Ink-Stained Scribe

It's ALIVE! Making Characters Breathe

I've been thinking a lot lately about characterization, and this vlog by Hank Green of the Vlogbrothers really made me think again about character motivation. That's something we know is important--what a character wants, what their goal is, or what they're running away from--but what I didn't think about is the fact that, just by having them want something, we are giving our characters the breath of life. Instead of being these static, 2D images that hang out on the page with no will of their own, a character who wants something will move of their own volition. They are on a mission, even if that mission is just to make breakfast. 

Good characters will have something drawing them through the scene, through the day, through their lives, and it's our job to know what that is. But what constitutes a character's desire or need?
Let's explore with the following macros:

Sounds reasonable.





Unwanted advances = conflict!

A few weeks ago, Edmund Schubert of the "Magical Words" blog wrote a post entitled "What ELSE Does Your Character Want?" In that blog entry, he talked about giving characters secondary needs and desires--often needs or desires that, directly or indirectly, conflict with their primary need. For example:

Primary Need: Helena needs to keep the book that contains the spell to control the Hellhounds away from both her former master and the sorcerers guild that wants to destroy them (in order to protect her pack).

Secondary Need: Helena wants to be accepted by the non-magical people she now lives with, who are able to provide her with the love and security she craves (which requires NOT using Magic, and NOT letting them find the book, and NOT leading sorcerers to their doorstep...)

These two needs directly conflict with each other, because Helena needs to use Magic in order to protect her pack and herself, but she craves the stability of a normal life, which her roommates are able to provide...but not if they know how much danger she's putting them in.

So you can see how flip-flopping back and forth between those two needs would create not only a deeper characterization, but more interesting conflict in the story.

Share your Sandbox: What conflicting needs do your characters have? Do you think Hank's analysis of "alive" is good? How do you deal with a secondary or tertiary character's needs?