Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Driving Needs

I only did a little more than five hours of writing yesterday. I was hoping to do more when I got home from ballet, but I was just too tired. It was a frustrating two-steps-forward/one-step-back kind of day, as I got midway through rewriting (and it was a lot of original writing) the next chapter when I realized some of the scenes were a repetition and I could telescope events, and then rearranging some things really amped things up, so after an hour of work that came to nothing other than this realization, I had to go back and re-do the previous day's work. It's for the better. If I'm really good, I might be able to finish this draft tomorrow. Then one more good read-through, and I'm done. Too bad I have choir tonight. It's frustrating having obligations when I really want to write. I hope I can carry this enthusiasm forward.

I learn a lot about writing from watching TV. Most of the time, it's from things that are done well -- if I fall in love with characters or find certain plots particularly compelling, I can try to figure out how they work so I can apply that to my own writing. But sometimes I can learn a lot from what isn't working, and there's a current science fiction series that shall remain nameless that isn't working for me, and I think I've figured out a big reason why -- and that discovery/reminder is helping me in the book I'm currently revising.

I think one of the most important thing to know about a character is what he or she needs -- what drives that person, even aside from the story plot. There may be a story goal: beat the bad guys, rescue the maiden, find the quest object, solve the crime, escape from the bad guys, save the world, get home again, etc. But even before the story kicks in, what makes these people tick?

Answering that question will tell you a lot about the way the characters react to and approach the story goal. And the answer to the question can't be something as primal and universal as survival, since just about everyone wants to survive -- unless maybe that character has raised survival to an art form and is so driven by the need to survive unscathed that he's willing to sacrifice anything and everything to do so.

Before the Herald figure shows up to issue the challenge and send the hero off on his quest, what drives the hero in all the things he does, even in his ordinary world?

Does he need to find the answers and figure out how everything works?
Does he feel inadequate and unworthy, so he needs to prove his worth over and over again on a daily basis?
Does he need to be in control of every situation?
Does he need to feel loved and accepted (but fears he isn't)?
Does he need to feel like he's doing the right thing?
Does he do everything out of duty?
Does he want harmony, so that he avoids conflict?
Does he need to be respected?
Does he need to be right in any argument?
Is he afraid of being alone?
Does he want to be famous?
Does he want to belong to the community?
Does he want to do his own thing and be independent?
Does he want to avoid as much effort as possible?
Is he fascinated by the new and different?
Is he clinging to the status quo of his comfort zone?
Does he need to defend those he perceives as weaker?
Does he need to be defended by others?
Is he a thrillseeker?

You get the idea. This is just a list of plot-independent needs that came to the top of my head. Each of these needs will drive a person to respond in a different way to whatever plot events come up. If you put together a team where each person has a different need, those needs and drives would differentiate the team members from each other and would create the team dynamic as their needs either clash or reinforce each other. These drives are also going to affect the plot because the way the characters react to events will send the story in different directions.

Once you know these drives, they need to remain consistent throughout the story, unless something happens that is powerful enough to change the character's need, and that usually comes with a major transformation -- often something that comes close to a symbolic death and rebirth. Aside from that kind of transformation/rebirth, these drives/needs can never be fully met by achieving a goal because even if the character seems to have met his need, he will either want more or be afraid of losing it. Someone who wants to be famous and who achieves fame is then going to fear becoming obscure (notice some of the crazy things flash-in-the-pan celebrities do to remain in the public eye). Someone who wants control may become king of the world, but then he'll do anything to stay in power. He doesn't stop needing to be in control just because he has achieved control.

If you don't know this very basic information about your characters, you may end up with a muddle, and readers will have a hard time finding a connection with your characters. You'll really frustrate readers if the characters' needs seem to change depending on the situation -- if the guy who needs to do the right thing in one scene then goes and does something dishonorable in another scene without any particularly good reason.

You can also use these drives to create some really interesting conflict by finding situations that will pit the characters' drives against their survival -- if the only way out is to act against type. Force your control freak to put his fate in someone else's hands. Make the loner work as part of a team. Make the person who needs harmony take a stand that generates conflict. Once readers are aware, even if it's just subconsciously, of what drives these people, they'll recognize the dilemma.

Knowing these driving needs is a good way to find your way out when you get stuck. When you need to figure out what happens next, go back to the core of your characters and think about how those needs will make the characters react in that situation -- what actions would they take, and how would those actions among the various characters come into conflict with each other?

(And yes, this was how I solved my dilemma in this book.)

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