Searching for Your Character’s Root Need

One of the benefits of writing a series is that you don’t have to discover your characters as much as “rediscover” them. By mining new issues for them to deal with in each subsequent book, you can tease out facets of their personalities you haven’t quite been able to explore to the fullest. Writing sequels is a little bit like getting together with old friends. You know who they are, but life has done its thing, throwing this challenge or that curveball at them. New circumstances are what make known characters feel fresh. Problems reveal new sides of people.

Boy. Did I ever have it good with the last book on the trilogy, INTO THE STILL BLUE. I’d invested 800 pages and three, maybe four years, with those characters by the time I wrote that book. Seldom (if ever) did I have to stop and think: what’s driving this character? What does s/he want? I knew. I knew what propelled every major character—and almost every minor one too.

See, the way I create characters—or discover them, I should say—comes down to a root need. We all have a fundamental desire, a force that gets us up in the morning, and off to work, and back at night. We want to meet that need. Everything we do and say and wear and eat stems from that root. Character action is a consequence of circumstance colliding with that root need.

To get super uncharacteristically mathematical:

Immediate Objective X External Circumstances = Character Action
                          Root Need

Got it? Yeah. I’m not entirely sure about the math, but I can say unequivocally that our behavior results from our desires.

In the UTNS series, my characters were looking for absolution, acceptance, and love. Worthiness, honor and wisdom. I had characters with all kinds of root needs, but now I’m working on new characters. I wish I could say that I just type out:

ROOT NEED: ________

and fill in that blank, but I don’t.

Most of the time (every character is different) I’m left to try to work that formula above backwards.

I show up at my desk every day, knowing that Lia and Katy are working “with me” after swapping a few emails, and I write a thousand words. And if I’m lucky, I’ll write something that makes me realize there. That phrase, that reaction, that gesture. THAT is this character acting in his/her most honest form. Acting strictly from the desire to meet that root need.

And I just keep doing that, day after day, until it’s really, really clear to me how they behave under various scenarios. By knowing that, I start to understand why they hurt and struggle and lash out and do all the stupid, smart, kind, awful things they do. And by knowing that, I can figure out what it is that they really actually want underneath it all. And that, my friends, is when I finally feel I've been successful in creating a real character.

Of course, that’s how I’ve been working on this series. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer it’s that you use what works when you need it. Process? It’s quicksand for me. Ever-changing. Totally dynamic. But that’s the fun (and torture—yay!) of it.

One thing I’ve been doing with this draft is to not rush it. Some days, I’ll think about one page. One reaction. I’ll carry it around in my head, isolating that one moment. It’s hard to explain this theoretically, but I’ll wonder: is anger what he’d really feel in this circumstance?

And why?

And how would that anger look? What if it took a different shape?

And what, if anything, might alleviate this anger?

I don’t know, guys. I don’t have the answers. But I imagine that if you looked at me--as a character—my root need would involve this burning need to write and try to understand why and how we feel.

How do you approach building characters?


I love your mathematical equation, even though I've never been any good at math. I find that I discover my characters by writing. I always write out each character's backstory, and I often interview my characters when I get stuck, but they never really come to life for me until I'm in the middle of a draft. It's their reactions to the situations in the story that tell me who they are.

I love your trust in the discipline of a daily writing routine to instinctively increase your understanding of who they are - not by deciding it, and pushing their arms and legs around to fit, but by watching and listening as they react on the page, and then pausing to consider why they did that, what need they're responding to. Fascinating stuff, V

Great post, V! I like the growing with, getting to know your characters, so you are clear about their motivations. I use Character Detail Sheets to help me work out some of those details. They provide a place to capture not just physical characteristics, but also hopes, dreams, fears, etc. I fill in what I can when I'm just building the story before I start actively writing, and then add to the sheets as I go and get to know the characters better. If you're interested, I did a blog post on this:

My Root Need: To read whatever Veronica Rossi writes next!

Wonderful thoughts on a very complicated process. I, too, agree with KC Held!

Agreed, Helen. I can have a sense for them beforehand, but I only really know them on the page.

Thanks, lady. We working today? :) :)

Thanks for sharing your detail sheet. Heading over to check it out!

Ah, you are too kind, my friend. <3

Nah, I thought I'd head to Maui, pop a few cocktails, and read in a hammock all day. Of course we're bloody working. Get over here, drop, and give me 500 words.

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