Character Needs: Part One

What drives a character?  Could it be the desire to accumulate power like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane?  Or a desire to rewrite a legacy, like Tony Stark in Iron Man? Although the above are character goals, none of them are the driving force behind each character.  In order to see what truly motivates a character, we have to look beyond surface ambition and understand a character’s need. 

When talking about need, Jessica Brody stresses the satisfying of an internal longing is more provocative than achieving an external goal.  According to Brody, stories happen on both an internal and an external plane and the heartbeat of an intriguing story pounds underneath its surface.  Gabriela Pereira states that it’s this internal need that pushes the character towards transformation. 

In examining character need, I noticed that some needs go hand in hand with certain experiences.  Below are a couple of trends.

Guilt needs Redemption

If a character has a strong reason to have remorse, it’s common that the character has a need for redemption.  One example would be Tony Stark.  He has a rude awakening when he finds out the weapons he created are being used to terrorize small communities.  His desire for redemption drives him to do the extreme to correct the wrongs of his past.

Other examples of characters with feelings of guilt who were motivated by a desire for redemption are Oskar Schindler, from Schindler’s List, The Little Prince in Le Petit Prince, Nakatsuka from Shinya Shokudo’s “Ham Cutlet,and Manuel in Malcriados.  

Dysfunction/Abandonment/Separation needs Love/Acceptance

If early on in the story, the character experiences dysfunction or abandonment, it’s common that the character has a need for love or acceptance.  In the case of Charles Foster Kane, he is separated from his mother at the age of eight and spends the rest of the film amassing wealth and power that leave him dissatisfied.  None of his accomplishments enable him to experience his need for love. 

Other characters who show a need for love/acceptance after experiencing abandonment/dysfunction are Kya from Where the Crawdads Sing, Hypatía Belicia Cabral in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Daniel Sempere in La Sombra del Viento and Jillian Slater in The Undoing of Saint Silvanus.

In next week’s post I will look at some ways that need can play a part in the story development process.  In the meantime, what are other situations you’ve seen connected to character need?


Brody, Jessica; Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Pereira, Gabriela; “UNLEASH YOUR STORYTELLING SUPERPOWER” Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market 2018

Wiesner, Karen Bring Your Fiction to Life: Crafting Three-Dimensional Stories with Depth and Complexity

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