This is the second post in this series (find the first post on voice and opening lines here).
To recap, here are the components I consider most important when crafting my characters (note: this might be VERY different from what you do, and that’s 100% okay):
- Desperate need
- Behavioral/speaking quirks
- Looks/physical quirks
Today we’re talking about desperate needs–or what your character wants so desperately that he/she will do anything to get it. Some people think of this as the “goal.”
There are two kinds of desperate needs/goals: external need and internal need.
The external need is a thing that the character wants. That thing–be it saving someone, stopping someone, finding something, delivering something, etc.–drives your external plot. There are tangible stakes linked to the external need.
So for example, Eleanor (in Something Strange & Deadly) wants to find her brother and stop the evil necromancer. Those are her external needs, and if she fails, then lots of people will die (our stakes!).
The internal need is what the character wants on a personal, spiritual level. Oftentimes, he/she isn’t even aware that he/she wants this, and the stakes are much more emotional in nature.
Eleanor’s internal need is to learn how to think for herself. If she doesn’t solve this, she’ll be forever unhappy and bossed around by her family/society.
Now, oftentimes, the external need cannot be achieved until the internal need is. In other words, our hero can’t save the day without first becoming a better person–Eleanor isn’t equipped to face the necromancer until she has learned to think for herself.
But the tricky thing about internal needs is that they’re directly related to a character’s deepest fear. In other words: the internal need comes from the character’s deepest internal fear.
Now, I’m not talking Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes here. I mean something emotional. Something the character probably doesn’t even know he/she is afraid of.
Take Eleanor again: she’s afraid that the people she loves will leave her (or stop loving her) if she doesn’t do what they ask. This fear leads her to a sort of chain:
Deepest Fears → Internal Need → External Need
Eleanor’s fear of being alone and unloved leads to her always doing what her mother and other people want. This in turn makes her internally need to learn be happy with autonomy and make her own choices. Until she learns how to decide for herself and give up “people pleasing,” she can’t meet her external need of stopping the evil necromancer that’s threatening Philadelphia.
It’s because these needs and fears are so deeply entwined in the story’s outcome and in the progression of story events that I consider them to be the second most important component of character development.
So…how do I figure out what the needs and fears are?
Finding the Needs & the Fears
To start, I write the book.
Why? Because knowing the general plot gives me my character’s external need. When I started writing Something Strange & Deadly, I knew Eleanor was searching for her missing brother. Which means she NEEDS to find her brother! External need, check!
As I wrote on and sank more deeply into Eleanor’s voice and emotions, I realized she was bossed around by her mother and society. She wasn’t very happy about it, either. Seeing these scenes unfold and feeling Eleanor’s emotions in them gave me her internal need.
And of course, as I wrote on, I uncovered snippets of her backstory. Her father had died when she was young, her brother had run off to tour the world (and left his family penniless), and her mother had gone off the deep end from grief. To add to it all, Eleanor’s friends and the high society she’d grown up with had abandoned her. What few people she still had left in her life, she clung to out of fear that they’d leave her too.
So from that backstory, I now knew Eleanor’s deepest fear.
Basically I discover my character in the reverse of the cause/effect list above:
External Need → Internal Need → Deepest Fears
How This Can Work for You
I realize that not all of you are plantsers (a.k.a. headlights outliners), and I also realize not all of you are starting a new project. You might be halfway through or revising even. You might be sticking like glue to an outline or you might be totally winging it.
Either way, you can apply needs and fears to your writing.
If you’re an outliner and just starting a first draft: Sort out your character’s desperate needs (internal and external) as well as your character’s deepest fears while you’re outlining (or before, even). Then make sure that your character’s needs and fears jive with the events you’ve planned. Remember that characters take action based on who they are, and who they are is a combination of needs and fears.
If you’re a pantser or already finished with a draft: Discover the needs/fears as you write, or–if that’s too “structured for you”–figure it out after you’re finished. You can always revise the story to fit the needs and fears you’ve uncovered during the course of writing (I almost always have to do this), and you can make sure the emotional dominoes all line up.
And that concludes part 2 in this How to Craft Characters series.
You tell me: Do you work with desperate needs/goals or deep fears when creating characters? And if you’re in the midst of drafting a story now, can you pinpoint the needs/fears?