What a Character Wants and What a Character Needs

I have talked many times about how story comes from understanding and establishing right away what a character wants. This is established after the inciting incident that kick-starts the story proper. It sets up the premise of the story, the what if moment, the burning question the story sets out to answer, solve, resolve. So it provides the all-important motivation for action.

The object of that want can be a physical thing, a trophy, the holy grail — it will be to save, preserve or enhance the character’s world. It can be less tangible: success, revenge, love, self-esteem, survival, to protect family/home and in fact these latter ones are the most common in any story. Why? Because they are the things that matter the most and we can all relate to that.

If you don’t know what a character wants and what’s at stake if they don’t get it, you don’t have a story.

That thing they want, that thing they lack is the thing the story sets out to gain, and, and this is important,your antagonists, be them people or things that stand in the way of your protagonist’s desire (the obstacles of the story) MUST embody the qualities lacking in the protagonist. 

In all stories, a sense of security is breached at the inciting incident and the focus of the story becomes about restoring that.

But what adds layers is how we orchestrate change and to make stories three-dimensional that change is  essential.

What is powerful is when there is conflict between what a character wants and what they need. What they need becomes apparent later in the story.

A character seeks what they want but the events of the story show them what they need. If what drives the story initially is want, an ego-driven goal, and this is abandoned for what they need — something more nourishing, essential, more important, then you will have a more powerful story.

The want should always be present at the beginning of the story: your hero wants to avenge the death of his sister, inciting incident she is killed by a drunk driver. This incident functions to awaken desire and we all relate to that need. What does he lack? Answers. Maybe he carries a sense of personal guilt for not keeping her safe. We have a story because he sets out to find those answers: fuelled by a need for revenge. I will stop at nothing until I see that driver as dead as my sister.

But what does he need? This becomes apparent later when we learn about the driver and perhaps we come to see that he needs to forgive himself and to forgive the driver and that he doesn’t want him dead. So he abandons what he wants for what he needs and we see his growth as a character. Does that make sense?

In summary here is story:

Once upon a time in a certain place something happened (premise)… and because of that I am going to do this (story)… A character seeks what they want but in doing so  realises what they need. But characters should not always get what they want — but should — if they deserve it — get what they need.

That is all. Look at your own work to see how you effect this and if it’s not strong enough, change the story.

Have a great day.

story shape

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