There are a number of methods for deepening your characters, but today we'll look at just one: Identification of dominant needs.
Typically, genre fiction writers think in terms of goals and motivations. "Johnny wants to ace his finals because it will help him get into med school."
Goal = good grades.
Motivation = acceptance into med school
This is fine, and you can build a sturdy plot this way, but you might end up with slightly flat characters. We don't know anything about Johnny's core characteristics at this point. You might be thinking that we can extrapolate certain characteristics from the core facts, but can we? Johnny might want to ace his finals, but he might also want to watch the ball game. Is it safe to assume he has the self-discipline and focus necessary to study simply because he "wants" good grades? Or is it possible that is competing desires might be stronger? The truth is that although a person's goals do say something about that person, they might not say enough to be accurate predictors of behavior.
The way to get around this is by digging deeper into the motivation to find the dominant emotional needs. You're probably already doing this on some level. If you find yourself asking "Why?" frequently when examining your characters, you're trying to dig past the wants and into the needs. But this can also lead to flat and even circular reasoning. If you've spent much time in writers' brainstorming groups, you've probably run into conversations something like this:
Why does Johnny want to go to med school?
To become a doctor.
Why does Johnny want to be a doctor?
He wants a stable job with good pay and benefits.
Why does he want this kind of job?
Uh, doesn't everyone? Beats the hell out of living under a bridge.
We're getting nowhere because we're focusing on externals. It may be true that people want good pay in general, but that doesn't tell us much about Johnny in specific. As a character he may be an expression of universal human tendencies, but that doesn't mean he can be generic. So how do we get past this generic or universal external desire and into the gears of Johnny's unique mechanism?
Try taking the external goal away, and see where it gets you. Johnny wants to go to medical school so he can become a doctor and have a good job. What if somehow Johnny is precluded from attending medical school? Is he still the same character, or do the changed externals change his personality, too? Or, to put it another way,
Why does he choose medicine over some other stable profession, like law or big business?
When he was a kid, he heard someone say, "Don't be a plain Mister Jones when you can be a Doctor Jones." It stuck with him.
Aha! Now we're getting somewhere. The money might be a good rationale for this profession, but there's also a deeper emotional need at play. Johnny wants status. Money is an external symbol of that status, but other things are, too. How else would Johnny express his need for status? Clothing, housing, designer luggage, expensive haircuts -- all these status symbols might be deeply important to Johnny.
Johnny might be the kind of guy with an expensive car, too, but it's not because he's a risk-taker. He doesn't speed. He pauses at intersections and lets people get a good look at him in the driver's seat. And unlike the guy who buys the exact same car out of some need for attention, Johnny won't squeal his wheels when the light turns green.
I want to pause a moment and consider what we've just done. We started with an external fact or goal, worked inward to the core emotional need, and are now turning it around to work back out. We're examining that emotional need for other ways it might express itself in Johnny's life. Johnny buys that car because of what it says about his status. By identifying the core need expressed by his car, we can also figure out how he drives it.
By doing this inside-out analysis, we might also identify some self-contradictory behavior. Let's think about Johnny's lady for a moment. Notice that when Johnny first started explaining why he'd chosen medical school, he referenced stability as a goal. If his core emotional need was for stability, he might choose his spouse early in life and then make darn sure their marriage was a contented one.
But if his dominant need is for status rather than stability, and stability is merely the need he's willing to cop to in public, then will Johnny marry young? Maybe not. Not unless he manages to snag a supermodel or the sorority president. And even if he does land a girl like that, he might also go for some side action as an expression of status. Because that's the rumor: high-status males get more nookie.
So now what we have is a status-seeking male who claims to value stability (and who might, in fact, value it to some extent, especially in financial matters) who undermines the stability of his personal life by joining the girl-of-the-week club and/or cheating on his wife.
We can complicate this further. If his need for financial stability is greater than his tolerance for personal instability, Johnny might avoid cheating because he doesn't want to lose his house in a divorce. So instead taking his side nookie to a nightclub, he'll go to the same club on date night with his spouse and flirt with the waitresses, but he'll only dance with his wife. Now he's satisfying multiple emotional needs: He has the status-symbol wife on his arm, the status-enhancing flirtation, and the stability of a public display of loyalty to his wife. Plus, at the end of the night, there's little risk that his wife will take half of everything.
So, now we understand that mining a character's emotional needs can help us understand why they do the things they do. They might even help us predict how a character will behave in a given situation. Next time, we'll look at how a writer can use all this to exploit conflicts.
Any questions? If not, I have one for you. Does Johnny study for his finals or watch the game with his friends?