Character Need: What they don’t know that you do…

Warning: This is going to be a craft post, likely boring for non-screenwriting nerds.

I’m reading a new book by Yves Lavadier called Constructing a Story, and I’m reading about character arcs.  One thing that we talk about in drama is character want versus character need.  The want tends to be a tangible, external, and a conscious goal–to complete the mission, rescue the kid, win the girl, etc. The need tends to be internal, and unconscious–some kind of step toward growth that the character needs to take–like coming to terms with the past, letting go of judgement or rigid expectations, opening his heart.

Separate from that, there is a narrative tool called dramatic irony which is when the storyteller reveals information in such a way that the audience has information before the character does in order to create  suspense. The audience is waiting for the character’s knowledge to catch up with our own.  Like we know that there’s a dangerous intruder in our heroine’s apartment. She comes home and starts making dinner–unaware of the danger.  It creates a specific kind of emotional engagement.

Mr. Lavandier points out that once the audience picks up on the character’s need– it elicits a question in our minds. Will the character learn what we already know in order to emotionally grow? He notes that this is, in fact, a situation of dramatic irony.

This was eye-opening for me, because, although it’s completely logical, I’d never thought about waiting for character change in as a form of suspense, suspense that could be for an entire act or maybe more..  The audience knows something and is waiting for the character to catch up to that knowledge, for her unconscious to become conscious.

In life we do the same thing, kind of, but it’s less satisfying. We have friends or relatives with issues that seem obvious to us, but which said person cannot see, and we talk with or other friends or family members, about how it would be better if they could see.  In life though,  person generally don’t change that much, so after awhile, there’s not so much suspense. I suspect there are probably people waiting in vain for me to make certain discoveries in my life. They should probably go to the movies, which will be more satisfying, because in constructed fictional narratives,  people change.


One thought on “Character Need: What they don’t know that you do…

  1. I think everyone gets that a big part of the allure of books and movies is that the characters change. It has occurred to me before that the intensity of that allure is because in real life, people so seldom change, or at least not significantly, or not in obvious ways to us, or at least not in a tidy little package presented for our edification. I think that’s basically an emotional fantasy, to see and understand the people in our lives changing and improving in dramatic and obvious ways.

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