thing your character wants vs. the thing your character needs

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 3: The Thing Your Character Wants vs. The Thing Your Character Needs

The Lie Your Character Believes is the reason for all character arcs. After all, if everything’s hunky-dunky, why change? We might think of the Lie as the cavity in a tooth. Everything might look shiny and white on the outside, but inside there’s decay. If the character is ever to be happy, he’s going to have to do some drilling to excavate the rot in his life.

But, like most of us with a rotten tooth, he’s in denial. Even thought he keeps biting on that tooth and pushing at it with his tongue, he doesn’t want to admit he’s got a problem. In order to avoid facing the painful truth of his Lie, he wants to pretend the problem is something else. Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley, once again:

 …we know that characters often work not toward the real solution but to a perceived solution. And characters frequently grapple with a problem that is ultimately recognized as only a symptom of the real problem.

The Lie plays out in your character’s life, and your story, through the conflict between the Thing He Needs (the Truth) and the Thing He Wants (the perceived cure for the symptoms of the Lie).

What Your Character Wants

The first intersection of character arc and plot is found in the protagonist’s goal. What does he want? What’s his major story goal? World domination? A wife? To survive? To die? To get a raise?

Every story starts with the character’s goal. Simple enough, right? But that’s just the plot. What about character?

That, my friends, is where this gets interesting. It isn’t enough for us to create a story goal that’s just a surface goal. To intertwine with the character arc, this goal has to be something that matters to the character on a deeper level. He can’t just want world domination and/or a wife because, hey, who doesn’t? He has to want it for a soul-deep reason, one even he may not fully comprehend.

If you guessed that the Lie is at the root of that soul-deep reason, then you guessed right.

If only on a subconscious level, the character realizes he has a problem in his life. His problems may be evident in his miserable standard of living (Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit), or his problem may be an inner discontentment that manifests even in the midst of a seemingly perfect external life (Jon Turteltaub’s The Kid). But what he doesn’t realize, subconsciously or otherwise, is the true solution—the Thing He Needs. Nope, he thinks that if he can just have what he Wants, all will be well.

What Is the Thing Your Character Wants?

The Thing Your Character Wants will almost always be something external, something physical. He’s trying to salve his inner emptiness with exterior solutions. His problem is depression, but he’s busily putting a cast on his arm. He thinks that if he can just have that new job, that new trophy wife, that new set of golf clubs, everything will be perfect. He’ll be rich, powerful, loved, respected—and fulfilled.

Here we are dissing The Thing Your Character Wants, but, really, it may be a perfectly worthy goal in its own right. He might want to:

Nothing wrong with any of those. But the problem for these characters is that they’re pursuing goals that are furthering their enslavement to their Lies. They’re not pursuing happiness and fulfillment holistically by addressing the Lie. Rather, they’re trying to get what they want in spite of their refusal to buck up and look deep into the darkness of their own souls.

What Your Character Needs

In a word, the Thing Your Character Needs is the Truth. He needs the personalized antidote to his Lie. This is the most important thing in his life. If he misses out on this Truth, he is never going to be able to grow in a positive way. He’s either going to remain stuck in his current internal predicament forever, or he’s going to digress into an even worse state (as we’ll see when we study the Negative Arc later on).

Your character will spend most of the story pursuing his outer goal—the Thing He Wants. But what the story is really about, on a deeper level, is his growth into a place where he, first subconsciously, then consciously, recognizes and pursues his inner goal—the Thing He Needs.

What Is the Thing Your Character Needs?

The Thing Your Character Needs usually won’t be something physical—although it can (and usually should) take on a physical or visual manifestation by the end of the story. The Thing Your Character Needs is usually going to be nothing more than a realization. In some stories, this realization may change nothing about his external life, but it will always transform his perspective of himself and the world around him, leaving him more capable of coping with his remaining external problems.

The Thing Your Character Needs may preclude the Thing He Wants. He will invariably have to come to a point where he’s willing to sacrifice What He Wants in order to secure What He Needs. Sometimes the story will have to end on that bittersweet note of interior gain and exterior loss. But, other times, once the character has embraced the Thing He Needs, he will then be all the more empowered in his pursuit of What He Wants—allowing him to harmonize both his inner and outer goals in the finale.

The Thing Your Character Needs might be to:

  • Learn humility and compassion. (Thor)
  • Embrace spiritual freedom. (Jane Eyre)
  • Protect the living future over the dead past. (Jurassic Park)
  • 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?)

As you can see, these are all incorporeal concepts. But they are all things that can be demonstrated physically and visually because they demand the characters act upon their new belief, once they’ve claimed it.

Further Examples of the Thing the Character Wants and the Thing The Character Needs

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: The Thing Scrooge Wants is to make as much money as possible, no matter how many people he has to run over to get there. The Thing He Needs is to remember that true wealth is the love of his fellow human beings.

Cars directed by John Lasseter: The Thing Lightning McQueen Wants is to become the world’s most famous racecar by winning the Piston Cup and becoming the new face of Dinoco. The Thing He Needs is to let others into his life by helping them and allowing them to help him.

Questions to Ask About the Thing the Character Wants and the Thing the Character Needs

1. How is the Lie holding your character back?

2. How is the Lie making your character unhappy or unfulfilled?

3. What Truth does your character Need to disprove the Lie?

4. How will he learn this Truth?

5. What does your character Want more than anything?

6. Is the Thing He Wants his plot goal?

7. Does he believe the Thing He Wants will solve his personal problems?

8. Is the Thing He Wants holding him back from the Thing He Needs?

9. Does the Thing He Needs preclude his gaining the Thing He Wants—or will he only be able to gain the Thing He Wants after he has found the Thing He Needs?

10. How will his life be different once he embraces the Thing He Needs?

Your protagonist’s inner conflict is all about this silent war between his Want and his Need. But it’s also the gasoline in the engine of the outer conflict. If you have these two elements working in concert, you can bet you’ll also have plot and character well on their way to perfect harmony as well.

Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll explore Your Character’s Ghost—the reason he believes the Lie.

Read Previous Posts in This Series: Part 1: Can You Structure Character?

Part 2: The Lie Your Character Believes

Tell me your opinion: What does your character want most? What does he need most?

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 3: The Thing Your Character Needs vs the Thing Your Character Wants

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Great post, KM. I’m currenlty working on my first dystopian, and my protagonist wants nothing more than to clear his name of the federal charges against him and return to his executive lifestyle in New York. What he needs is to discover the true freedom found in trusting others and leading them in the New America. He’ll learn that surrendering his percieved safety in pursuit of liberty brings true contentment.

  2. Had a hard time with this question, because two of my main characters in different stories are pretty honest with themselves and have very few illusions about reality. I’m really going to have to think about these questions for those two characters. But, a third MC, Tamryn, definitely has some lies she believes, particularly about her relationship with her fiancé. She believes that if she marries him, everything will eventually work itself out between him and her best friend, but it won’t. What she NEEDS is to get rid of him and find a better guy. (Enter: Bridger!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It could be that your main characters in the first two books have their lives and the world pretty much figured and are following flat arcs. Ask yourself how their beliefs have changed at the end from what they were at the beginning. If the change isn’t obvious, they’re probably following a flat arc.

      • I wouldn’t say they’re following a flat arc necessarily, just that they’re waiting on the right opportunity. + Darby’s character arc is fulfilled over several stories rather than just one.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, that’s a good point to keep in mind: arcs can happen over the course of the series, as well as over the course of a single book.

  3. Eric Troyer says:

    Great post! I feel that stories are almost always stronger if The Thing Your MC Wants is tightly linked with the The Thing He Needs.

    But I love twists, too. One of my favorite stories is the movie “Fargo.” In that story, the main character has no Lie, but one of her antagonists does. The solidness of the MC’s character makes the Lie of the antagonist all the more stark.

  4. L. O. Fencer/Lora says:

    Firstly, if I were that kid, I’d definately want the cookies and need the apple (though it’s too red and fancy to be without danger – I’ve got quite a Snow White syndrome)

    But to be serious, this is one of the most interesting questions about a character. In my story, where my MC realizes that she’s been living in a Lie (denying the nobleness of principles) and she learns about her past, she wants above all to find her father who could make her what she is supposed to be. And she will find him in time, but only after she has found the needed thing, her real identity. So she has more Lies in one story; in fact, three – but only the first and the last (the mentioned ones) are pressed.

    This article series is getting more and more interesting – I can’t wait for the next part. Reasons… sounds really deep and serious, just as it is.

    Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A character can definitely have more than one Lie (just as stories can, and usually do, have more than one theme). Often, these Lies will be related, and the complexity only brings added depth to the story.

  5. I often think writers would make pretty decent phycologists, in that they know what fuels people so well. It’s actually part of the reason I love writing so much as I have a large interest in phycology. Anyway, figuring out my characters motives is probably one of the first things I do because I fine that it is what guides the course of the story. I even like to come up with the underlying goals and lies of minor characters even though it doesn’t always come up in my actual writing. Now I have a protagonist with the desire to find a place where he feels he belongs and can’t screw things up, though he (in the beginning of the story) does that by isolating himself from people and making his own place to belong (alone), so he still ends up lonely and isn’t sure what to do. I have an antagonist who seeks his fathers approval because he’s never felt good enough for anyone thus pushing him to extreme limits to do things against my protagonist. Then there’s my sidekick character whom similar to my protagonist (but not the same as she wants to stay in one place and he wants to get away) wants to find a place to call home. This is rooted, not in that she drives people away, but that she is always torn from people by life’s course and that she always defends the ones with a good heart who tend to not be the most powerful people.
    Of course, these are only my most important characters. The hardest thing I have is keeping the people from being to similar, that and I hate putting stupid characters in my story, I just can’t do it. Anyhow, nice post, I found it very interesting and helpful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Excellent stuff. As I discussed in this post, one of the best ways to develop theme is by looking at the ways in which the protagonist and antagonist are similar, and the protagonist and sidekick are dissimilar.

  6. This series is turning out great. I am enjoying analyzing my book using it.

    And I love the quotes from dramatica. I learn from dramatica myself, and it was awesome to find out you had heard of it. :D

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, it’s a great book. I appreciate appreciate that their approach is “theoretical,” because really, no matter how concrete the patterns, that’s what all of storytelling ultimately is.

  7. In the story I’m currently working on, the need and the want are the same. Is this simplifying the story too much? Am I leaving out a dimension to my main character?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Internal conflict is created when the Need and the Want are in competition with each other – if not directly, then at least in the sense that the Want, by itself, can’t disprove the character’s Lie. So, yes, I would encourage you to look a little deeper. Perhaps your character isn’t quite self-aware enough to understand his Need – and therefore can’t quantify it as a Want.

  8. This series has been fantastic so far! Really making me think about the characters in my current novel.

    My protagonist, Gil, wants to live, plain and simple. He doesn’t want to lose his life a second time, so he is willing to do whatever the New Church asks of him. What he needs is to recognize the true nature of the forces that have turned him into a pawn of the Church, and of the people he has been sent to destroy. He must realize that life as he now lives it is no life at all.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Spot on. Survival is a classic Want. Characters will sacrifice just about everything, including their identity, their soul, and even loved ones, just to survive – and no one can blame them for wanting it.

  9. Trevor Veale says:

    What a great idea: to expose your character’s burning desire as a false premise hiding the real unmet need!
    My protagonist’s need is to have a relationship where she can be her authentic self and savor the long-term delights of companionship and sexual fulfillment that her robot houseboy is unable to provide. Her want is to become the lover and helpmate of a Messianic spiritual teacher, until she learns that the teacher has serious character flaws. Eventually she finds her needs met by a humbler mortal, albeit a dishy Australian. Sorry, Robo.
    Interestingly, my antagonist, somewhat like Allyson’s, is striving to emulate his ruthless father by oppressing my protag.

  10. K.M.
    These recent posts are effective in helping writers to think beyond the surface world in which a story takes place. Thank you.
    For me, the Lie will take the form of any path that is easier to follow than the one that must be followed to reach the Holy Grail, i.e., what a character needs.
    In applying what you say to a recently completed novel of mine, I find something a little different: the central character has not deluded herself with a lie. What she wants and needs aren’t in conflict. But: the painful discovery for her takes the form of realizing just how costly the price will be for getting what she needs. It’s a cost so great that readers will be left wondering whether it’s going to destroy my character’s victory (and I imagine, by now, you know that victory has to do with love).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Flat Arcs – or testing arcs, as they’re sometimes called – won’t transform a character by having him overcome a Lie. But they will force the character to count the cost of whatever he’s trying to achieve. We’ll be digging into the Flat Arc sometimes in the future.

  11. Excellent post as usual Katie. I finished reading Dreamlander and totally geeked out! I love the series of climaxes and Chris’s character growth in the end. It impresses me how much of your advice in this post comes through your story. I doubt you’ll care much for more specific feedback from me since your other fans have read it and made comments on it l, but if you want I will some time.

    I spent a long time trying to type the premise and character’s lie of the story I’m currently plotting and researching, but it was too convoluted for me to explain without it being ridiculously long and potentially confusing. Although I’m not always comfortable talking about my stories, I can usually explain them well enough but I’m just having the craziest time with this one. Have you ever ran into that problem?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed Dreamlander! Makes my day to hear that. :D

      I love complex stories. But it’s worth considering that if the story is too complex for you to sum up its essential core, then it may be *too* complicated. The only story with which I’ve had that happen was one that was too scattered to work properly; I ended up ditching it.

  12. Olivia Carmichael says:

    How does this factor in when you have say four main characters written from a third person omniscient perspective?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The first thing you have to figure out is whether or not all four characters are experiencing positive change arcs. If they’re all experiencing change arcs, then each arc – including the things the characters each want and need – need to be plotted individually. But – and this is where it gets tricky – they also all need to complement one another in terms of theme.

  13. Thanks so much for this post, and especially this series. It’s really forced me to give a more critical eye to my story, and I’m so grateful.

    I really love how this topic creates such a strong and clear sense of transformation (hopefully, if well executed!). I’m struggling with whether or not my character’s want is strong enough. She starts out wanting to be more well-liked and included and less lonely among her drifting friends, but a family tragedy pushes that aside and she suddenly has her need (and new want)–what she needs to survive emotionally–that eclipses her former want. Although the initial want to feel included is still a thread in the story, she learns how superficial that was, as she deals with tragedy and begins to discover the stronger relationships she actually needed all along in order to have a happy and fulfilled life.

    I know this is a bit vague, but it’s hard to remove myself and wonder if this is too flat to be enough of a hook? If anyone has a bit of advice or an opinion, I’d be grateful to hear it!

    • If you haven’t already done so, I would encourage you to manifest her general want (“be more popular”) into a specific goal (“go out with Mr. Jock” or “join the Popular Girls club”). I actually like this kind of goal a lot because it has both positive and negative aspects. She can grow enough to to ditch the negative aspects (popularity for popularity’s sake or pretending she’s someone she’s not just to fit in), while also growing *into* the positive aspects (the power of true friendship, etc.).

      • Thanks for your advice–that seems like such an obvious fix! I think the big “goal” can seem intimidating at times, like it has to be life changing, but at the very core of the story, most characters have pretty simple wants. You did note this in the list above, of course. “Be Andy’s favorite” from Toy Story was my favorite. Such a simple desire, and yet how powerful and well-loved that story is!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Extremely true. Most human desires, taken down to their most basic level, are extremely simple: be healthy, be happy, be loved.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The Lie Your Character Believes, which is the reason for all character arcs, is created from the conflict between the Thing He Wants and the Thing He needs.  […]

  2. […] The Lie Your Character Believes is the reason for all character arcs. After all, if everything’s hunky-dunky, why change? We might think of the Lie as the cavity in a tooth. Everything might look shiny and white on the outside, but inside there’s decay. If the character is ever to be happy, he’s going to have to do some drilling to excavate the rot in his life.  […]

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  4. […] your character want?  What do they need?  How do these things interact with each other?  This blog post said it way better than I could […]

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