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James Cameron and Character Motivation

August 16, 2012

I’m a sucker for kick-ass movies from the ’80s – The Terminator, Indiana Jones, When Harry Met Sally, Out of Africa. Okay, so maybe they aren’t all “kick-ass,” but I still love them. When I want entertainment infused with pleasant memories, I turn to the movies that my sibs and I watched when we were young.

So I re-watched Alien and Aliens recently. For the 500th time, possibly literally. That movie rocks. Sigourney Weaver is my favorite heroine (or hero, for that matter). As an adult, I was impressed by how well-constructed Alien was from the ship culture to the terror of the crew as its numbers sank. And I still love the rocking excitement of Aliens. I had my first movie crush on Michael Biehn (and my second one on Gary Oldman – it’s possible I’m the only person on the planet with this crush constellation).

What surprised me during my chest-burster reverie last week was the extras on the Aliens DVD. Bad eighties hair aside, the interview with James Cameron was pretty interesting when he talked about character motivation. Specifically, he explored the various scenarios he had toyed with as reasons for Ripley to return to the planet that had given her a very bad afternoon fifty-seven years before.

Cameron decided that Ripley needed to return to the scene of the crime to make peace with her demons. Guns that shoot fire, Marines and splodey bombs provided extra incentive for her to feel better about the return. (Yes, splodey is a word. Look it up.) Characters are motivated in many ways, and they need a web of believabilty built up over a movie (or a novel) to pull in the watcher or reader.

I had a think about my work-in-progress, and three of my four characters return to the scene of the crime. I was happy to realize that they each did so at an appropriate mid-way point in the novel. And things work out a bit better for my characters. I’m not dreaming up a prison planet for them. Well, not exactly.

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