When taking in a story of any sort – novel, movie, comic book – one of the questions I ask myself is “Why is (the main character) doing what they do? What drives them to be the hero of the story?” That motivation colors the actions and decisions of the character.
Look at Captain America as depicted in Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger film. Super Soldier formula inventor Dr. Erskine asks prospective GI Steve Rogers why he is so hell bent on serving his country in spite of his physical shortcomings.
“So, you want to go over there and kill some Nazis?”
“I don’t want to kill anyone. I just don’t like bullies.”
Every action, every decision the Captain America character makes in The First Avenger is colored by his willingness to stand up for the little guy. He proves his worth to Dr. Erskine and Agent Carter during Super Soldier screening in spite of the hindrances created by his fellow recruits. When General Phillips dismisses Roger’s willingness to undergo combat operations, he is acting like a bureaucratic bully. So naturally, Cap goes deep behind enemy lines and rescues the prisoners from the 107th singlehandedly. The film’s dramatic climax occurs when Cap battles the Red Skull to prevent the ultimate bullying act: leveling New York City with an atomic bomb. He sacrifices himself to protect a city full of little guys. It is that self-sacrifice that is prototypical to a “hero.”
Drive can also be a source of conflict within a story. Spider Man is driven by guilt; he failed to catch the man that would murder his Uncle Ben. He continually goes after bad guys in spite of the consequences to his personal life, trashing relationships, career opportunities and personal safety along the way. Batman’s drive to avenge his parents comes at a cost as well. Bruce Wayne has no substantial love life and has to play the fool so as to maximize opportunity for the Dark Knight. Jim Longworth and love interest Callie Cargill from A&E’s The Glades continually have to put their relationship on the back burner because of the demands of their respective careers. These examples add undercurrents of conflict to their stories, much to the delight of the audience.
Ultimately, character drive makes us ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” The answer to that question is very illuminating, if answered honestly.