You’ve probably heard that a well-written scene should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that’s a good starting point for us, right?
Before we write a single word of a scene, we have to back-up a bit and have a clear understanding of the POV character’s innermost desire. This isn’t the character’s immediate objective or a simple, external goal. This is much deeper. Understanding this crucial need is what gives you the power to write strong, emotional scenes. It provides the basis for the conflict you’ll use, and it pushes the scene events along from beginning, through the middle, on to the end -- and beyond.
Principle 1: Know your character’s deepest need.
Sounds simple, right? It’s not. Sometimes your character won’t even be aware of exactly what it is he or she needs. But as the story’s creator, you must have a full understanding of what your character requires in order to achieve true happiness.
Like people in real life, fictional characters often delude themselves. We fail to see the long-range forest because we’re too busy looking at the day-to-day trees of our existence. We convince ourselves that material things can make us happy, or that attaining a certain status will do the trick.
Nope. Happiness is about more than getting the little things -- or even some of the big things -- we think we want. Real happiness only comes when we get what we need.
In 1943, Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of needs. He spoke of food, shelter, air as being the most basic needs. He talked about satisfying emotional needs too.
Here is the overall hierarchy Maslow established:
In fiction-writing, the principles used for character development are very similar to this hierarchy. There are four generalized “needs” -- and a lot of over-lapping -- that form the basis for true happiness in the lives of fictional characters. These are:
1. Physical safety and well-being.
2. Emotional acceptance and understanding.
3. Trust and awareness of reality.
4. Power and control of one’s own destiny.
Let’s take a quick look at these four areas in order to understand how they work in fiction and why they’re so important to both story development and character development -- and why they’re the basis for all the scenes you’ll be writing.
Physical Safety and Well-Being
Every character in every story faces one inevitable conflict with life itself: death. We live; we die. This is a fact that can’t be avoided -- but we may not think about it on a daily basis unless something in our environment poses an immediate threat to our physical safety and well-being. The same is true for fictional characters. In many stories, the threat of sickness or death may be virtually non-existent. In other stories, the need for physical safety and well-being will form the central issue of the story.
In these stories, your character’s deepest need relates to the physical aspects of life. Your character needs to be physically safe, to be protected from harm, to be free from danger, free from illness, physical deformities, or disabling conditions -- or, if that’s not possible, your character must develop the ability to fully accept a physical imperfection and thereby achieve a sense of physical well-being.
No matter how wise your character may be, despite the love and friendships your character has, regardless of the power and influence your character exerts in his or her life, until the character achieves physical safety and well-being, true happiness will not be possible.
Emotional Security, Forgiveness, and Acceptance
The next area to explore involves the emotional aspects of life. Essentially, as Abraham Maslow pointed out, we need love and a sense of belonging. So do fictional characters. Satisfying your character’s emotional needs will often be the main issue of a story, especially when you’re writing romance. Romance is all about emotional security. It’s about being comfortable enough to give and receive love. It’s about forgiving ourselves and others. It’s about reaching out -- and hopefully being accepted rather than rejected.
Life involves taking chances, especially in personal relationships. Any negative thoughts a fictional character carries around inside his or her head can make it difficult to establish strong bonds with others.
As before, it doesn’t matter how smart your cookie is. Who cares how much money he’s got if he’s an emotional mess? Health? Great to have, but living a long, miserable life is a far cry from happiness. The point: fictional characters must achieve emotional security in order to achieve genuine happiness. They must forgive themselves and others; they must accept themselves and others. They must know -- and be -- all they are meant to be.
Mental Awareness, Trust, and Reality
All issues involving the human mind -- real or fictional -- can be tricky. The mind is a place where imagination holds sway and reality is often skewed. People often live in illusions. So do fictional characters.
One of the most difficult aspects of mind-related issues is that the character with the problem is likely to be wholly unaware of it. It’s difficult to resolve a problem...no, let’s back up. It’s impossible to resolve a problem unless we’re aware that it exists.
Fictional characters must know the truth before true happiness can be achieved. This ultimate truth involves all aspects of their reality. They must know whom they can trust -- and who is really out to get them. They must open their eyes and see their world as it truly is, not as they wish it to be. They must learn to think for themselves, to make their own judgments about right and wrong, and they must give up old thought patterns and out-dated beliefs that have held them back in the past.
A character may be brimming with health, may be surrounded by well-meaning friends and loved ones, and may have a fortune at his or her disposal. Yet, if that character lives in a world of lies and deceits, real happiness can never be found.
Material Comforts, Morality, and Control of One’s Destiny
Material comfort itself is rarely an over-riding concern in romantic fiction. Yes, there are characters who are seeking monetary gain, characters whose objectives are to climb to the pinnacle of success, and often they’re rewarded with financial security. But, as often as not, the wealthy, affluent characters in romantic fiction are not as happy as they appear. They usually have lessons to learn -- about how money doesn’t bring happiness, about how doing for others is more important than pursuing their own selfish interests.
Still, material comforts do play a role in the lives of fictional characters. Most often, that role involves providing material comfort -- financial support -- for someone less fortunate. Older siblings seek to support not only themselves, but their younger brothers and sisters. A romantic heroine struggles to support her crippled father. The protective young hero fights to provide for his little sister and to make her dreams of a good education come true. These are examples of the need for material comfort.
At a deeper level, however, the desire for material comfort arises from a number of greater needs: the need to feel that we control our own destiny, that we are morally good men and women, that we are capable of managing our own affairs without asking for help from others.
Fictional characters need this power, too. So long as your character is subjected to the demands of others, or is in debt to another, genuine happiness will not be achieved.
Running parallel to this need for control of one’s destiny is a larger desire: the desire to make the world a better place. Fictional characters don’t focus on their needs alone. They see what’s wrong in society, and they seek to change it. They work to end corruption, they stand up to the rich and powerful oppressors, they valiantly fight for what they know is right. All else becomes secondary.
If they die for what they believe, so be it. If they find themselves rejected, scorned, hated, and despised, it doesn’t matter. If they are forced to lie, steal, or cheat in the cause of achieving a greater good, they will do whatever they must. So strong are their beliefs, they can never achieve true happiness until the wrongs have been righted and the world has been changed.
What’s the point in identifying these underlying, psychological needs of your characters? Simple. Every scene begins with a behind-the-scenes desire for happiness. Your character’s greatest need might be a need for physical security. Your character might be desperately needing emotional acceptance. Or maybe your character needs to break free from illusions and face the truth. Maybe your character is fighting to take control of his or her destiny. Whatever your character’s central issue may be, it will serve as a starting point for all your character does.
Take a good look at your characters, assess their needs, and pinpoint the specific thing they must have in order to attain true happiness. It’s not just about getting the girl. It’s not simply making money. It’s none of the external goals your characters set for themselves. Those goals are important, yes, but what’s even more important is the underlying psychological basis upon which those needs are formed.
So, before your write your next scene, figure out what your character must have in order to find true happiness. Find that core issue, that underlying question, that deep-seated need that drives your character. Your scenes will have more power, more meaning, and more inherent conflict as a result.
COMING SOON: SCENE OBJECTIVES