Character & Dramatic Need

Q&A Notes Webinar: “SETTING UP CHARACTER AND STORY, PART I”

From the Webinar Archives of Syd Field The Art of Visual Storytelling.

Q: Yorban says, “I realize that I have already done a whole treatment where the main character drives the action by talking about her difficult childhood and where we go back in time where we look at her life from childhood to present, but I honestly don’t know her dramatic need.”

A: That is just a great example of what we were talking about. Dramatic need, remember, is what your character wants. If you go into your character’s life and you begin to ask yourself “What does my character want? What is it that drives my character forward?”— it could be, for example, a female character wanting to find her own identity, meaning to get rid of a relationship which is not working, to step forward onto a new path to get a job, to take care of her own life in her own way, and that begins the journey to self-identity.
Sometimes, you know, what happens is we live our lives in the shadow of another person and we kind of lose ourselves. That’s very common. So we want to find a way and a situation and an action where the character can gain their own true identity and allow us to move forward in who we are. So many times you do have to drive the action. You can put in flashbacks and show that. You can know in your research when you are preparing the character that you can do a character biography, that you can do— tomorrow we’ll talk about the circle of being—where you can drive your character through the actions of their past in order to find them in their present. So the dramatic need is: What does your character want? It usually is a concrete thing. “I want to win the contest” is a concrete thing. If you say “I want to achieve a sense of identity so I am independent,” that is a dramatic need, but then you have to find incidents that will show and reveal that dramatic need through the situation and dramatic premise of your story line.
So just remember, dramatic need needs to be thought about from the very beginning. And I might suggest, Yorban, —realize that you should go into your research stage right now and you should be able to sit down and in a free association essay, one or two pages long, just write down what you think the character wants in the story. What does your character want? And the answer to that question you will stumble upon or find hidden in the words of two pages, for example. You will find their dramatic need, and then you can go back to the beginning of your screenplay and you can begin to understand your character coming from that specific dramatic need. Then you can shade each scene and sequence in such a way that you reveal that dramatic need.
Once again, if you don’t know your character’s dramatic need, who does? So you have to decide that. You have to know who and what is a character’s dramatic need. Great question. Great question.

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