Character Development Through Emotional Needs
This week, we’re going to be talking about connecting to your character’s emotional needs.
Usually when we talk about characters, we don’t talk about their emotional need at all. We talk about their tangible goal, the tangible object: What do they want? What are they going for? What’s their dream? What’s their goal?
If you want to talk in acting terms, what’s their super objective? What’s their intention? What’s their objective in the scene? What’s the thing they want more than anything else that they’re trying to get?
If you want to talk in Hitchcock terms, what’s the MacGuffin that everyone’s trying to get in the movie?
We’re really comfortable with this idea of the tangible object.
For examples of a tangible object, in Raising Arizona, everybody wants the baby. In The Godfather, Michael wants to protect the family. In The Handmaid’s Tale, June wants to save her children.
Almost every character has this tangible object that they are seeking. If you know that tangible object, character development becomes much easier.
In fact, all you have to do is make it hard for them to get the tangible object and they will go on a journey. They will have to start making new choices and those new choices will change them, just like in your own life.
If you know what you want and you start going for it, you will hit obstacles. We think about those obstacles as bad things, but oftentimes when it comes to character development they’re not. The obstacle is just the thing that makes it hard. The thing that makes it hard is the thing that forces you to learn who you really are and to make choices you’ve never made before and to experience who you really can be.
If you’ve ever had a great creative partner, great director, great actor, that person doesn’t just say, “Sure, anything you want, boss!” A great collaborator, a great mentor, pushes you, asks you hard questions and forces you to think more deeply, to get under the surface. They don’t make it easy, they make it hard.
In making it hard, they force you to discover who you really are as a person and as an artist and as a writer.
It’s the same way with our characters, if you know the tangible object and you attack the tangible object and you make it hard, the character has to make new choices, and that sends them on a journey.
This raises two really interesting questions: 1) How to develop characters when you don’t know what the character wants? 2) Why is it that we care so much about what some characters want and we don’t care at all about what other characters want?
Why is it that sometimes you go to see a movie and sometimes the character wants something that you don’t even connect to?
If you’re watching There Will Be Blood, the character wants oil. How many of us are seeking oil? How many for how many of us are like, “Yeah, that’s my dream. You know, I just really want to be an oil man.” Most of us don’t have that dream. So, why do we care about Daniel Plainview?
If you watch The Wrestler, the wrestler wants to wrestle again. Well, most of us don’t have the desire to get the crap beat out of us in a ring by a 300 pound man. Most of us don’t connect to that tangible object. So, why is it that we care about the wrestler?
Yet, there are other movies that you’ve probably watched where they’re trying to save the baby or save the world, and you’re like, “Who cares? This feels so fake. I don’t get it. I don’t connect to it. I don’t care.”
Sometimes we root for characters pursuing tangible objects that we don’t even agree with.
If you think of Breaking Bad, we don’t agree (hopefully) with the idea of becoming drug lords. We don’t agree with the idea of manipulating our own worst student—who believes in us and looks at us like a father—towards his addictions so that we can get what we want. We don’t believe in lying to our spouses or lying to our children. We don’t believe in any of the tangible objects Walter White is going for.
So, why do we care about Walter White?
Why is it that there are some perfectly nice characters who “Save the Cat” and do super sweet things that we don’t actually care about at all? What actually makes us care about a character as they develop through the structure of our story?
In previous podcasts, I’ve talked about understanding what the character wants and what makes it hard is something that makes us care. There’s something even deeper, however.
We care when the writer is connected.
A tangible object can be a way of connecting, if you’re lucky enough to know what the character wants. But what really connects us is not the want. It’s the need underneath.
When you write from emotional need, you’re getting under the surface of the tangible object and adding to the character development.
You’re discovering what the tangible object actually means to the character.
What does it mean on a primal level? What does it mean on a core level? What does it mean on an animal or reptilian level?
What does it mean on the collective unconscious level?
Jung had this idea of the collective unconscious.
What Jung basically said is that in our subconscious minds, in our dreams, we could connect to the fabric of the universe, the fabric that ties us together. This might not sound like character development, but it’s actually the key to understanding it.
In our waking state, when you look at me or I look at you, you think that you’re not Jake and Jake’s not you. We’re different people.
What Jung said is that in our dreams, we could actually connect to the communal experience, the group experience, the carefully woven fabric that ties us all. That way, we could find archetypes that actually mean the same thing to you that they mean to me. In this way, we can actually understand the way that we are all connected.
A guy named Campbell came along who basically said that if Jung is right and there’s this collective unconscious that ties us all together, then there must also be such a thing as a collective story or a story that ties us all together. If we could simply tell that story—which he called “The Hero’s Journey”—then we would be telling a story that’s universal.
So what Campbell did was label and name all those different story archetypes and all those different archetypal moments, just like Jung did with the archetypes from the collective unconscious.
Oddly, when a lot of writers try to use Campbell’s archetypes, they don’t actually end up writing archetypes. They actually end up writing stereotypes.
Similarly When a lot of writers tried to follow the 21 steps of The Hero’s Journey, they ended up not actually doing The Hero’s Journey. They ended up actually doing a formula that tried to replicate The Hero’s Journey.
When learning how to write characters, there are certain questions you’ll want to take into account.
What’s the difference between a formula and structure?
What’s the difference between an archetype and a stereotype?
What’s the difference between a character whose tangible object we care about and a character whose tangible object we don’t care about at all?
Character development comes down to emotional need. Most of us are not aware of our emotional needs, but all of us have emotional needs driving us all the time.
Let’s say you go into a Starbucks and you’re telling yourself that your tangible object is a cup of coffee. That’s true. Technically, you want a cup of coffee.
But, underneath that desire for a cup of coffee is something else, something much more profound. It’s something that you share with every other human being in the world.
Not everybody likes coffee. Not everybody likes Starbucks coffee. I don’t like Starbucks coffee at all. I prefer coffee from little coffee shops that Starbucks puts out of business. Not everybody wants a Starbucks, but for the character who wants a Starbucks, the Starbucks represents something.
For one character, it might represent comfort. “Oh man! I just had such a tough day and if I could just sit and have that Starbucks, it would just let me breathe.”
For another character, that Starbucks might represent justice. “I worked hard all day for minimum wage. I got yelled at by my boss. I got treated like crap. Yeah, a Starbucks might be worth 25 cents and cost 5 dollars, but I deserve a Starbucks for the amount of work I did. If there’s any justice in the world, I’m going to get to Starbucks so that I can feel like I treated myself fairly after my intense day of work.”
You can see that the person seeking comfort is going to go for their Starbucks in a way that’s completely different than the character seeking justice. Even though they have the same goal, which is the coffee, the emotional need is going to inflect everything.
Somebody else wants a Starbucks because they want to feel love. When they were a kid, their dad used to take them to Starbucks and let them get anything they wanted. Even now, when they go to Starbucks, they look at that venti latte and they think, “Feels like love.” That’s dad’s love. Why am I going to Starbucks and why do I want this venti latte? Because I want to feel love.”
Somebody else might go to Starbucks and want a cup of coffee because they want respect. “No son, Jacob is not spelled with a K. It’s spelled with a C. Spell my name correctly when I order a cup of coffee, please. Because I’m the kind of guy who goes to Starbucks because I can afford it. Because I’ve achieved something, so I can have those pleasures, including the pleasure of you writing my name down properly… because I want respect.”
Do you see the difference between that character who needs respect and the character who just needs love and the character who just needs justice?
All these characters are going to Starbucks for completely different reasons, but these reasons have nothing to do with Starbucks. These reasons have to do with the core emotional needs of the character which are imperative to character development. They have to do with what’s really driving the character under the surface.
When we learn how to write characters from that place, from those core, primal emotional needs, what happens is that the personal becomes universal, and the character develops into someone we not only watch, but actually connect to!
If you just write a character trying to get a Starbucks and you keep making it hard—they write the name down wrong, they give you the wrong order that somebody bought ahead of them in line, that Starbucks catches on fire—you can create a lot of obstacles, but we might honestly not give a crap about whether the person gets to Starbucks or not.
No one goes to Starbucks consciously thinking, “You know, I need love today, so maybe I’ll get a coffee.” In fact, the moment you think that you realize, “Whoa, that’s crazy.” You don’t get love from a coffee! You don’t get justice from a coffee! You don’t get respect from a coffee!
These are the subconscious connections that our minds make. We buy things, we try things, we go for things, we try to achieve things because we want to feel a certain way.
Those feelings that we need emotionally are universal. They’re primal and they happen at the reptilian or the mammalian brain level.
They’re not happening at the intellectual level. We’re not even consciously aware of what’s driving us. In fact, imagine if we were. It would be so nice. If we were consciously aware of our emotional needs, there would be no war.
You could meet your friend and be like, “How are you doing, man?”
“Well, I really need some respect.”
“Well, I really need some validation.”
“Okay, cool. You know, you’re doing great.”
“Thanks, man, You know, I’ve always looked up to you.”
Everyone feels better.
“Napoleon, how are you doing?”
“You know, thinking about taking over the world. I just need to feel some validation.”
“Oh. Did I mention that you look fabulous?”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you. Okay. Actually, I feel better.”
If we could actually say what we needed, then we wouldn’t have to pursue these crazy things.
What happens over the course of a screenplay (or the course of a life) is these totally positive emotional needs, respect, comfort, justice, safety, meaning—these simple needs get confused with their tangible objects.
Let’s say we have no money and we’re sitting out in the rain trying to get the newest iPad, trying to be the first. It’s not because we want an iPad. It’s because we want to feel creative and because we need meaning in our life. We think the iPad equals meaning.
We buy a $50,000 car or a BMW. That’s not because we’re thinking rationally. “What’s the best way to spend my money? Let me buy a depreciating asset that is going to be worth $10,000 less as soon as I drive it off the lot.”
We’re also not thinking practically. “Well, you know, I need to get my family around. Therefore, I need this BMW.” It’s pretty clear from a rational perspective that we’d better with a minivan.
So when be buy that BMW, we’re more likely thinking, “I want people to know that I’m frickin’ cool.” I need a BMW because I need people to know that I’ve made it. I need validation or I need respect or maybe I need justice or maybe I need love.
We confuse those feelings with the tangible object.
In a way, thank goodness we do! Because if we didn’t confuse emotional needs and tangible objects, then nothing would ever happen. We would just sit around going, “I need love.” “Okay, I love you.” And our lives would be nice, but there wouldn’t be a lot of movement.
When it comes to character development, the emotional needs are actually what move us structurally towards a tangible object.
It’s what makes the baby in Raising Arizona matter. It’s not the baby. Sure, we all love babies, but it’s not the baby. It’s the emotional need underneath it.
It’s what makes oil matter in There Will Be Blood. It’s the emotional need for success that’s driving him.
In that heist movie you’re watching, it’s not the million dollars of fake money in the fake briefcase that we all know doesn’t exist that makes it matter. It’s the emotional need. It’s “What does it mean?”
This is why in every heist movie, it’s never about the money. The money is fake. It’s fictional money in a fictional movie. It’s about “What does the money mean?” That’s why it’s always the last heist, because it’s never about the heist, it’s always about what the heist represents.
This is the concept: Under every tangible object is an emotional need.
If you push on the tangible object hard enough and make it challenging enough, the character will start to make big choices. And through that character development, those big choices will eventually reveal the emotional need underneath.
Here’s how to write great characters if you’re a very conscious minded writer, a very analytical writer or you have trouble accessing your own emotional needs. Choose a tangible object, make it really hard, force the character to start making new choices, and eventually, you’re going to suddenly feel something.
“Oh, wow! It’s not about the briefcase. It’s about love. Oh, wow! It’s not about the briefcase. It’s about justice.” Think of Hell Or High Water. “Oh, wow! It’s not about robbing the bank. It’s about justice.”
That’s what makes us care. That’s where the trick ending in Hell or High Water comes from. It’s never actually about a tangible object. It’s about the emotional need underneath.
So, if you know the tangible object but don’t know the emotional need, then keep making it hard. The harder you make it, the more the emotional need will start to bubble to the surface. The more new choices the character makes that only they would make, the more you’ll learn about what their emotional need is.
Once you get the character’s emotional need, you get them. And from there, character development is easy.
If you don’t know what the tangible object is, then pick anything. Pick a glass of water, a pair of scissors, an iPhone, a smoothie, this roll of tape, this seltzer, this remote control, this touchpad, this magical button device or these worn out headphones. It doesn’t actually matter what you pick. It matters that you pick something and that something matters to you.
Pick that tangible object and look around the room through your character’s eyes. See what shiny object is interesting to them in that room or see what shiny object is interesting to them that’s so big it’s going to drive them through a whole movie.
Pick that object because the object doesn’t matter. The object is only there to help you and the character understand their real emotional need in order to add to their overall character development.
If you’re a more intuitive writer, then it might be hard for you to connect to tangible objects. You don’t care about the headphones or the drink or the touchpad. You don’t care about any of those things.
If you’re a more intuitive writer, to learn how to develop great characters, you can start by connecting to the emotional need.
In my classes, I teach some hypnotic techniques that let you get under the surface and connect to the emotional need. If you want to learn that, yes, you can do it using hypnotic techniques and meditation. You can do it using craft techniques. In fact, if you get really good at isolating visual moments of action—another technique that we teach—then you can actually use your inner eye and the technique of craft to connect to the emotional need.
You can use the structural technique that I just taught you. Figure out what they want and make it hard.
But on a more intuitive level, you can also go inside and feel your own emotional need. You can close your eyes, take a breath and feel the emotional need that gets hot in you when you think about your character.
It might be love or meaning or respect or justice, or safety– you might have you’re own name for it. But it’s going to be one of those core, primal needs. This is how you know you’ve got the real emotional need. It’s one of those needs that literally everyone has.
If you want a list of needs, you can look up Maslow’s pyramid of needs that will give you some way of thinking about them. He breaks it down into three different kinds.
The easiest needs to write from are the mammalian brain needs and the reptilian brain needs, those core primal needs. However, you can also write from the more intellectual and spiritual needs like meaning and transcendence.
It’s easier to write from needs that are from somebody else. I need this from you is easier to write than I need this for you. But you can also write from I need this for you.
Rather than focusing intellectually on “what need best serves my character development” you want to intuitively sense the emotional need that’s hot for you. You want to give it a name.
If you’re kinesthetic, then you want to feel it in your body. You want to get really curious about what it feels like and notice exactly where it is. Is it big or small? Hot or cold? Rough or smooth?
If you’re visual, then you want to look at it and see what it looks like. Is it black and white? Is it color? Does it have a shape to it? Is it moving or still? Is it inside of your body or is it outside of your body? Is it large or small?
If you’re auditory, then you might notice that it has a sound to it. Is that sound harsh or mellifluous, loud or quiet?
You can use your different senses to connect to that need.
You want to give it a name and that name might be one of the names I gave like “love.” It might be “that squishy part that sits on my heart.” It might be “that tightness I feel right here.” You want to give it a name.
Then you want to give it to your character. You want to turn up the volume on it. So, if it’s “that pressure you feel right here in your chest,” then you might want to turn up the volume until it’s like a 12, until it’s pounding in your character, until it’s so hot, until it’s dragging your character around. Your character might not even be aware of what it is, but he or she or they can feel that drive. You want to let that need pull you to the tangible objects.
Let’s say it’s respect. What’s the opportunity to get respect as you order that Starbucks? What’s the opportunity to get respect as you try to get that new car? What’s the opportunity to get respect as you show up for work? What’s the opportunity to get that need met in every scene?
What you’ll start to notice when learning character development in this way is that those emotional needs start to connect to tangible objects. They start to reveal the specific how of your character.
Most importantly, they start to get you connected, not to the material bullshit but to the core stuff going on under the surface–the stuff that your character may not even be consciously aware of themselves.
When it comes to your own needs, one of the things that you can do for yourself that will make you a better writer (but also make you a happier person) is to notice when you feel a hot desire come up. “I need a smoothie right now. I need ice cream. I need that car. I need to give that person a piece of my mind. I need my dad to tell me he’s proud of me. I need my sister to do something different with her life. I need, I need, I need.”
When you find those hot needs coming up in yourself, you can take a breath and you can ask yourself, “What is the emotional need underneath that tangible object?”
If you had those words from your father, that change in your sister or that cup of ice cream, then what would you feel? Would you feel respect? Validation? Meaning? Safety? Confidence? What’s the name that you’d give the emotional need that you’re feeling?
When you notice what that need is, it allows you to get curious about the structure for your character but also about the structure for yourself.
What are the other ways to feel that feeling you need? What are the things you could do right now that would give you not the tangible object but the feeling?
Here’s the interesting about tangible objects, both our characters and ourselves: The tangible object only give a very temporary fix to the emotional need.
The real way that emotional needs get fulfilled is not by the tangible objects at the end of the line. They get fulfilled by the structure of the journey as we pursue those objects.
It’s not the object that gives you meaning. It’s the pursuit.
It’s not the object that gives you validation. It’s the pursuit.
It’s not the object that gives you confidence. It’s the pursuit.
It’s the connection to our emotional needs and to the needs of our characters that make our journeys and their journeys not only meaningful but also relatable.
If you want to learn more about writing from emotional need or if you want to learn more about writing in general, then come join us every Thursday night. It’s totally free. If you’d like to make a donation, we’re grateful. We will match it and put it in our scholarship fund. If you can’t make a donation, then bring yourself and your creativity and we will be happy to see you there, as well.
If you’d like to study with us, we offer online classes in screenwriting, comic book writing, playwriting and TV writing. We offer one-on-one mentorship with some of the most extraordinary professional writers and teachers out there. We do it at a tiny fraction of the cost of grad school. So, I hope that you’ll join us on Thursday night and I hope you will come and study with us.
*Edited for length and clarity