As I put the final touches on ‘Red Rum’, I have begun to look back on the process of writing this particular short story. I had decided to dive deep into Dan Harmon’s Circle Method a.k.a. The Hero’s Journey (I prefer to call it Dan Harmon’s Circle Method, as that is the primary source that I leaned on). Reflecting back on it now I can see how it had helped me create a stronger product. Every step of the method helped any time I came across what seemed to be a roadblock to the narrative. It was very liberating. But there was one step, that really was the linchpin to the entire thing.
I felt like most of everything else fell into place once you asked yourself, “What does this character need?” That is when everything comes tumbling after. Find what your characters need, and you’ll begin to know exactly how they will react in any given situation. This becomes a great tool when writing even the most simple of your one off characters. Say you have a scene where your main character is getting coffee. Their need is to get this coffee for their boss or else they will be fired. Now you could have a simple interaction with the barista.
Jeff rushed into the coffee shop. “I need a Vinte Mocha! Here take my money!”, he screamed as he threw his last ten dollars on the counter. His foot tapped on the ground like a cartoon rabbit on speed. The young female barista picked the money up off the counter and smiled.
“Yes sir, that will be right up,” she slapped on her plastic smile and rang up the order, handing Jeff back his change before slumping off to the back to make his order.
Simple enough and straight forward. We can see the main character is nervous and that the barista probably doesn’t care to be there. But what if we take a moment to find out what she needs? Say she just got off the phone from a terrible conversation where her boyfriend of six years — the one she thought was going to propose — told her he found someone else and was moving out. Now all she needs, you could even say wants, is to get out of there and cry.
Jeff rushed into the coffee shop. “I need a Vinte Mocha! Here take my money!”, he screamed as he threw his last ten dollars on the counter, his foot tapped on the ground like a cartoon rabbit on speed.
“Look, you don’t need to yell at me. OK?” Jeff could see tears welling up in her eyes. No. No he didn’t need this now. Ten minutes until the meeting starts and now this. “Look, lady. I just need this drink or I am about to get fired. Please just ring it up.”
Her face turned viscous as a crocodile tear ran down her cheek, “All men are the same. You don’t care how people feel! It’s just about yourselves and no one else.” The young lady snatched the money off the counter, and began to take her anger out on the till as she completed Jeff’s order. “Go sit over there and I’ll get your friggin’ coffee.”
Now we have ourselves a little scene with some drama. It really starts to stretch out the tension for our main character. Now not only does he have time against him, but the girl as well. Stacking up the drama. The danger here is giving your side characters too much of a need that it may take away from your main characters narrative. We could have gone into a diatribe of her recounting her entire conversation on the phone to the main character and explaining why all men are bad. That isn’t necessary, and most readers probably wouldn’t care since they don’t care about her. Unless you are able to make the scene really good. But I would say for the most part, try and keep the narrative supporting your main character.
The next big evolution in this concept of “Need” is layering multiple needs on your character. Say your writing about a bunch of bank robbers. Your main character needs this money to get that operation for his kid. During the heist, he needs to pee. Now we’ve told ourselves just exactly how he will act during the entire robbery. He’s going to rush it, be fidgety, and short with people. He has to go bad! He may make a mistake, forget or not care how much money is in the bag. “Yeah yeah yeah, just hurry up with the money!”
This idea of “Need” can be as big or as little as you want it. But always remember that everyone has one.