A while back in my newsletter, I talked about the difference between a character’s wants vs their needs. I also mentioned that there are two types of needs: physical and emotional. I thought we could explore that a little more.
A character’s physical needs are just what they sound like: they physical needs that must be met in order to stay alive. These are obvious things like food, water, shelter, and the less obvious ones like medicine. Whatever your character’s physical need, the key to them is that they bring a sense of urgency to your story. These really are life and death struggles.
For example, take the book Life as We Knew It. The premise of this book is that the Moon is knocked by an asteroid and shifts its orbit a little closer to Earth. This destabilizes everything from climate to tides. The result is a world with food shortages and illnesses people no longer have medicine for. In short it’s a book filled with countless urgent physical needs. Even as one is met, another one becomes apparent. The result is a tense, urgent book that is hard to put down.
On the other hand, once those physical needs are being met, we all still have emotional needs. These are things like fears, friendship, love. We can function without those things, but we don’t function well. And since our emotions motivate many of our actions, our craving for them can affect our behaviors as well.
Most books use emotional rather than physical needs as the internal motivation for their characters. After all, most children’s books have characters that are not wondering where the next meal will come from. They are dealing with how to fit in with peers (whether those peers are school mates or fellow dragon riders) and their place in society (whether that’s here in the US or some horrible dystopia).
For example, consider the first Harry Potter book. In this one, he’s not running for his life. He’s starting a new school and trying to fit in. Yes, there are moments of physical danger (the troll, the forest, the entire third act), but his physical needs are met at all times. Instead, his need to find and build his own family (his major motivation for much of the series) is at the fore.
Whether your character has physical or emotional needs (or both), they will motivate and affect their actions. Be sure to spend some time figuring out what those needs are.