In Frank Oz’s comedy What About Bob?, Bill Murray’s neurotic character sobs to his psychiatrist (who’s trying desperately to get rid of him), “Gimme, gimme, gimme! I need, I need, I
need!” Ultimately, this is what every one of our characters should be screaming on the inside. We’re all familiar with the idea that our main character must be driven through the story by some great need. But the truth is one need just isn’t going to be strong enough to get a character all the way through a book. You are going to need to discover, not just two (or more) needs, but the two friction-causing, conflict-creating, mutually exclusive needs of every character.
Characters are only important to readers insofar as they need things. Things that contrast. Things that conflict. When someone seriously, desperately, aggressively needs two mutually-exclusive things, well, stuff tends to happen to them. Big, exciting stuff! That’s the fabulous stuff of fiction.
So how does this work? How do you go about choosing not just one but two story-shaping needs for your character? Let’s break this down and take a closer look. To begin with, consider the three intrinsic elements of character needs:
1. Your character’s two needs must be equally important. If they’re going to create the necessary conflict, they have to be heavyweight enough to challenge each other.
2. Both needs will be present essentially from the beginning of the story. Since they rest at the heart of your character’s inner conflict, they must be there from the get-go in order to fuel his arc.
3. Your character can (and probably will) have more than just two needs. The more needs he has, the more complicated and intricate the book’s conflicts and themes will be. Just make sure the needs all conflict on one or more levels.
Got that? Good. Now we’re going to take a head-on dive into the specific elements of our two needs
Character Need #1
This need is the one riding the breaking waves of your plot. This is the foundation for the goal your character is trying to accomplish. It’s his outer need, the thing he knows he wants and thinks he has to accomplish to reach his primary objective.
For example, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jane’s primary need is to marry and live with her soul mate, Rochester. In Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, Rick’s primary need is to reunite with his lost love Ilsa. In Karen Hancock’s The Light of Eidon, Abramm’s primary need is to survive his enslavement and return home to wrest his throne from his treacherous brother.
Character Need #2
In many ways, the secondary need is the more important of the two. But, ssh! Don’t tell anybody. Even the character himself may not realize how important this need is until late in the story. This need is curled up deep inside him and is at the core of the weakness holding him back from achieving his full potential. Sometimes, this need can stand in stark contrast to Need #1, to the point that achieving either one of the needs means completely abandoning the other. And sometimes, this need can end up being the perfect complement to the primary need—in which case, it’s the character’s resistance to this need that stands in the way of his achieving not just its fulfillment, but the fulfillment of Need #1 as well.
For example, in Jane Eyre, Jane’s need to remain true to her moral duty, as well as her need to grow into the strength to truly stand as Rochester’s equal, impedes her from remaining with Rochester after she learns of his insane wife. In Casablanca, Rick’s need to fight the Nazis and support Ilsa’s freedom-fighter husband prevents him from running away with Ilsa. In Light of Eidon, Abramm’s deep spiritual need to submit himself to the true God and His will for his life first stands in the way of his achieving his ultimate goal of survival (thanks to his resistance to Need #2), and then removes his anger and need for vengeance against his brother.
The more deeply at odds these two needs, the stronger and more compelling an inner conflict will emerge from the fires. As our character wrestles with either relinquishing one of these needs (and if he truly needs it, then relinquishing it will always be bone-breakingly painful) or somehow harmonizing them, he will plumb the depths of himself and present a story arc that will resonate with readers for years to come.
Tell me your opinion: What are your character’s two conflicting needs?
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).