One thing I try to figure out before starting a new book is my main character’s 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 my book Clockwise, my main character’s felt need is to be normal. 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.
In another manuscript my character’s felt need is to belong.
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.
In The Cay by Theodore Taylor, Philip’s felt need is to be safe. He wants to reunite with his family, get away from Timothy and he wants his vision back. A lot of his drive—his actions, reactions and emotions are the result of not feeling safe.
In the movie Napoleon Dynamite, to use the same illustration as last week, Napoleon’s felt need is to be taken seriously. He’s belittled or ignored by everyone except his new friend Pedro and this drives him to help Pedro win student council president.
How about you? Do you know you’re main character’s felt need?