I’m posting a series on character needs, extracted from Character Fiction 101: How to Write Fictional Characters and Character Stories.
I’m starting with the need for attention, which inspired my story, “The Friendship Dress,” posted at Danielle La Paglia’s blog.
We all need both to give and to receive attention. 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. Our need for attention is the root of the adage that you get what you focus on, and is surely part of the magic behind positive thinking and the law of attraction.
We draw attention to ourselves by the way we look or act. And this provides a fertile ground for story characters. The teenage girl who dresses in sexually provocative outfits. The kid who acts out so that his parents will scold him. The executive who’s always talking about the size of his bank account. The patient who feels sick—yes, he really suffers from disease, but maybe he also craves the attention that his illness brings him.
We also draw attention by engaging in activities that provide us opportunities for attention. The security officer who takes that particular job just so that he can wear the uniform. The expert who is always giving a quote to some reporter or another. Or the twenty-something who spends 80% of his waking hours connected on Twitter.
People tend to perform better when they believe they will get noticed, a phenomenon known as the Hawthorne Effect.
We also need to give attention. A character who’s a groupie of some celebrity may at some level be trying to give attention to the celebrity. (She may also hope to receive some attention from him.) And when a character sees another character upset, begs him to talk to her, to unload his problems, to get them off his chest, she probably desires to give and receive attention.
Any time two or more of your characters interact, their need for attention comes into play. You the author should realize this, but your character almost surely will not. If she gets her need for attention met, she will feel good about the encounter. And if you ask her about it, she’ll say that the other person was nice to her, or that he was in a good mood, or that she’s having “a good day” or a “stroke of luck,” or that it’s God’s blessing, or some other explanation.
People can also pursue their need for attention by focusing on an organization, a cult, an idea, a place, an object, a belief. A character who reveres a religious icon may at least partly be trying to give and receive attention. Again, she won’t see it that way. But even though she doesn’t realize it (or perhaps because she doesn’t realize it), this need for attention will open her up to indoctrination, if she encounters a religious leader who can provoke it in order to manipulate her worldview.
A more common story is the character who has fixated on a romantic interest, and so he looks for excuses to be around her, seeks out subjects she enjoys so that he can talk with her about them, suddenly becomes interested in all the things she’s interested in, regardless of what he was interested in before he met her. (And the converse, too, the heroine who fixates on a guy.)
On the flip side lives the character who questions the status quo, carefully examining any truth he encounters. This terribly unromantic character has learned to calm his instincts and to distance himself from the beliefs he himself holds. He may come off as a Mr. Spock “logic above all” character, even though (like Mr. Spock) he feels all the same feelings everyone else does. He may himself be engaged in a search for truth (as part of fulfilling his own need for purpose), or he may simply be aware of the cognitive dissonance intrinsic to his own belief system. He may also serve as a wizened mentor, because he’s sure to have a few unusual ideas that could inspire the story hero.
The need for attention is a core human need we all know and possess. If you remember it in your character, you’ll add a layer of depth and sympathy to her story, no matter what her circumstance.