One of the first things a fiction writer learns to identify is what their main character needs:
The stories that resonate most with readers are the ones that take us on a journey of transformation. We feel these stories so deeply because, as readers, we're riding the wake of the character's emotional awakening.
Change is a constant in our lives as humans, so understanding how (and why) our heroes change is crucial to writing a story that inspires and compels readers. And every story of change grows from the heart of what a character needs: their Void.
But how do you tell the difference between Need and Void? And how do you know which one to build your story around?
In today's article, I'll share an example from my own life to show you what a high-level personal Void looks like and how I figured it out (this can be tough!). Then, I'll introduce a special mindset tool I call the Emotional Gap Funnel that you can use zero in on your hero's tightest story Goals (for those tricky GMCs).
And I'll link to the next storytelling steps that will walk you through how to identify your character's Story Need(s) and the S.M.A.R.T. Story Goals that will fuel your character's transformation journey.
What is a character's Void (what was MY Void)?
In my article explaining the 4 Essential Character Core Values, this is how I defined Void:
A character's Void is their emotional gap. It is the basic human experience they are lacking.
But what does that even mean?
Let's take a quick walk back in time and peek in on young Sue's (me 🙂 ) childhood frustrations.
(That's young me right there...)
- I hated being told what to do.
- I chafed under any authority.
- I felt stifled by the societal restrictions of being born female (even though I couldn't verbalize it so concisely at the time).
- I wanted the freedom to chase my dreams and follow my impulses.
- I also wanted to be the best at everything I set my mind to (and I only wanted to do what was fun to me).
- And I wanted to break every rule that was stopping me from making my own choices about how I spent my time and what goals I chose to pursue.
What's the common theme in the list above? Control.
But not just general control. I didn't want to control other people or change societal systems. I just wanted control over myself.
I lacked the freedom to decide my own actions. I was missing out on the basic human experience of self-government. My Void was autonomy.
Why is a character's Void so important?
Void matters because it is what keeps us from being happy.
I believe that pursuit of happiness is the purpose of life. Nearly every choice we make satisfies a need that can ultimately be traced back to happiness in some form. Even when doing the "right thing" doesn't feel good in the moment, that choice probably leads to some other possible outcome that could bring contentment.
And as fiction writers who specialize in happy endings for our characters, Void is the ultimate storytelling tool.
It helps us see past all the noise of finding just the right Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts.
And it clarifies the reasons why we structure our stories they way we do.
Because if a Void was easy to fill, it wouldn't be around long enough to be noteworthy as the basic human experience we lack. Something is holding us back from being happy (maybe several somethings). And the simplest way to fill our Void is to start satisfying the Needs that hole creates.
So if we set up our stories to laser focus in on one or two of those character Needs, we can illustrate why we (as humans) struggle to be happy. We do that by showing the conflicts that cause our characters to need things—usually based in Fear and Backstory—and how our heroes overcome those roadblocks.
How do we use Void in a story setup?
By defining our hero's Void first—and by "first", I mean before we finish writing the first draft of their story—we set the tone for the type of transformation our character will experience.
A character with a Void of autonomy will have Needs centered around actively pursuing their ability to self-govern. That's a fairly broad space that is still narrow enough to give you some guiderails for making storytelling choices without pigeonholing your plot.
So what does that mean for the story itself? Trying to set up Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts without basing them in a character's Void and Story Need can cause creative blocks and suck all the enjoyment out of writing that story.
We need to understand what emotional gap a character is suffering from before we can craft that character's transformation arc. I'll show you how to filter your story planning through each of the stages—Void to Need to Goals—over the next few articles in this series, but for now, let's just focus on your hero's Void.
I picture this process as a 3-stage funnel: The Emotional Gap Funnel.
Just like real people, our characters can have more than one Void at any given time. But you should only try to work with one Void in a single story arc. So choose the one that works best for the story you want to tell at a specific point in your character's life and think of that one character Void as the Story Void.
Once you know your character's Story Void, you can zero in on the one thing they must recognize or accept right now to chase their personal happiness. That's their Story Need.
This is where your story's genre and niche audience really start to become powerful. Your character's Story Need should align with the emotional needs of the readers who are consuming your content.
Then you can refine that idea even further to identify the 5 specific requirements they must fulfill in order to satisfy that Need. This is their story's S.M.A.R.T. Goal, and it is essential to setting up a dynamic plot.
Next step: Distill your character's Void into their Story Need
In the next article in our Character Void series, I'll continue the story of young Sue, using some examples from my own life to explain how to pinpoint the specific Story Need that fuels the hero's transformation journey.
First, we'll talk about how to distill Void into a Story Need.
Then, we'll touch on how to tighten our storytelling focus even further and set S.M.A.R.T. Goals that empower our heroes to start earning real happiness.
Share your thoughts on Void
For now, leave a comment below and let me know what's tripping you up about Void. What is the Void for your current main character?
And what sorts of possibilities does your new understanding of the Void character core value open up for your hero's story arc?