Another post on character needs, extracted from Character Fiction 101: How to Write Fictional Characters and Character Stories. Today, a need that has been on my heart of late, the need for community.
Feeling part of a wider community, beyond one’s immediate family, involves shared perceptions and identity with others and connections to them, a feeling of belonging, that we matter to one another, that we’re all watching each others’ backs, a belief that our needs will be met through the community that we share. We are not just a collection of individuals all competing to win; we are also all parts of larger communities.
A character meets her need for community by identifying with, joining, and becoming accepted by a community of others. This may be a community of residents of her town, her coworkers, members of a church or civic organization, or even fellow AA members. She participates in community activities and supports them. She prefers to interact with community members, rather than with strangers or non-community acquaintances. She may dress a certain way, talk a certain way, and communicate using insider lingo. She identifies with the community’s shared heritage, with shared dramatic moments, a shared mythology, symbolism, rituals, and other social conventions. She accepts the community’s appointed leaders and expects them to establish and enforce community norms. She also joins with other members in lobbying those leaders, and expects the leaders to listen.
Community comes into play whenever your character joins with others, experiences peer pressure, or engages in group interactions. Community is an exclusive club, whose flame grows from “the spark of friendship” (in the words of David McMillan), so friendship can grow into community. A character may choose who to open up to based on community, because community insiders are more willing to reveal their inner thoughts to other insiders, because they feel safe doing so.
A number of situations can threaten its members’ sense of community. When members feel the leadership is acting unfairly or failing to represent them, they may withdraw their allegiance, sometimes even resulting in a community split. Your character may end up in one camp or the other, or may be caught in between; in any case, she will experience a crisis of community. Or if she feels she is giving more to the community than the community deserves, that they are taking advantage of her, she may begin to distance herself from the community.
The alpha-male, dog-eat-dog philosophy, so prevalent in modern western society, also threatens sense of community, by decreasing cooperation. More highly evolved creatures (e.g., chimpanzees) cooperate more with each other and depend on each other more than less evolved ones (e.g., shrews). Make your character part of a politically ruthless community (like many corporate careers), and she’s sure to encounter problems.
Isolation from community can cut off your character’s psychological resources for dealing with stress, anxiety, and grief, resulting in depression and other mental illnesses. Conversely, community participation fights depression. In tribal societies, with a deep sense of community, depression is almost unheard of, because whenever a member starts to give off signals that he’s hitting an emotional wall, his community mobilizes to help and guide him back to emotional health. Being physically cut off from family and friends, as so often occurs in our modern world, your character might wrestle with depression for many months before someone notices that something is wrong. This can cause physical illness or prompt your character to turn to self-help books or professional counsellors, just to help her live through each day.
The human drive for community is not all peaches and cream. In extreme cases, communities can become cliques or isolated anachronisms. Your character may be part of a community that shuns outsiders, or need to get into such a community from the outside, situations that have provided for some wonderful story conflicts (and more than a few clichés as well).
Being part of a community helps us meet our other needs, in particular, our need for security. In tribal societies, if a hut burns down, the whole tribe immediately joins in to rebuild it. Because of her community ties, your character has someone to call when her car breaks down out on the road, leaving her stranded in the middle of the highway. A strong community can maintain its unity even in the midst of dispute or disagreement, and this stability can help your character through hard times.
A healthy community maxes out at around 150 people, a number that seems to be pre-programmed into our brains’ capacity for community relationships. But your character may try to fill her need for community through broad political activism, especially at the national level, or by identifying with the large corporation that employs her, or by attending a large church. These efforts are bound to backfire, because unless she joins a small subgroup, she will not be able to establish a firm sense of community in such a large group.
She may also try to compensate for her lack of community through weak substitutes, like Facebook and Twitter. Or she may turn inward, or commit crimes, or act out by exploiting or abusing others.
Look to the need for community for innovative, meaningful stories. Modern society has in many ways shortchanged and diluted human community, ripening this need as a source of cultural relevance in contemporary stories.