The next post on character needs, extracted from Character Fiction 101: How to Write Fictional Characters and Character Stories. Today, the need for intimacy.
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 whom we see the same way, and love anyway. The need for intimacy, both physical intimacy and emotional intimacy, generates some of the oldest and most powerful story conflicts, and most romance novels.
A healthy character will usually meet her need for intimacy through strong, supportive relationships. And these relationships can mean the difference between her success and failure. They can help her through hardship, or even help make her more resistant to disease. Even the simple physical contact that comes, for example, by petting a beloved cat, can reduce stress and make your character feel more able to meet the world. Many people meet their need for intimacy by owning a pet. Sexual closeness is also an act of physical and emotional intimacy.
Whenever two characters participate in a relationship, their need for intimacy—and how they meet that need—can affect their feelings and behaviors. This is true in any sort of relationship, whether romantic or platonic, whether close or casual. And anything that threatens the intimacy of two characters can limit how deep the relationship grows or even prevent a relationship from forming.
A character might neglect her need for intimacy if other needs are taking center stage: the stereotypical heroine too focused on her career to have time for a boyfriend, or the mid-life hero who sacrifices long-held family ties in an attempt to “find” himself. A character might also avoid intimacy if she’s afraid of its implications: afraid of being taken advantage of by a smooth talker, because she’s fallen into that trap before; afraid of getting too close and getting her feelings hurt later on; afraid of a new romance developing and harming her relationship with her current boyfriend.
Negative experiences in the relationship will threaten intimacy, such as anger or bitterness over a perceived wrong, or if the other character seems domineering, distant, or needy. And sometimes delusional or dysfunctional thinking can prevent a character from getting close to another, such as when she wishes to get close to him as a substitute for a lost loved one, refusing to see him for the individual he really is; or when the other character is simply getting his need for intimacy met elsewhere and doesn’t want a relationship with her. These can make for some surprising plots, and some heartbreaking ones, too.
We may sometimes pretend that intimacy is unimportant. But we so desperately need intimacy, unless we get it we will experience loneliness, emptiness, eventually depression and sometimes even psychoses and physical illness. For example, in a 1980’s study (Psychosomatic Medicine, 49:341-354 ), Teresa Seeman and Leonard Syme found that the intimacy a person shares is more important in predicting heart problems than even cholesterol, diet, smoking, exercise, and family history of heart disease.
Before intimacy comes friendship and attention, so a character who feels a need for intimacy may start by seeking attention through more casual relationships with new acquaintances. On the other hand, a character desperate for intimacy may appear overly needy, greedy for attention, or self-centered. And a character may try to find intimacy by pursuing sex or contriving fantasies, neither of which are likely to satisfy.