10 Basic Character Needs

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They say that effective story characters have problems, because problems mean conflict, and conflict makes for an interesting story. True enough. (See Wednesday’s post for a better explanation.) But what they don’t usually tell you is that all problems come from character needs. Or more precisely, from characters not getting their needs met.

Like us, when a character’s needs are not met, she seeks to meet them. But there might be something preventing her from getting her needs met. For example, if a captor has sold her into slavery, that’s bound to ruin her day, because it interferes with her need for autonomy. Or maybe she simply doesn’t have the resources to meet her needs, as if a famine is making it difficult for everyone to find food. She may not possess skills she needs to meet her needs, for example, if she is lonely because she doesn’t know how to relate to others. And sometimes, as any real human would, she is bound to do things that she feels will meet her needs, but which really just create complications, such as when she turns to alcohol in a search for fulfillment.

You’ll also find that her needs are interrelated—as ours all are—and that she may seek to take action to fulfill two needs at once, or to satisfy one need at the expense of another. Or sometimes one need rebounds on another, such that if the one is not met, it will cause the character to perceive another also not being met. This interrelatedness can also thicken and complicate the plot. She drinks because she feels her life has no meaning (need #10 below), and as a result, she begins to lose intimacy with her husband (#5), which may affect her sense of accomplishment (#8), her sense of status (#9), and further decrease her sense of purpose (#10). Now she has four problems to deal with instead of just one.

If you’re having trouble finding a compelling conflict, start by choosing from one of the following 10 basic character needs.

(These needs I took from the Human Givens essential needs, most of which are expanded on in the book Human Givens: A New Approach to Emotional Health and Clear Thinking. Whether or not you agree with the Human Givens approach for psychological counseling, I find it a useful set of tools for understanding my fictional characters.)

  1. Physical needs — Air, water, food, and sleep. (The rest of the needs on this list are emotional needs.) Some people may put sex in the “physical” category as well, although sex is not merely a physical act; it has an emotional component. (See “emotional intimacy” below.)

  2. Security — Including our need for shelter, cleanliness, protection, and safety, and the like. From the time we were newborns, we knew how to establish rapport with our mothers, whom nature had already primed to fulfill our need for security. As we grow, we learn to find security in the rapport we’ve built in other relationships, in our ability to control our environment, in our jobs, even in our governments.

  3. Attention — We all need both to give and to receive it. We all want to feel special at least some of the time, want to be the center of attention, even those of us who are quiet and introverted. We draw attention to ourselves by the way we look or act, or even by engaging in activities that provide us opportunities for attention, such as the security officer who takes that particular job just so that he can wear the uniform. People even tend to perform better when they believe they will get noticed, a phenomenon known as the Hawthorne Effect.

  4. Autonomy — Control over one’s own life and one’s own choices. Independence. The need for autonomy is why office workers desire to have their own desk where they can set their own coffee cup and a picture of their own family, their own office that they can decorate however they choose, including by posting sardonic cartoons that make fun of the corporation who employs them, their own little island of autonomy in a sea of tyranny. Rapid change or volatile circumstances can also be perceived as loss of autonomy. (“Better is the devil that you know,” as the saying goes.) Loss of autonomy can make a person feel helpless, despondent, may cause him to give up trying to improve his situation, and may generate depression, which can further deepen the feeling of helplessness.

  5. Emotional intimacy — One of the oldest and most powerful story conflicts, and the subject of most romance novels, we all need emotional and physical closeness to at least one other person. This is the person who sees us as we really are, naked and undignified, and we see the same way, and love anyway. Sexual closeness is part of emotional intimacy, which is why it also is frequently the focus of romance novels. In a more general sense, strong, supportive relationships can mean the difference between success and failure. They can help someone through hardship, or even help make her more resistent to disease. Even the simple physical contact that comes, for example, by petting a beloved cat, even that can reduce stress and make someone feel more able to meet the world.

  6. Feeling part of a wider community — Shared perceptions and identity with others, and connections to them. We are not just a collection of individuals all competing to win; we are also all parts of larger communities. Isolation from community can cut off our psychological resources for dealing with stress, anxiety, and grief, resulting in depression and other mental illnesses.

  7. Alone time — An opportunity to reflect on our experiences and process our thoughts. A total lack of alone time can be as stressful as having no one to talk to.

  8. Achievement — Competence. We need to feel there’s something in the world that we’re good at. It can be any skill, either in work or hobby or social situations or whatever.

  9. Status — Validation. The sense that we are valuable in a social grouping. This is why we desire that others think well of us. We often collect symbols of our status: jewelry, an expensive car or suit, or even a simple momento. Need for status may also cause a person to take on a provider role, where others are the recipients, because this makes him more important than those others.

  10. Purpose — Spiritual need, the search for meaning, the quest to understand, fulfilled through personal growth, from being stretched in what we do and think. Something inside seeks to fill this inner need by completing it in the environment. This is the reason the monk meditates, seeking enlightenment. It is why the mountaineer scales ever taller heights, and why the adrenaline junkie executes ever more dangerous stunts. It is why a musician learns new songs and masters new techniques.

And the need for purpose is also why writers write, and why we seek to write better than we did before. We put out other reasons, like “I want to get published” or “I want to make a difference.” And these may be true, but at the end of the day, I think these are just surface reasons. The real reason we write is so that we can find inner fulfillment, by creating a substance that reflects our inner selves.

Keep writing!


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6 responses to “10 Basic Character Needs”

  1. wu Avatar

    Good stuff here, it is just what I was looking for and very helpful in the story I am working on. Thanks

  2.  Avatar

    Thanks for your info to assist with my assignment – aspiring social worker

  3. lalit rana Avatar
    lalit rana

    my comments are need and importance of need in human life

  4. Jeremy L. Ensor Avatar
    Jeremy L. Ensor

    You nailed it for me, thanks.

  5. […] Come to think of it, there’d be NO CONFLICT without Characters! http://bethestory.com/2010/06/11/10-basic-character-needs […]

  6.  Avatar

    very nice, Thanks for the inpu.
    From a new Writer, I will carry this learning with me.

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