Character Needs: The Need for Autonomy

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Finishing out these posts on character needs, extracted from Character Fiction 101: How to Write Fictional Characters and Character Stories. Today, a basic need that provides motivation for many powerful stories, the need for autonomy.

Each of us needs to feel in control over his own life and his own choices, a measure of independence and freedom, a corner of the world that is “mine, all mine, to do with as I wish.”

A character may seek to obtain direct control over her own destiny by rebelling, perhaps even if there’s no reason for her to rebel. She might object to a rule against smoking for example, even if she herself does not smoke, even if smoke and dust aggravate her allergies. Or she may seek out ways to control her space in ways that others will not or cannot challenge. An office worker who drinks out of her own special coffee cup that she brought from home, or sets a picture of her family on her desk. Or she might respond to a stressful situation with deep breathing or other relaxation techniques.

Just asserting a token bit of control can make the difference between going on and giving in. Tales have even been told of prisoners who survived torture by exercising control over how long they held out before screaming or losing consciousness.

A character can sometimes gain a feeling of autonomy if she merely obtains information about the future. She might see a psychic for that reason, although she herself may not reason that her need for autonomy is the driving force. The same logic applies if the knowledge seeks her out. For example, she might feel better about an operation she is about to undergo if the surgeon and anesthetist discuss with her ahead of time everything that will happen to her and everything she will experience, and then lets her control her own dosages of postoperative pain medication, all of which is standard procedure now in many hospitals.

A person can become overwhelmed by too much responsibility, but too little can produce as much stress. Lack of autonomy has been associated with physical illness, fear, anxiety, sensitivity to pain, and depression. Feeling helpless can cause despondency and depression, and conversely control over one’s own life is a core weapon against depression.

Changes that we can’t control also tend to generate fear and threaten our sense of autonomy (as well as our sense of security). And our modern obsession with global news doesn’t help, because most of it we can’t control. Politics. Wars. Natural disasters. And the ever-looming prospect of losing your job in the midst of an economy we perceive as uncertain. Broad social and natural phenomena, because they take place within complex systems that no one really understands, all provide potential challenges to your character’s sense of autonomy and security.

If a character is desperate for autonomy, or if she pursues the need in a dysfunctional manner, she may reject her family or community (threatening her sense of community, intimacy, and security), “rail against the world,” or engage in crime or other antisocial behavior.

If you look at your favorite stories, you should see the need for autonomy pop up everywhere, from the rebellious teenager to the demoralized prisoner (or office worker).

Keep writing!




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