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.

Style Guides: Which One Should You Use?

There are many different style guides per country. But what is the purpose of a style guide? Consistency and clarity. They maintain a standard style of writing. You’re probably already familiar with Modern Language Association’s handbook or “MLA”, as it is commonly used in academic writing. There are, however, other commonly used style guides, depending on the type of writing you’re doing.

  1. The Chicago Manual of Style
    If you’re writing a book, editing in the publishing industry, or are a publisher yourself, this is your go-to. The Chicago Manual of Style is currently on its 17th edition and is the standard for publishing fiction and non-fiction books. For a watered-down version of CMOS, check out Turabian Style, which is aimed at students writing academic papers.
  2. The Associated Press Stylebook
    Better known as “AP Style”, this style guide is used frequently in journalistic settings. It’s essentially the media bible for newspapers, magazines, and broadcast writers. We even use it at my work in the marketing industry. The aim of the Associated Press Stylebook is to keep writing clean and concise.
  3. MLA Handbook
    As previously mentioned, the Modern Language Association Handbook is your big go-to for academic writing. It’s frequently used in teaching and gives guidelines for citing sources in research papers. The MLA Handbook has been updated recently to take on the challenges of today’s world, such as web publication, and it is currently in its 8th publication.
  4. The Elements of Style
    The Elements of Style has been around for quite some time, since 1918, although it was revised later by Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White. Its aim to for writers to craft clean, concise prose, without all the fluff. Brevity is the name of the game. The guide itself is short and to the point, and it is beloved by many authors and writers.

While there are other style guides out there, the above are your main four (for U.S. style guides, at least). Many of these guides are available online, meaning you don’t have to reference a big, heavy book whenever you’re writing or editing.

Happy writing!

Writing Tips for Beginners

It’s possible to learn how to write. Writing is not some inherent skill you’re born with. Let me correct that — writing well isn’t a skill you’re born with. It takes a ton of practice, patience, and perseverance. You know why well-known authors are famous? They didn’t give up. They believed in themselves and their work. J.K. Rowling was rejected countless times before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. Now look at the success of the series!

If you’re thinking of getting into creative writing, let me forewarn you: it’s not an easy thing. And, it’s more than a small hobby; it’s a lifestyle. That’s just my take on it, however. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot. Getting a Bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing helped my knowledge of the craft. Not saying you have to have a degree in it to be successful, just saying it helped me, personally.

Already into writing? Going back to your roots as a beginner can be helpful, I’ve found. I try not to be overly confident in my writing nowadays, like I was when I first starting writing novels. When I finished the very first draft of my very first manuscript, I thought it was a masterpiece. I was so proud to have finally written a full-length novel that I rushed into self-publishing. Looking back on that manuscript, I cringe. It’s now safely stored away in the vaults of my computer files, locked away for my eyes only. Perhaps I’ll revisit it one day.

  1. Practice, practice, practice.
    Practice is essential. Think of the adage “Practice makes perfect.” It’s almost like playing a sport or a musical instrument — you have to practice if you want to be any good at it. You don’t just wake up one day as Joshua Bell and play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major Op. 61 on a multi-million dollar Stradivarius violin. The same principal applies to writing. You have to practice writing to grow as a writer.
  2. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike.
    Good writers write each and every day. They don’t wait for inspiration to strike; they just sit down at their computer (or tablet, notebook, etc.) and just get it done. If you wait for inspiration, you may be waiting for a long time. I’ve found that figuring out my plot structure before I start writing a story helps me get moving a little more quickly.
  3. Read. A lot.
    As the great Stephen King put it, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.” Being a good reader is essential to being a good writer. Writing in a particular genre? Read that genre. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to limit yourself to that genre — variety is the spice of life — but be sure to read in your chosen genre.
  4. Have some patience.
    A quality story won’t just happen overnight. Writing a book is a long haul. A good novel takes lots of rewrites and editing, and that’s all part of the writing process.
  5. Start out small.
    This goes along with practice. Don’t start out trying to compose your opus magnum. Start out small. Try writing short stories or scenes, or play around with building worlds or characters.
  6. Try to set aside time each day for writing.
    By making writing a regular habit, it’s easier to stay in the groove of it. I know, I know. Some days, life just gets in the way. It happens to all of us. But no matter what, try to write each and every day.
  7. Set goals.
    I find it helpful to have a word goal when I sit down and write, as opposed to writing aimlessly. It gives you something to aim or shoot for. If you’ve never done (or attempted, at least) NaNoWriMo or Camp NaNoWriMo, try it sometime! It’s an easy way to set simple goals for a month at a time.
  8. Play around with POV.
    Try writing in various styles and POVs to find your groove. The first manuscript I wrote was in first person, preterite tense, but quickly realized I prefer to write in third person limited.

What tips do you find useful as a writer?