Friday, January 8, 2016

Character Wants vs. Character Needs

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

My main character wants to be left alone. She wants the freedom to make her own choices and the means to make a life that's not dependent on anyone else. That's what she wants more than anything.

But that's not what she needs. Not at all.

And so I've been thinking. How do I want to end this thing? With my darling main character finally getting what she wants, or with my compelling lead getting what she really needs.

I haven't made up my mind, honestly. I don't know that I'll decide until I get closer to the end, but it's been very healthy for me to think about and I wonder if it might be worth it to you to ask yourself some of these same questions.

1. What does your character want more than anything? This can be a very hard question to answer. Almost as hard as "What's your book about?" But it's a question that you must answer and and an answer that you must keep at the forefront of your mind while writing.

2. Does your character know what they want more than anything? Some characters do and some don't. Some have a general idea and some couldn't put it into words if they had a gun to their heads. But when a character knows what they're craving, they behave differently than a character who can't quite pinpoint the desire. Chew on it.

3. That thing she wants, is it good for her? There's no right or wrong here, but you need to know. Is this thing going to kill your character or bring all sorts of happiness? 

4. What will happen if she gets what she wants? Be specific here. What will actually happen? Will she get that new promotion and the corner office? Will the co-worker she's beat out for the promotion, fall into a depression and take up a horrible vice? Make a list of all the possibilities. I bet there are tons.  

5. What will happen if she doesn't get what she wants? There are consequences regardless. After-effects. Good, bad, indifferent. Things will change. Or, maybe they won't. Maybe they'll stay the same and that, in and of itself, is enough to drive your character to do and to feel.

6. What happens to the people around her if she gains what she wants? What happens to them if she doesn't? Life teaches us that when we get what we want and even when we don't, other people are touched by this. We are not islands unto ourselves and neither are our main characters. Think long and hard about all the other people affected by this one thing: your character getting or not getting what she most wants.

7. How about the world she lives in, what happens if your main character gets that want? Does the world benefit or suffer? Think about the broader picture here. If your character wants to be queen what will happen to your fantasy world if she takes the throne? Will she be a good queen? A selfish monarch? Will other nations declare war?

Set this paper aside now and take out a fresh, clean piece.

Ask yourself, what is it my character NEEDS? Really and truly. This can be every bit as hard to answer as question number 1 up there, so give yourself time to think it through. Grab a cup of something warm and wander around the house a bit, but mull it over. What will make your character whole? What will make the jagged pieces of her align? What does your character need to accomplish more than anything else?

I told you. Hard.

But valuable.

Once you've established what it is your character needs, go back through the other seven questions and replace the word wants with needs and answer them all over again. When you've finished, you should end up with a ton of conflict possibilities. Material for that soggy middle and perhaps even the bones of an ending.

Asking yourself questions is probably the very best way to brainstorm and when it comes to issues of the heart, we can't afford to let our characters off the hook. They want something. They need something. And when these two things are clear to the reader, you're laying the foundation for an excellent tale.

Tell me, have you thought about what your character really wants? How about what your character needs more than anything? How have these two heart issues moved your story forward?

18 comments:

  1. This is perfect for me right now because I'm brainstorming a new story. My MC really wants to be in control, because she's facing some difficult things in her life and feels lost. What she needs is to, at least partly, rely on someone else and confide in them. Then she won't be so alone in her struggles.

    GTW always has the exact post exactly when I need it. Thanks so much, Mrs. Dittemore. I've got some more brainstorming to do and I think your list of questions will help me out a lot. :)

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    1. The need for control is great for conflict:) I'm hoping to create several power struggles between my main characters as they attempt to work together. Good luck brainstorming!

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  2. Great post!
    I've really thought about what my characters want, but no so much what they need. When I edit my first draft, I'm taking both into consideration.

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    1. I enjoyed doing this SOOOO much! Have fun!

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  3. This has come at the perfect time, because just last night I realized I need to rework my villian's goals. This list will definitely help me get a better grasp of his wants and needs. Thank you! :)

    Deborah

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    1. Its so cool how you can use this for more than the main character! The villian is often neglected in this sense, so it's so encouraging knowing writers are trying to develop them this way!

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  4. This is wonderful, Shannon. I agree. The times when my characters are reading flat, it's often because I haven't figured out this piece.

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  5. Hmm, very thought-provoking post. My character knows what he wants, in a sense, but it's also buried so deep inside him that he couldn't put it into words if he tried. It's just sort of a... a feeling he has. Plus, he doesn't think it's possible, so he spends most of the book striving for something, but something less. Willing to settle because he doesn't want to be disappointed by going after his greatest desire and falling short.

    Thanks again for the fantastic post! :D


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com
    verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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    1. That's a good one! We often do this in real life, so it's very relatable.

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  6. This is perfect for me! I'm plotting my story right now, and this will undoubtedly help character development. Definitely material to mull over. Thanks!

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    1. It really does help to know from the beginning, even if your characters take over midbook and run crazy!

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  7. I love posts like this! I have a large cast, so finding the answers for every important character, especially all my MCs (I have five, and yes I mean five MCs not POVs.), is a must.
    As a part of my characters' journey together, they must face their fears, external and internal, and their desires, which can be far from what they need. My anti-hero, an Egyptian assassin, has to choose between vengeance, against a family who cast her aside, and building up a new life with all the people she became friends with in order to survive.

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    1. Ooh, sounds like you've got some intense character journeys going on. :D Those are always the best.


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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    2. Thank you! I am going for intense:)

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  8. Yes, just what I needed. I, as well as my MC, know what they want. However, it's hard to put into words what my MC needs. I have a general idea, but I could defiantly think about it more.

    Normally I have all of these thing figured out before, but the questions are super interesting and could add a lot of depth. Thanks so much Shannon!

    ~K.A.C

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