Oliver!: Looking for Love in a Grueling World.


For the month of June, we’ll be focusing on the story arc as it relates to character motivations. And to help with that, we’ll be analyzing several classic musicals.

A story gets set in motion when characters act upon their motivations. That’s what drives the story’s engine and why the classic actor’s question—”What’s my motivation?“—is so key to a great performance. But motivations do more than getting the story rolling in the beginning.

In the middle—where stories twist and turn (or at least are supposed to twist and turn)—that’s when character motivations really do the work they are meant to do. They explore the themes and arguments of the story’s thematic premise. This is where things get complicated, because a character’s motivations have to prove or disprove the different truths that are presented within the story.  And if they don’t do that testing in a comprehensive, consistent and satisfactory manner, they can cause a story to fall apart like a house of cards.

To explore this concept, let’s take a look at some classical musicals, starting with the 1969 Best Picture winner, Oliver! 

Musicals, by the way, are great at being able to take the theatrical convention of soliloquy, setting it to a tune, and making it a work in a cinematic context. One can usually find these sung monologues when the writer wants to give the audience some context by looking inside the mind and heart of a character motivation—especially as the character is going deeper into their journey (like a fish out of water, remember?) But back to Oliver!—

The musical, based on a stage adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, centers on a young orphan’s struggles with poverty in 19thCentury England. Dickens wrote his novel to satirize the social ills created by the Poor Law, a sort of welfare state solution that wasn’t quite working like everyone had ped it would, and in fact created serious problems with forced child labor.

Which brings us to the plight of young Oliver Twist.

When we meet Oliver, he is living in a workhouse where the overseers eat heartily while the children go hungry. In the iconic scene from the story, Oliver draws a losing lot with some other boys to ask the overseer for more gruel—an interesting motivation because it is not one he initiated, but one that he in deed accepted and acted upon.  Incidentally, that’s when the rest of the story gets underway—Oliver is punished and sold off to another bad boss, who throws him into a cellar.

That’s also when we get the insight into the reason why Oliver braved the risk of asking for “more.”  In a solo musical number, Oliver asks the existential question, ”Where is Love?” It’s a question that might not have been in Dicken’s original novel, but nevertheless an issue that playwright Lionel Bart saw in Dicken’s story.

There the story explores the deeper truths of the situation—where is the charity behind the system that is supposed to help a boy like Oliver? And that’s where we see the question undergo testing—as Oliver runs away to London where he hopes to find the love he’s looking for.  The musical numbers continue to test the truth of what “love” looks like—“Consider Yourself (part of the family)”, “I’d Do Anything For You,”—when he falls in with a gang of child criminals led by a seemingly charitable, but devious, mastermind.  Is that where love is?

That is a question that is eventually answered in another moment of chance—when Oliver runs into the man who can prove that Oliver is the heir to a fortune, but only after both his overseers and the criminal gang members try to manipulate Oliver’s situation for their material gain.

So there it is: the boy who asked for “more” found himself in a worse situation where people wanted more from him. And that’s how he went from a bowl of gruel to the proof in the pudding: just because you ask for more doesn’t mean it will be there…

Of course, that was just the middle point. The end of the story brought him the other side of the argument—that the love is there. It’s just that you have to find it in the meaningful relationships you have in your life, especially when you take the risk to go find them. Maybe not exactly what Dickens was trying to comment on, but definitely an idea that speaks to the emphasis of “charity” behind social charity. If there’s no love in it, then the system will rot and the Olivers of the world will suffer.


Below is a checklist of questions to ask in regards to your character’s motivation, and the arc that it will follow throughout the story. The more that you can build on each answer will ensure that your character has depth and your story is well-tested.


Who is your Character?
What does your character want?
What’s stopping them?
What are they willing to do to overcome the obstacle?
What is the outcome of their motivational drive in the story—did it work for them?


What’s her problem that they are trying to solve?
What urges and impulses are driving their decisions?
What is their core value that is driving their decisions?
What beliefs and opinions does your character have (that the other characters contradict)?
What emotions are driving their
What are her dreams of an ideal life?
What risks are they willing to take to change their situation?
What does your character trying to prove?
What’s your character’s goal/plan?
What change does your character need to grow?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *