Developing Dimensional Characters:
By T. Bear Hayes | Story Developer for Screenwriting and Television | October 2023
Character feelings, wants, and needs are the driving forces of every story. The things that DRIVE your characters, are the things they are MOTIVATED by. A huge part of writing characters is understanding WHY they are motivated to do what they do. The better you understand your character's motivations, the more prepared you are to write them, and the more readily your audience will relate and empathize with their journey.
In the following example, notice, first, how FEELINGS lead to WANTS and then to CORRELATIVE NEEDS:
You feel cold...................you want warmth................you need a sweater.
You feel pain...................you want relief.....................you need medicine.
You feel lonely................you want a companion........you need to meet people.
You feel compatible.......you want a relationship.......you need to be assertive.
You feel tempted............you want a taste....................you need to get a slice.
The WANT is the immediate INCENTIVE / GOAL that gets the character moving. A CORRELATIVE NEED is any number of choices to satisfy the WANT, and effectively moves the character from point A (feeling cold) to point B (the sweater). The sweater satisfies the WANT of warmth, just like medicine satisfies the WANT of relief. Easy peasy. Acquiring those items, under normal circumstances, requires little effort.
WANT of a companion is not so easy to satisfy. Getting out and meeting people can certainly lead to finding a companion, but, even under normal circumstances, this requires more effort. Being assertive in this way also means that your character is ACTIVELY (and courageously) moving toward any number of reactions, outcomes, conflicts, and consequences. And this is good.
Some WANTS, therefore, are easier to satisfy than others. And they should be! Characters learn, change, and grow through an ACTIVE journey with challenges that start small and range from difficult to insurmountable. You have to see your character's growth, as though you are a parent trying to teach your less-adventurous child how to ride a bike.
First, you have to get that kid onto the bike (with training wheels). The (cautious) kid (with helmet, elbow and knee pads) puts feet to the pedals and starts rolling. The pedaling gets faster and faster, until this is no longer a challenge. You tell the kid to make a turn, which starts a little wiggly, but is quickly mastered.
The kid is now zipping up and down the block with friends and feeling pretty darn confident. The fact that everyone is riding without training wheels doesn't seem to matter until one of the other kids says something. And now that confidence is slipping. This is a CATALYST--something that triggers the next event. Your kid (the character) needs to make a CHOICE. Keep the training wheels on or remove them.
With fear, the child sits atop the same bike, no longer feeling stable or secure. You are there as guidance and encouragement, but, ultimately, the kid is the one who has to lift his feet off the ground and push the pedals. The other kids zip by and wave, and the kid ventures those first tentative rotations before abruptly abandoning the bike and exclaiming, "I can't do this!" RESISTANCE is INTERNAL CONFLICT.
The good parent empathizes, but stands firm and encourages forward momentum. The parent's confidence gives the child confidence to take the next step, even if it doesn't happen right away.
What scares everyone (aka the character and the writer) is the fear of failure. Falling hurts. The parent doesn't want the child to feel pain, but, as a writer with some life experience, you know that falling is part of the challenge--and an essential part of the journey. Falling is also a CATALYST to Change.
And so, the child returns, believing he can ride like the other kids. He lifts the bike off the ground, climbs on, and pushes off. His feet lift to press the pedals, while he tries to stay balanced, but, before long, he falls and scrapes his knees. This is definitely a low point for the child--an early conflict.
In every story, your characters are going to have HIGHS and LOWS (aka successes and failures) at every level of challenge, skill-building, and growth. For the child on the bike, this is the middle of the first level. The child now needs to GET PAST THE PAIN and CHOOSE to get back on the bike and try again. This time, the child SUCCEEDS in pedaling a good distance and stopping by properly using the brakes.
The child is now ready for Level 2, which involves riding without all the safety pads, wiping out in front of friends, and needing stitches. The CHALLENGE of getting back on the bike is HARDER, because there's more at stake, including maintaining confidence and overcoming pain as well as embarrassment. The higher the level, the harder the challenge, and the more that's at stake.
When writing conflict for a romantic-comedy, for example, you can have all sorts of fun not only by making each challenge more difficult, but also by showing all the silly ways the characters react and handle consequences. Imagine all the comical interjections and interactions that can make a romance extraordinarily difficult.
In Along Came Polly (2004), "Reuben Feffer," played by Ben Stiller, comically ventures well outside his comfort zone--including eating ethnic food that will trigger his Irritable Bowel Syndrome--just to impress the flaky and eccentric "Polly," played by Jennifer Aniston. Back at her place after dinner, the IBS kicks in--loudly--and, wouldn't you know it, Polly doesn't have toilet paper. So, Reuben uses whatever he can find, and, as you can guess, he jams the toilet until it overflows!
Just like Reuben's ridiculous quest to wipe himself, you can make getting a slice of pie seem like the most impossible, most hilarious task ever by injecting a multitude of crazy OBSTACLES your character must hurdle just to get to the front of the line (at a bakery counter) and then make the drive home an odyssey.
Comedy tends to stretch every challenge to the extremes of ridiculousness in order to get the "prize," whereas other genres mostly strive to make the journey more and more difficult with gradually tougher challenges, so the characters can "earn" that "prize."
The interesting thing about challenges is that they can seem extreme even when they're small, especially for the novice--like jumping into the deep end of the pool for the first time. Oh, the trepidation!
Not only are FEELINGS, WANTS, and NEEDS the foundation for character development, but, as you can see, they are also great sparkers CHOICE and ACTION.
The next example, notice how correlative NEEDS lead to unique CHOICES and ACTIONS:
You feel cold..................you want warmth..............you need a sweater..................you search the closet.
You feel pain..................you want relief...................you need medicine..................you try a mushroom.
You feel lonely...............you want friends................you need to meet people........you attend a church social.
You feel compatible......you want to be closer........you need to be assertive.........you suggest living together.
You feel tempted...........you want a taste.................you need to get a slice.............you order pie.
Those ACTIONS then lead to THOUGHTS and more CHOICES and ACTIONS:
You search the closet..................you think the sweater is lost.................you steal from a donation box.
You try a mushroom...................you think it's not working......................you take more shrooms.
You attend a church social.........you think nobody likes you....................you seek hypnosis for social anxiety.
You suggest living together........you think this is your soulmate............you get married and buy a house.
You order pie...............................you think of becoming a baker..............you enroll in culinary school.
THE CHOICE PART comes between the NEED and the ACTION. This is the part where the character is ACTIVELY DECIDING his/her next moves. The above ACTIONS may seem extreme, but they are all CHARACTER REVEALING. Instead of stealing a sweater from a donation box, the character could have gone into someone else's closet. Instead of taking more shrooms, the characters could have started drinking. Instead of seeking hypnosis for social anxiety, the character could learn stand-up comedy.
No matter which ACTIONS your character chooses, you want to make sure that those actions lead to more catalysts, feelings, wants, needs, challenges, choices, and actions.
Every new ACTION/CHOICE has the potential to achieve the goal, or to spark THOUGHTS that lead to more seemingly logical ACTIONS that further reveal who your characters are (in an attempt to get them closer to their goals). The way character act defines who they are for the audience.
The pronoun "you" is repeated on purpose. It's meant to show that your characters need to be ACTIVE in everything they do in their journey. Obviously, things happen to characters all the time, which causes them to REACT, but you want to make sure your characters are consistently making choices the put them face-to-face with the next challenge.
Look what happens next when a CATALYST is added:
You steal from a donation box......................and you are magically transported to a knitting sweatshop.
You take more shrooms.................................and you hallucinate of working in a battle hospital.
You seek hypnosis for social anxiety............and you wake up believing you're the new Messiah.
You get married and buy a house..................and discover your high school crush living next door.
You enroll in culinary school.........................and your first order is a pie-throwing contest.
You could keep taking these characters down all their different rabbit holes and let them continue choosing which way to go. Notice how each prompt elicits certain thoughts, ideas, choices, and actions depending on your subjective filters. an You learn a lot about your characters by presenting them with choices and seeing which option
Notice how these characters are more emotionally relatable when these three basic drives are in alignment. Their basic feelings, wants, and needs are UNIVERSAL. This means that no matter the spoken language, these facets are understood by everyone.
If you think of these four drives--thoughts, wants, feelings, needs--as dimensions, then this character is now four-dimensional.
The Big Want (aka Super Objective) is the end goal. This means that internal and external desires largely determine the direction the story takes. In other words, stories are about characters, their goals, and how they're going to achieve those goals.
For fun, I'm going to say that my main character "Joe Pine" is a petty thief who chooses community service in the forest in lieu of jail time. Joe is actually scared to be in the forest, especially at night, because he once got lost on a camping trip when he was a young boy.
During the day, Joe works hard, and comes to appreciate the forest and its inhabitants. He even goes to the library after work to study some of the trees and foliage that have been keeping him company, so that he can take better care of them. Joe learns so much that he's able to start his own green house.
Five years later, Joe, now a respected arborist in his small town, is running a successful tree nursery with his pregnant wife and toddler, with the help of some down-on-their-luck kids Joe has taken under his wings. Joe is happy, content, and well-liked by everyone.
When Joe hears that some of the forest land he LOVES (and still visits) is going to be sold (and destroyed) to save the nearly bankrupt county, he DECIDES to take action.
Joe first learns that he needs to raise $3.5 million to purchase and preserve several acres of forest land and wildlife. This is his BIG GOAL, and it's NOT going to be easy to achieve! If Joe knew how to raise that kind of money, he wouldn't be a small-time thief.
Once the big goal is established, Joe reveals his INTERNAL DESIRE to be a better person. This will also drive the story and AFFECT JOE'S CHOICES. Remember, first, that Joe isn't going to be this "better" person instantly, he needs time and EXPERIENCE to change.
The scenes that follow, therefore, must be a gradual series of small successes and failures--with Joe ACTIVELY taking risks--that build toward the big goal. In keeping with his "better person" strategy, Joe's first attempts at raising money are (somewhat) legitimate. His parole officer is keeping tabs on him, but he also wants to try to do things the "right" way...for once! The only job Joe lands, however, is being a low-pay, fast food server, where he resorts to giving away food for "tips," and gets promptly fired.
STORY CHECK-IN: Joe tried and failed, but...Did this help him move closer to his goal? YES! Think about it. He gained a little side cash, but, mostly, he learned that a legitimate endeavor is only a waste of time, since he doesn't have time to waste. With no viable legitimate options, Joe is inspired to take a chance on what he does best: theft.
Joe uses his "tip" money to take a bus from his small town to a nearby big city, where he scouts around and sees a beautiful woman "Lilly" on her way to the bank. She has a thick cash bag in hand and is distracted by an angry phone call, so Joe plans his move. What Joe doesn't know is that Lilly's cash is from years of saved tips and is meant to be a down payment for a flower shop she has always dreamed of opening. Joe isn't thinking about Lilly's big goal; he just sees her as a stepping stone on the way to his big goal.
Bold and full of assumptions, Joe runs past Lilly, just ahead of traffic, grabs the cash bag, and races across the street in a scary zip-zip-weave right before the next rush of cars. He runs down a side street, thinking he's free and clear, but Lilly (a fiercely ambitious marathon runner and martial artist) pursues Joe as soon as she can cross, block by block, and tackles him by surprise. She taunts that Joe's not fast enough to be a criminal, punches him in the face, grabs her cash bag, and heads back to the bank. Joe is stunned and super impressed. He rubs his cheek and shouts, "Hey! You wanna have lunch with me?"
DID YOU SEE WHAT JUST HAPPENED? I presented Joe (the protagonist) with a clear opportunity to get some cash, and then proceeded to make his endeavor much more difficult than anticipated. Not only did I thwart Joe in the thing he supposedly does best, but I also presented him with a potential love interest that could further complicate his journey and assist in reaching his big goal. What's he to do now?
Joe waits outside the bank and apologizes to the tough and pretty Lilly. Lilly is hesitant in trusting him, but she respects his gumption. She lets him walk with her to the future storefront of her "Big Day Bouquets" flower shop and says, "This is how you get money." Joe responds, "I don't have that kind of time."
Sitting across from one another at a cozy diner, Joe and Lilly talk about their mutual interests in greenery, and Lilly, now wanting to help, offers some ideas, including using her grand opening as a fundraiser. Joe knows Lilly is shrewd enough to see the self-benefit of helping Joe, so, for now, she's his ally, albeit with mutual suspicion.
Spending time together--while setting up shop and planning the grand opening--brings Joe and Lilly closer together. They fall in love and feel good about their plans, but, unlike Lilly, Joe doesn't believe that the grand opening fundraiser will be enough to raise the $3.5 million he needs in the short time he has.
At the County Department of Real Estate Management, Joe and another man, Icarus B. Hunter, wait in the lobby. Icarus, bored and curious, questions the paint and dirt on Joe's arms, face, and clothes. Joe tells Icarus all about Lilly's grand opening and how some of the money will be used to buy some forest land for a 36-hole mini-golf center. Icarus is genuinely apologetic in revealing that he's purchasing all the available forest property for an enormous shopping mall, but offers Joe a reasonable lease on a small part of his unused land.
Joe is shocked that there would be any land leftover, so Icarus rolls open his blueprint and shows Joe all the empty acres surrounding the mall. Joe is displeased to learn that the acreage to be deforested is well-beyond what he originally imagined. Sensing Joe's distress, Icarus confesses that he feels bad about all the trees and wildlife, but feels good about the mall because it will bring much-needed jobs to the community. Joe says he will consider the offer.
Having met the community-minded, tree-killing billionaire, Joe realizes he will need the help of his criminal friends to aid his efforts. He asks them to distribute flyers for the Grand Opening/Save-the-Forest event.
STORY NOTE: Audiences love when friends help friends, but their inclusion is also great for adding action, adventure, and humor, not to mention further complications to the protagonist's journey as their own wants and needs (as well as those of the antagonist) will attempt to steer the story toward their advantage.
Establishing character wants and needs not only shows what the characters really want and the lengths they're willing to go to reach their target, but also provides the core engine for the dogged pursuit that inspires audiences to cheer and follow along.