Monday, October 12, 2009

Why we do the things we do

Patty here…

For those of you who’ve been following my posts, last week I took my 89 year-old mother on a pilgrimage to visit friends and relatives in Washington. Veni, vidi, visited (we came, we saw, we visited). The trip had its challenges but we made it home safely and my mother had a “marvelous” time.

Since returning to LA I’ve been thinking about why I took her on this journey. The simple answer is she wanted to go. However, other daughters would have said no, that she was too physically compromised for such an ambitious itinerary. The truth is I took her because my core need is to do my duty.

I first heard the term “core need” twelve years ago in a class about character development taught by Elizabeth George at Book Passage in Corte Madera. She later wrote a book on writing called Write Away in which she describes the concept:

“We all have them; single needs that are at the core of who we are. We’re born with them and during our lifetimes, we mold most of our behavior to meet our core need. This is something essential to a person, an automatic striving within him that, when denied, results in whatever constitutes his psychopathology.”

Here are some examples she gives of core needs:

Need to be competent (to be good at everything/perfectionist)
Need to do your duty
Need to belong
Need for excitement (adrenaline junkie)
Need to be authentic (genuine)
Need to be right at all costs
Need to be a big shot

Here are a few more I added to the list:

Need for privacy
Need for curiosity
Need for independence
Need for power
Need for control
Need to express oneself
Need to maintain stress (drama queen)

There are more, of course, as many as your imagination or experience can conjure up. George believes when a person’s basic need is denied, he/she becomes stressed, which manifests itself in behaviors she calls psychological maneuvering (delusions, obsessions, compulsions, addictions, denial, hysterical ailments, hypochondria, illness, behaviors harming the self, behaviors harming others, manias, and phobias).

The concept resonated with me. Now whenever I create fictional characters, I assign them a core need and a corresponding psychological maneuver in response to stress.

I’m currently working on a new book featuring a female character with a “past.” Circumstances (of her own making) have challenged her core need, the need to be competent, and she is now obsessed with perfection. She believes there is no margin of error in her decisions and she will do anything to keep her life and career on track. Anything? Methinks that will make for a few wayward choices, at least I hope so.

Do you writers out there use core need to develop characters? Better yet, what is your core need?

Happy Columbus Day!


  1. Core needs? They change over life, eh? I guess my biggest one at the moment is to be recognized. (for my writing)
    I've never used the term core needs, but, yeah, I give my characters psychological holes they work hard to fill. Interestingly, the holes often get bigger before they are filled, if they are filled.
    Nice to hear about your trip with your mom. My mom moved in with my sister (in Seattle) for her last five years, and I really envied their time together. Hubs and I are going up next month for an early Thanksgiving. Love the weather.

  2. Hang in there, Carson. Hope you have a wonderful trip north.

  3. Hang in there, Carson. Hope you have a wonderful trip north.

  4. from Jacqueline

    Now I am going to be wandering around for the rest of the day considering my core need. I can think of several, but not one in particular - but I hope to have the answer soon. This is an excellent post, Patty, on several levels. Just lovely to know you had a good weekend, and that you are both home safe and sound. But more than that, to weave in this discussion on core need speaks to the very heart of relationships - with ourselves and others - which, as you point out, is at the heart of character.

  5. So happy the trip went well. I knew it would.

    Core need? I don't think in those terms for my characters, but I do think of their values, which I guess is a close cousin.

    My core need is to entertain. I know that paints me as pathetic, but there you are.

  6. Thanks, Our J. I think I know what Maisie's core need is.

    David, I bet you were the guy who entertained family members at those infamous holiday dinners.

  7. My core need is to be needed.

  8. I think that's true for all of us, Paulie.

  9. James O. Born10/13/2009 6:28 AM

    Good post, Patty. Sorry I'm late but was a long day. At least the Dolphins satisfied my need to have one of my teams win a game.