I’m trying to write a story with the main character having a hidden motivation, and I would appreciate any advice on the matter.

Here’s a basic outline of my story:

Initially, it seems like the hero wants money (for noble reasons, of course). She’ll go through the motions to get it (using her status as prophet of her religion and playing the two religions of her kingdom against each other), and at the midpoint (I’m writing a movie screenplay), she’ll reveal that she actually wants to destroy all religion, and the adjacent consequences of the money scam (one of the two religions is destroyed) were just the first stage of her plan. With this true motivation uncovered, she’ll create a cult and then take out all of the religious people in the kingdom, pied-piper style.

How do I pull off a change in motivation, especially when the change should make people switch from rooting for my main character to turning against her?


Sophia González

Hi Sophia,

Revealing a deceptive protagonist’s motivation is a really tricky thing to do, but in a movie, it’s at least possible to pull that off while maintaining engagement. (I would not recommend this for a novel.) You need a character that’s really good at acting and has a reason to engage in deception, thereby deceiving both the audience and the other characters. All of the actions she takes onscreen have to be consistent with both her presented motivation and her hidden one. And you have to foreshadow adequately. Again, real tricky.

However, I don’t think the switch from rooting for her to rooting against her will work out even in a best case scenario. Because audiences get attached to the main character, this is likely going to be an upsetting experience. Viewers will also be left without anyone to care about, which could make the movie boring even if it has lots of action.

For this reason, she’d make a better surprise antagonist. If she were the mentor or best friend of the hero, she could seem like a close ally before she shows her true colors. Then, the audience can keep rooting for the hero. I’m guessing you wouldn’t be interested in this option though. Based on what you put in your question, it feels like you really like this character.

Another option is to make her a villainous protagonist – meaning viewers should continue to root for her after the reveal. If you make those religions really bad, viewers will want to see them burn down, so they’ll tolerate more from her. Giving her a big personal reason for revenge will also help viewers side with her. However, you still probably don’t want to show her murder innocent and sympathetic people right onscreen.

In this case, you’d make it look like she’s about to die at the hands of those religions around the climax, and then show how her villainous side gives her an ace up her sleeve. Hey look, she was secretly building up her own cult – commence with the burning!

I’d recommend doing the reveal later than the midpoint. Based on what you said, I’m guessing that after the reveal, she’ll look much more powerful. I think you’d end up losing too much tension if that were done during the rising action phase of the film. A typical heist film is a good model for the timing you want. It always looks like everything has failed before the hero’s secret plan is revealed at the climax.

However, if you choose to make her an antagonist, the reveal will raise tension, so the midpoint isn’t a bad choice.

Happy writing!


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