Monday, May 12, 2014

Crafting Your Best Story - Writing Tip #8 - Felt Need and Character Arc

I know I said I'd get into tackling the first draft next, but before you can effectively do that, you have to get a sense of who your main character is. Not just what he or she looks like and where they live or what they do, but what's going on inside. This is what I call Felt Need.
What do I mean by felt need?  Some people might call it the character’s motivation, but I think it goes deeper than that. For instance, a character may be motivated to do his father’s bidding because if he doesn’t he’ll get a beating. He obeys to prevent something harsh from happening. He’s motivated to please his father to preserve himself. His felt need goes beyond motivation: his felt need in this situation may be to be accepted by his father. What he really wants is unconditional love. This felt need drives the character not only in how he acts and reacts but in how he feels.
 For instance, in CLOCKWISE, Casey’s felt need is to be normal. She laments because of her inability to control the fact that she's a time traveler and how inconvenient this "gift" is. Once I determined her felt need, I gave her other problems or self-perceptions that fed into that belief system. She's too tall, too skinny, her knees are knobby, her hair is too big and curly. And because of these personal problems, she's also believes she's unworthy of the affections of the "cutest boy in the school".

 Felt need doesn’t eliminate character motivation—it enhances it. Motivation drives a character’s action, felt need drives action and emotion.
Felt needs are pretty basic to humanity and you’ll find that there’s a short list of needs that really drive people.  The need for acceptance, to be normal, to belong, to be loved unconditionally, to prove oneself, the desire for justice, to be safe, or to find something, like a loved one or the truth. 
What would you say Bella Swan’s felt need is in TWILIGHT? To be safe? No, she doesn’t seem to concerned with that. To be loved unconditionally? I think her parents give her that, and so does Edward. I think her felt need is to prove herself. First to prove that she can handle the new changes in her life, her new school, living with her father, and then in the end, to save her mother. What do you think?
Harry Potter’s felt need is not to prove himself. He’s trying to get by without any undue attention. He also found his way to belonging at Hogwarts, so that’s not an issue for him. I’d say his felt need is to be normal, something he’ll never achieve.
Katniss Everveen's felt need in HUNGER GAMES is to provide for and protect her family. She stepped into her father's role after he died and her mother collapsed emotionally. Everything she does (or doesn't do) is a result of this felt need. 
 How about you? Do you know your main character’s felt need?
One you’ve determined your character’s felt need, everything they do or think will be linked to that. And one thing you want to do with your character over the course of a book is create a character arc. Unless you’re writing mystery/thrillers or a genre that is really plot heavy, your characters are going to have to change. This is not only true for your protagonist but often for some of your secondary characters and possibly the antagonist as well.

After I’ve spent time thinking about my story and loosely pinning scenes onto the three act structure,  I try to get a sense just through my imagining, what the main character looks like. I nail down the basics: height, weight, hair. Then I give her (him)a name. This is subject to change as I get to know her and what the story demands. In fact all my first assumptions about my characters are subject to change (and they usually do).

I know a lot of people will do character study lists at this point, including deep emotional questions like what's their biggest fear, what's their favorite food, etc, and it works for them, but for me, I can't do this up front. These kinds of deeper questions are answered in the writing of the story so I like to do those deeper lists on the second draft.

Then I determine the Character Arc. Characters need to change as the story progresses.  My character in CLOCKWISE  can't be the same person by the time the book ends. All of the conflicts and crises she goes through in the story must bring change to her character. This happens gradually over the course of the manuscript. By the end of the book,  Casey sees herself much differently. She will never be normal according to the world’s definition, but by the end of the book she has defined her own normal and accepts it. She's grown into her scrawniness and likes her new curves, she doesn't mind her hair, she's accepted her brand of normal and that she is worthy of the cute boy's affections. I try to nail down the basic character traits and the arc path before I start writing. Sometimes these are revealed as I write. Or at least, become more clear.

Next post I’ll get into the process of writing the first draft.

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