I’m currently reading a book about screenwriting called Screenplay, by Syd Field. This is the third book of his I’m reading (he’s got some really good tips and anecdotes!) and one thing that always pops up is his opinion that all characters need to have a dramatic need.

And it makes a lot of sense, really. Any well-written character in a movie will have some form of dramatic need that drives their actions – Sarah Connor (the real one in Terminator 2, not the fake one in the TV series) needs to protect her son, Murphy (Robocop) wants to be a good cop, etc.

Without a dramatic need, a character will be lost and directionless, and audiences can’t really connect to them because they can’t understand or relate to them.

Sarah Connor – the mother of the future

Then it occurred to me – would this apply to real-life characters as well? You know, the characters sometimes known as “people”.

I think it does, because you can’t really be a happy person if you don’t know your own dramatic need. The same need that gives a fictional character purpose would also give a real person, like yourself, purpose. With purpose comes goals, direction, inspiration, and all those other things that come together to make you a happier person.

Dramatic needs for people aren’t that different from those of fictional characters. Here are some dramatic needs that I think people would have:

  1. Be wildly famous
  2. Be successful in a certain career
  3. Get out of the shadow of your ridiculously likable and successful older sibling
  4. Make your mark on the medical world by figuring out how to reanimate dead spinal cells (and inadvertently causing the zombie apocalypse)
  5. Make enough money so that you can have sex with two vapid girls at the same time on a nightly basis.

Unlike in movies where a character’s dramatic need stays the same throughout the 90 minutes of screen time, real-life dramatic needs can change with time. What you needed when you were a kid might be different from what you need now – unless your brother is still obscenely handsome and successful and it bugs the crap out of you.

Ace Rimmer – that kind of guy everybody loves (unless you’re his dorky younger brother or a member of PETA)

I’m sure you all have some friends who have yet to find their dramatic needs, and they kind of just cruise through life, passively reacting to external incidents but never actively doing anything or taking control of the situation. They’re probably the ones who constantly bitch about life, but have no idea what they’d want to change about it.

For me, I believe my current dramatic need is to be good to the wifey. I was thinking about it, and I’m not an amazingly ambitious person by nature. Honestly, I’d probably end up staying at the video store if the pay was a better, and rent DVDs to people who honestly don’t even like movies that much for the rest of my life.

You see, I’m not a very materialistic person, and I can go for months without buying anything for myself. My taste in food is ridiculously basic (I can eat the same cheap food day after day), and I don’t know how to dress myself well enough to buy expensive clothes. I don’t have the travel bug, and I could probably get by just getting a few DVDs and a videogame every month. Maybe a beer or two.

But I got out of the video store, and worked my ass off to climb the corporate ladder in the journalism industry. Sure I enjoyed my work and the writing it involved, but at the end of the day I wanted to be an awesome writer because 1) I think it makes wifey prouder to know that I’m a relatively successful magazine guy and 2) it gives me more money to spend on her.

(That said, why the hell did I switch industries to become a poorly-paid computer animator?)

Wanting to be good for someone doesn’t mean I don’t love myself or anything like that (because I still do things that I want to do etc), but I derive a lot of joy and satisfaction when I make her smile and laugh.

By working towards this need, it makes me a happier person. Maybe I’m not always successful in this endeavor, but I know how to set my goals, and I sort of know what I want to do with my life.

Remember: A dramatic need gives you purpose, and purpose gives your life meaning. Without that, who are you and what are you doing with yourself?

So, do you know your dramatic need?


About Drew

I love videogames, movies, my wife and my dog (in no particular order).

6 responses »

  1. Alvin says:

    Have you read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller? He writes about the Hero’s Journey (aka dramatic arc) as he learns about it and how he puts it to use in his personal life while writing a screenplay.

    One of the most inspiring books I ever read and complements your point perfectly. I reviewed it a couple of years ago (plug plug):


  2. Very interesting! I tell myself that I know what my dramatic need is, but other times I’m not so sure. Will think about it more…

    • drewpan says:

      Yeah, I guess it’s not really easy to figure it out sometimes. Same as characters in a movie, really… what you think is the main dramatic need might actually be a symptom of a greater, deeper need. I hope you figure yours out!

  3. Alvin says:

    Have you read the classic Story by Robert McKee? It’s a massive volume, still wrapping my head around it years later. Wish Pixar would publish a book on story too, they are so good at it.

    Then again, I haven’t written fiction in years, maybe decades.

Don't be shy - leave a Reply!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s