Thursday, October 11, 2012

Character Wants and Needs

Originally published on November 17, 2008

Now that you have become familiar with your character, it is time to put them into action. One way to do this is to focus on the character’s goals or, what it is that the character WANTS or NEEDS to achieve. To organize a story around this idea, I suggest trying the following organizer. Definitions of each term are provided, but we’ll take a look at an example a little further down the page.

CHARACTER – Character name goes here. You may also include any information from the Character Biography that you feel is important.

WANT/NEED – A better life.

What makes this day different from other days? Or… why does the character suddenly decide to go and get what they want/need?

OBSTACLES – People and things that stand in the character’s way.

ACTIONS – What the character does to get past the obstacles.

CONCLUSION – How the story ends.

Now, let’s take Cinderella as an example of a character.

The story of Cinderella has multiple versions, adaptations, and retellings, so when I have approached this in workshops everyone has a slightly different take on the story. (For three versions from the Russian, Chinese and Algonquin cultures, check out Cinderella: The World’s Favorite Fairytale by Lowell Swortzell.) To make things easier, we’ll go with a version that most people are likely familiar with - the Perrault/Disney version.

Cinderella wants, or it may be more appropriate to say that Cinderella NEEDS, a better life. She is trapped in a horrible home with a stepmother and stepsisters who demand that she do all of their work – cooking, cleaning, and making their clothes. It is an abusive situation and she needs to get out.

One day, a message arrives from the palace. The Prince is looking for a wife and plans a ball to which he is inviting all of the young women in the kingdom. Cinderella sees this as an opportunity to achieve her goal of a better life, but her Stepmother and Stepsisters prevent Cinderella from going. However, Cinderella gets help from her Fairy Godmother who magically transforms the animals and objects in the house into the coach, gown, and attendants who assist in getting Cinderella to the ball. However, this assistance comes with a catch. Cinderella must leave the ball by midnight. At that time, the magic will wear off and everything will turn back into what it once was.

So, Cinderella attends the ball, avoids being spotted by her Stepmother and Stepsisters, dances with the Prince, and leaves the palace just as the clock strikes midnight. However, she loses one of her glass slippers at the palace, which the Prince then uses to find her.

That’s enough information for us to go back to the organizer. Given that version of the story, I might fill things out in this way…

CHARACTER – Cinderella

WANT/NEED – A better life

EMERGENCY – The invitation to the ball asks for all young women to attend. Stepmother and the Stepsisters cannot overrule the Prince, so she has a chance to go to the ball, which just might offer her the opportunity to get a better life.

OBSTACLES – Stepmother, Stepsisters, Time.

Completes the tasks her Stepfamily gives her, Accepts help from the Fairy Godmother, Dances with the Prince, Returns home as the magic wears off, but now is disappointed.

We know how the classic versions of this story end, but I will leave the conclusion undecided to demonstrate that the story does not need to end one particular way. Depending upon the author/playwright’s theme, a story can end any number of ways, based on what the author wants the audience to learn. But we can get into theme another time.

Now back to your character. Try to place your character into this outline and see how the story might unfold. I encourage you to try some different versions by changing the character’s want, obstacles or action. How does that change the story? What do you think an audience might learn from each version of the story?

Another thing to consider is just as each character experiences obstacles along the way, they might also find help. Help can come in the form of people like Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, or things like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, or information like a Jedi Padawan’s training in the ways of the Force. See what works for the story you want to tell.

Happy writing!

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