaken the horror.

Yes, it may be fun to watch stupid characters die. But longtime horror fans become jaded to shocks and violence, so the fun wears down. For a horror film to unnerve viewers, it helps if we care about the characters. And that's harder to do if they're one-dimensional clichés who behave unrealistically.

Comedies are an exception, a genre for which audiences make allowances for unrealistic behavior and outlandish coincidences, provided the film is funny.

But Dark Floors is a humorless horror film, credited to seven writers, none of whom bothered to focus on the characters' motivations.

In Dark Floors, Ben is a loving father, who has taken his sick daughter, Sarah, to a hospital for tests.

Poor writers will often rely on cheap devices to seek sympathy for their characters -- look, a sick child! Poor thing! And her dad's all weepy because he loves her! Heartstrings!

But a mere setup is not enough to create an engaging character. If Ben and Sarah are poorly motivated, the emotional impact of Ben's loving, teary-eyed gaze will diminish. As is the case in Dark Floors.

Ben and Sarah enter a hospital elevator with a disparate bunch: a tough Security Guard, a Homeless Man, Emily (a nurse), and a Selfish Asshole.

His name is Jon, but his character is no more than the Selfish Asshole. The typical cowardly, arrogant, obnoxious type that crops up in many horror films. You know he'll die before the film's end.

The elevator doors open onto an empty hospital floor. The characters exit, then wander about aimlessly (did all of them even intend to get off on this floor?). A ghost chases and scares them. They huddle in a room, wondering what just happened?

Contemptuous of the others, Jon decides to leave on his own. Why? He suggests that maybe it's all an illusion, perhaps from a gas leak. After he leaves, a demon attacks him in the elevator.

Ben and the Security Guard rescue Jon. Yet afterward, Jon shows no gratitude or humility. His character is poorly motivated. A normal person (even a selfish asshole), would at least give the pretense of gratitude.

Soon after his rescue, Jon watches the Security Guard try to break through a basement wall, so they can escape the empty, haunted hospital. Jon mocks the Security Guard's vain efforts, sneering, "C'mon, Rambo. Do something useful. Find us a real way out."

Why would Jon say that? Merely because the writer wanted Jon to be obnoxious -- though that's not how Jon should behave, considering his recent near death, and that the Security Guard helped save Jon's life.

The Security Guard is irritated by Jon. (His irritation is well motivated.) But then he snarls, "You want it out?" -- essentially threatening to beat up Jon.

More poor motivation. The Security Guard has now gone overboard.

Yet it's typical of poorly motivated characters of any genre. Writers will inject pointless bickering, arguments, and fights into their scripts, in a lame attempt to "heighten the tension." Pointless, because there is no good reason for the characters to argue -- no proper motivation -- other than that the writer wanted the characters to argue, and so he made them argue.

How often have you seen films in which a disparate group of people trapped in a "tense situation" get on each others' nerves for no good reason?

Talented writers can create tense drama without mindlessly argumentative characters. Consider Mulder and Scully in The X-Files. Their cool, procedural, methodical investigations, and the secrets they uncovered, were tense and dramatic enough without injecting pointless arguments. Even the villains (e.g., Cancer Man) were usually deathly cool.

Engaging characters in interesting stories needn't argue to create drama.

This also meant that when arguments did erupt on The X-Files, their emotional impact was greater. An event's rarity increases its impact.

Here's Dark Floors worst (of many) examples of poorly motivated characters. The Security Guard and Homeless Man are dead. Jon suggests to Ben that the ghosts (or demons?) want Sarah. If they sacrifice Sarah to the monsters, they'll be safe.

Poor motivation: Even if Jon were right, no rational person would advise a loving father to sacrifice his sick daughter to monsters. Yet Jon actually expects Ben to agree!

Ben is outraged. (Good motivation.) But then Ben realizes that Sarah needs her medicine. So Ben decides that he and Emily will search the hospital for Sarah's medicine -- and Ben decides to leave Sarah alone with Jon!


And listen to Ben's contradictory dialogue. Before he leaves, Ben says to Jon, "Watch her." Then he adds, "You even lay a finger on her, you won't live to regret it."


Ben leaves Sarah in the care of a man who wants to kill her? Ben even -- contradictorily -- asks Jon to protect Sarah, while feeling the need to threaten Jon into not harming Sarah?

It's not like Ben doesn't have options. He can take Sarah with him (he's pushed her wheelchair throughout the film). Or he can insist that Jon go with him, while he leaves Emily with Sarah. Or he can ask Emily to find the medicine on her own, or with Jon, while Ben stays behind with his daughter.

But Dark Floors's seven writers failed to ask What's Ben's motivation?

What does Ben want? (To find medicine for Sarah.) What recently happened to Ben? (Jon threatened to sacrifice Sarah to the monsters.) What is Ben's most logical next move? (To find medicine for Sarah in a way that doesn't leave her at the mercy of Jon.)

Instead, the writers focused solely on the events -- the cool, scary horror scenes they wanted to show. They wanted Jon alone with Sarah, so Jon could give Sarah to the monsters. So the writers simply made Ben and Emily leave Sarah alone with Jon, contrary to those characters' logical motivations -- treating the characters as props rather than as thinking, feeling persons.

In summary:

1. Strong characters engage an audience, and heighten the horror. This is because shocks and gore are more unnerving when they happen to characters we care about.

2. One dimensional setups (the loving dad) are not enough to create a strong character. The character must be well motivated throughout the story.

3. Poor motivation arises because writers focus solely on a script's events (what happens), rather then on pondering every character's motivation for every action they take (or avoid taking), throughout the entire script.


For more about how horror films effectively unnerve -- or fail to unnerve -- audiences, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.


  1. I totally agree with you about poorly motivated characters. From an author's standpoint, it must be remembered that all characters have a back story...and it's that history that motivates them to choose a certain path. All too often, as you pointed out, the back story and deeper motivations are forgotten or discarded in order to fit the character to the plot. It is a much better idea to fit the plot scenario or scene to the character.

  2. I assume the writers, one after the other, eventually lost the motivational threads and just strung the movie's scenes together using convenience. A lot of wasted visual effect due to no emotional throughput or sense.

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