“Seven Pounds” or About Character Motivation

Last week, courage was on my mind, specifically whether or not Evan Quinn was courageous.  Then I saw the movie Seven Pounds, starring Will Smith.  Smith’s character, Ben Thomas, put a new spin for me on the question of courage and what could motivate someone to do something courageous.  Specifically, guilt.

Guilt is an emotional experience not explored much by writers and screenwriters.  Fyodor Dostoyesky famously explored it in Crime and Punishment.  The movie The Machinist stands out for me because the main character played by Christian Bale physically manifested the psychological and emotional effects of guilt.  Guilt is unpleasant.  Guilt is painful.  But Ben Thomas in Seven Pounds showed me what an interesting motivating factor it could be for a character. 

Ben Thomas’ experience in the movie grabbed me around the throat and shook me.  Will Smith was nearly unrecognizable as Ben, but his performance was brilliant.  He captured the character’s pain on his face, the character’s courage in his choice for himself.   It reminded me of two characters in the Perceval series, characters I created and maybe I need to pay more attention to the guilt that I have given them.  Maybe it’s not Evan’s courage or lack thereof I need to focus on, but his guilt.  As it stands now, Evan represses his guilt, but maybe I can play with that more than I have.  The other character doesn’t repress his feelings, and Evan reacts to that by working harder to repress his own.

Which brings me to the whole issue of a character’s emotional being and what to do with it.  Emotions motivate behavior.  I tend toward showing behavior to reflect the character’s emotion rather than stating how the character feels.  That doesn’t always work, however.  For Evan, I also use his thoughts and how he responds to the world around him to reflect his emotions.  Stepping back, it’s also possible to use description of location to reflect a character’s emotion, how he sees it, or the use of color in the description to create a tone or atmosphere that reflects the emotion.  Dialogue and choice of words can also reflect the character’s emotion.  Much care and thought needs to go into this in order to be accurate and true to what the character is feeling.  Emotions require respect in the writing.   The wrong word will create the wrong impression, the writing will fail.

I had not seen Seven Pounds in the theater because its advertising campaign annoyed me.  When the DVD came out, I continued to pass it by until last week.  Now I am so glad that I watched it.  A reminder that as a writer I need to pay attention and be ever on the prowl for ideas for character development…..


6 responses to ““Seven Pounds” or About Character Motivation

  1. Christian Bale’s character in 3:10 to Yuma is also driven by guilt – guilt about how he has come to be seen by his son because of the decisions he has made. Guilt can really be a powerful motivation to do something that we would otherwise not do.

  2. Thank you! I’d forgotten about “3:10 to Yuma.” I think Bale’s character is also motivated by shame because he’s not able to support his family. The two together — guilt and shame — drive him. I loved the ending of that movie. I love it when characters do the unexpected. Russell Crowe’s character reminded me of Hannibal Lecter in that regard. Thanks for the comment!

  3. It is also interesting what opportunities appear due to guilt. At a certain point, it becomes easier to do something (or keep doing it) because of the guilt. If you’re already guilty of something … isn’t it easier to keep doing it? You’ve already convinced yourself once that this action is somehow acceptable/inevitable.

    Why else would someone pursue an adulterous affair, despite knowing it’s wrong? It’s not just because of the excitement of the exotic, or the thrill of having someone pay attention to you … it’s because s/he’s already done it once, the guilt is already there. The guilt-debt has already been paid. Doing it again and again won’t create more guilt.

    You forgot your kid’s birthday. You feel guilty. Next year, you forget it. You feel not quite so guilty. ad nauseum

    Not just what does guilt make us do … but what we keep doing because of pre-existing guilt.

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