Finding the Character’s Dramatic Need
CEO, Founder, L.A. Performing Arts Conservatory, laconservatory.com
Being an actress first, when I began to study screenwriting with Syd Field, one of the major principles that he taught me: Dramatic Need – really struck a chord with me. Below is a discussion of how now, years later, I teach dramatic need to actors, writers, and directors.
What does the Character Want?
Wherein, we delve into discovering the golden nugget that keeps actors connected, grounded, and fighting for something that is essential to the character’s existence. In its simplest terms, what is it that the character wants? Answering this question specifically will be crucial and inescapable. For every scene, character, and audition that the actor brings to life, he will have to know, who is the character and what do they want.
What is the Character’s Objective?
The most common way of describing and instilling into actors this concept of wanting something is done with the word, “objective”. Coaches and directors will incessantly ask, “What is your objective”? That is to say, what does the character want in the scene? What does the character want from the other character in the scene? What do they want for themselves? To find objectives the actor can analyze the action and answer three questions: «What is my character doing physically and emotionally?Why is my character doing it?How will my character do it? »This creates the performance for the actor. This creates the character. Action is character, Syd used to tell us incessantly. It is through action that the actor understands and connects with the main ideas and themes in the script that the writer is attempting to convey. It is through actions that characters pursue their objectives.
In human nature desire is essential. We are always in the quest, in search, hunting for something. For purposes of creating character, Syd Field defines this notion of desire as, “what does the character want to win, gain, or achieve in the journey of the screenplay”? Before writing anything, it is crucial to understand the main character, so that the writer can better develop the situations he will be creating for his character in the screenplay.
The writer has to create all the elements for his story from scratch. The actor has the blueprint and the clues that the writer has provided, for interpreting and deciphering the character’s desires. I like the name that Syd Field has given this concept of desire. He calls it the Character’s Dramatic Need. I find it much more colorful and heightened than objective.
In a script, we are generally seeing a portion of a character’s life. Even if it is a biographic picture, it is impossible to show everything about a person’s life in one hundred and twenty minutes. As a consequence, we end up seeing a slice of the character’s life, the viewpoint that the writer has chosen to show us. Usually in this window of life, there is something that the character must uncover or fight for. This becomes their Dramatic Need.
It is dramatic because on several levels what the character wants is urgent. It is dramatic because in this sliver of life, the circumstances and obstacles that the character is encountering are life altering. The character’s Dramatic Need is driving the story line forward and thus providing the script with the different avenues for the “drama potential”.
What the character wants is a need because it is not a whim or a passing fancy. Their lives areusually at stake, literally and/or metaphorically. Achieving the goal or not, is usually what the story is about and what keeps the viewer hooked. A character’s Dramatic Need provides them with their purpose. It is their most heartfelt wish.
When exploring the objectives of a character, the actor should start with the global ones first. What is their overall objective in life? What is the purpose of their life? What is their purpose in the journey of the script? What about at this moment in their life? The actions that the actor chooses to play for the character are governed consciously and subconsciously by what the character wants.
For purposes of clarity, let’s make a distinction between Objective and Dramatic Need.
Throughout life, objectives may change but usually the core impetus, the dramatic need within, stays consistent, even if one is not able to consciously define it. Our objectives change because we are a wanting animal and when we achieve one objective, we are ready to tackle another. That is why life is a journey. We cannot know all the answers in advance. We must be in the doing and then things will unravel and be revealed. The answers will come.
When I did my own personal list of objectives, I found that they were, above all, work related. So, I dig deeper and ask myself WHY? Why do I want all these things? Where does this desire come from? Well, if I start way back when I was fourteen years old in Honduras, I was a child of divorced parents; awkward, lonely, misplaced in a bourgeois, superficial society, where the arts were frowned upon. I felt stifled. Yet, in the after-school drama club I felt like I belonged. We created other realities, imaginary ones, and that was fun! I discovered I could express my feelings, and those of others. Once I discovered this possibility, I knew I had to leave my country. My overall Dramatic Need in life was for expression, freedom, and achieving “the impossible”. Psychological events and the circumstances surrounding my persona helped to establish that.
As I have gone through my life, my immediate objectives have changed but my overall Dramatic Need for expression, creativity, dreams, freedom, and autonomy, has remained consistent. WHY? Why must I do this? Perhaps because, from my Point of View, I was left alone and abandoned by my father. He was absent and unavailable to me so, I have the NEED to prove that I can succeed, and on my terms.
Knowing the main objectives will also help in choosing the immediate, moment-to-moment objectives that appear in each scene. Knowing the Dramatic Need drives everything. It is a tank of fuel that feeds the performance engine. Everything becomes clearer if we understand the big picture. By knowing where the character is headed, the writer, the actor, and the director can create the steps that must be accomplished to get there.