A Case Study in Character Motivation: Legally Blonde

Image Credit: Photo by fotografierende from Pexels

Character motivation. It’s an important part when creating a character, especially your protagonist or antagonist (if you have a physical antagonist), as this is what will drive your characters’ actions. Now, your character’s motivation doesn’t have to remain the same throughout the story. It can change as your character learns and grows with each major plot point.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful tool when crafting motivations. It’s commonly referenced when talking about character motivations. For a more in-depth read of these needs, head on over to ThoughtCo.

Tier 1 covers physiological needs, including water, food, warmth or shelter.

Tier 2 includes safety needs, such as the need for financial or emotional security, or the need for freedom from fear.

Tier 3 is the need for love and belonging, including friendships and intimate relationships.

Tier 4 covers the need for esteem, like the need for a feeling of a job well done, a sense of accomplishment.

Tier 5 is for self-actualization, the need to achieve one’s full potential, whether that includes hobbies or a career. It’s what drives us to do better in both our jobs and our creative abilities.

Image Source: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

The movie Legally Blonde is a great example of strong character motivations. If you’ve never seen Legally Blonde with Reese Witherspoon, I highly recommend it. Not only does it portray strong character motivations and the plot is constructed well. If you want a fantastic explanation of the three-act story structure, head on over to K.M. Weiland’s The Secrets of Story Structure (Complete Series) at Helping Writers Become Authors. She not only explains all the important plot points in a three-act structure, she gives fantastic examples from film (such as one of my favorites, It’s a Wonderful Life).

But, enough about plot structure. We’re here to talk about character motivations.

Legally Blonde starts out with Elle Woods, a blonde, seemingly ditzy, well-to-do fashion major and president of her sorority, Delta Nu, getting ready to be proposed to by her boyfriend, Warner, who is preparing to head to Harvard as a law student. At least, she’s expecting a proposal. Instead, he dumps her, based on his own motivation to be a senator by 30. He explains to her that he needs to “marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” Warner’s breakup with Elle is the Inciting Event.

Elle is absolutely devastated and heartbroken at being dumped. Her friends try to cheer her up by taking her to get her nails done. There, at the salon, Elle flips through a magazine while waiting her turn. In the magazine, she sees Warner’s older brother and his new fiancée, a first-year Yale law student. She realizes a law student is what she “needs to become” in order to win back Warner. Here, we see the Key Event.

With renewed determination, she sets out learning how to get herself into Harvard Law as a student. Now, her motivation is to win Warner back. She ends up with a 179 on her LSATs (the highest you can get is 180), and the admission board decides, “Elle Woods, welcome to Harvard.” This is the First Plot Point.

Now at Harvard, Elle goes about trying to get Warner back. Early on, however, she learns that Warner is engaged to his former prep-school girlfriend, Vivian Kensington. She’s doing terribly in her classes, as her focus isn’t on school, but on Warner. Elle overhears Vivian talking about a party and asks about it; Vivian lies and tells Elle it’s a costume party. Showing up to the party in a “bunny” costume, Elle is made fun of by Vivian, but Elle has a smart retort. She then finds Warner, who brings up how busy he is with classes and brings up school. She replies, “Oh, I know, I can’t imagine doing all this and Callahan’s internship next year.” He tells her that she’ll never get the grades to qualify for one of the internship spots, that she’s not smart enough.

“I’m never going to be good enough for you, am I?” she says before walking away. Herein lies the Midpoint. This is a pivotal moment in the movie, as Elle’s motivation changes. She’s determined to prove that she can succeed in law school and that she is smart enough. She buys a laptop, studies hard, and begins to do well in all her classes. She is no longer reacting to being dumped by Warner; she’s taking action to prove herself, showing Maslow’s need for self-fulfillment.

The movie goes on, and Elle is given a coveted spot as one of Callahan’s first-year interns helping out with a murder trial. I won’t give away the ending, for those of you who have never watched it, as we’ve already covered the two main character motivations of Elle Woods seen in Legally Blonde. To sum up: first, she wants to win back her boyfriend, Warner. When Warner tells her she’s not smart enough, we see Elle’s second motivation: to prove herself in law school.

There’s so much more to this movie than what described above, which is why it’s one of my favorites. It’s structured well, has strong character motivations, and, overall, is just a fun movie to watch.

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