Sunday, August 19, 2007

Finding Nemo's Needs

By Joe Moore
I was over posting on Absolute Write the other day and a beginning writer ask the question, how do you find out what motivates your characters? I suggested it could be done with something as simple as an interview. I said to interview your character as if you were a newspaper reporter asking probing questions about their life, quest, current situation, and other topics that could yield the answers. Come up with all the questions first. Then conduct the interview. It sounds simplistic, but it works.

As authors, we know how vital it is that all our characters have a goal. They must want something, and that something is what drives them. But it's more than just a want. They must also have a need. If we don't know what our characters wants and needs are, neither will our readers. With nothing to root for, the reader will lose interest. And in the end, they won't care about the outcome.

So what is the difference between want and need? Think of Marlin, Nemo's father in FINDING NEMO. Marlin's only son, Nemo, is captured by a scuba diver and placed inside a fish tank in a dentist's office. Marlin sets out to find Nemo. But he has a big problem, one that's quite unusual for a fish: he has a terrible fear of the open ocean. So with just that much information, we now know his want and need. He wants to find his son, but to do so he needs to overcome his fear of the ocean. The reader (or viewer in this case) will root for Marlin to make it through all the perils he faces in order to find Nemo and rescue him.

Every character must have a want and need. The most critical are the ones for our protagonists and antagonists. But I think that even the smallest, one-time, walk-ons must be motivated. If we determine the goals of every characters, we will have an easier time writing them, and the reader will have a more distinct picture of the character in their minds.

In planning our stories, it's important that we determine our main character's wants and needs first. In doing so, we'll always have a goal to focus on as we write our stories. So what are your main character's wants and needs? Can you express them in one sentence like we did with Marlin? Let's go find your Nemo's needs!


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Joe, nice post, but the photo has scarred me for life!

Mark Combes said...

There is a phrase that I use when I start a story. "What does your character want in specific, tangible terms?"

Not that he wants to heal his emotional wounds - but that he wants to get his son back. Specific. Tangible. Themes flow from specificity.

Mark Terry said...

I've often interviewed my characters, or just as likely (same process), have a conversation with them on paper. I posted one on my blog a while back--people seemed to think I was nuts. (Which means it's probably about time to do it again).

I also have a number of things I like to know about my characters that don't necessarily end up in the books.

1. What would they do if they weren't doing what they're doing. This gets into "wants" but it's interesting sometimes if your character wants something that's clearly at odd with who and what they are. For instance, my character, Dr. Derek Stillwater, is an expert on biological and chemical terrorism. Sometimes, what he wants, is to be a mild-mannered college professor with a wife and children and a house in the suburbs. Instead, he lives on a boat, hasn't had a relationship in years that can survive his job, still pines for his ex-wife, and although he constantly threatens to quit working for Homeland Security, he can't help himself, he always goes back during a crisis. This causes internal conflict, which is good.

2. Parents? Living or dead? What did they do? I think too many fictional character's parents are dead, but in real life, parents can pose all sorts of conflict and drama.

3. Education. Level of, location, and does it have anything to do with where they are now. Take Stephanie Plum, for instance. Business degree? (I think). Worked as a lingerie saleswoman. Now she's a bounty hunter. Nothing like overeducating and then under- employing a character to motivate them.

Joe Moore said...

Sorry about the photo, Sue Ann. But I was assured that no Nemos were injured in the making of that sushi.

Marks 1&2, thanks for your input.

Felicia Donovan said...

Joe, very interesting post. Like many other aspects of my characters, their motivation seems to emerge with each successive book, but that delay may be because I have four main characters I'm juggling all the time. Each successive book spotlights one of them so the readers can learn more about their past, their motivations, and yes, their needs.

Unlike Mark Squared, I can't always say that I've interviewed my characters or have specifically named their needs. I just know them by the way they interact with each other - which can be a love fest or a free for all but always within character. Their interaction is the telling of their motivation. Does that make sense?

Bill Cameron said...

I really want some sushi, but I need some money to buy it.