Character Want vs Need

All journey’s start with the one basic concept: what does my protagonist want?

Is it true love? To defeat a force of great evil? Alternatively, is it world domination or revenge? Survival in a fight to the death, or to be recognised by their peers as a good human being. It doesn’t matter. What does matter, is that what your character wants isn’t what they need.

Confused? That’s okay. Your character is, too. But that’s what the story is all about discovering!

Your character’s want, or goal, is what drives the plot. But, the most important thing about any story, is that your character experiences some form of growth or change. That is where their need comes into play.

It may be easier to break this concept down into two levels:

First Level: Want

Your character’s want/goal is the surface motivator. This is what gets the plot moving, as your protagonist is forced to make the decision to change the status quo of their ordinary world.

Example, in Wreck-it-Ralph, Ralph wants to be accepted by the people in his game. He’s sick of being the outcast bad guy, and Fix-it-Felix getting all the credit. Ralph wants to be the hero for once. So what does Ralph do? He decides to become a hero by winning a medal from another game. Now the plot is moving.

The thing our character wants is always external:

And, like I said, the thing our character wants isn’t going to bring them happiness or satisfaction on a deeper level.

In Wreck-it-Ralph, the turning point comes when Ralph has come back to his game, medal in hand. The people in his game give him the keys to the penthouse. Everything should be great! Story over! But, due to Ralph’s actions, their game is being shut down. Ralph still isn’t a hero, still isn’t accepted by his community. This is the bleak moment for Ralph — he has everything he set out for, but is even more miserable.

Second Level: Need

What your character needs is for an internal change to occur. Up to now, they’ve been in denial about what will make them happy. It isn’t until they throw away what they originally aimed for, that they are able to achieve inner peace. In other words, they need to reject the Lie and find their Truth.

Though the thing our character needs is internal, or an incorporeal concept, that isn’t to say that by the end of the story there won’t be a visual or physical manifestation:

  • Learn humility and compassion. (Thor)
  • Embrace spiritual freedom. (Jane Eyre)
  • Have faith in people. (Secondhand Lions)
  • Be able to share Andy’s love. (Toy Story)
  • Find a cause worth fighting for. (Three Kings)
  • Find the courage to stand up for himself. (Green Street Hooligans)
  • Be loved for who he is. (What About Bob?)

In Wreck-it-Ralph, Ralph gives up the key to the penthouse and his merit-less hero’s medal, in order to save his friend Vanelope and stop the evil King Candy. In the third act of the film, it seems the only way to defeat the villain is for Ralph to selflessly sacrifice himself; Ralph, despite being a “bad guy”, is prepared to die for the greater good.  In true Disney form, everything works out in the end, and the day is saved — all thanks to Ralph! Except, this time, when Ralph returns to his game, the townspeople have accepted him. They treat him with just the same love they treat Felix. It doesn’t matter if Ralph is still the guy thrown in the mud. Because, finally, everyone can see that just because he is a bad guy, that doesn’t make him a bad guy.

In closing, the art of storytelling is being able to weave these two levels together. The Want vs Need, or Lie vs Truth, concept is the silent war your protagonist will be fighting within themself. If your character ends up feeling fulfilled, then so will your reader.


4 thoughts on “Character Want vs Need

    • Amy Rae says:

      Thank you so much, Isle!

      You’re also one of my first commenters who isn’t on the I Hate Ginny Weasley post, haha! That post is my blessing and curse.

  1. Jay says:

    Hi, I see a lot of blog posts looking at characters’ wants vs their needs. They all sound quite similar, I would like to know more about where the idea came from. Do you know where the theory came from originally? Or where did you first read about it? Thank you

    • Amy Rae says:

      Hi Jay,

      I first came across want vs need during my first year studying Professional Creative Writing. Everything on my blog is an amalgamation of my old study notes + expansions from other blogs I’ve read.

      Anatomy of Story by John Trelby, and Story by Robert McKee are some good books for writers

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