The Two Conflict-Creating Needs of Every Character

In Frank Oz’s comedy What About Bob?, Bill Murray’s neurotic character sobs to his psychiatrist (who’s trying desperately to get rid of him), “Gimme, gimme, gimme! I need, I need, I
need!” Ultimately, this is what every one of our characters should be screaming on the inside. We’re all familiar with the idea that our main character must be driven through the story by some great need. But the truth is one need just isn’t going to be strong enough to get a character all the way through a book. You are going to need to discover, not just two (or more) needs, but the two friction-causing, conflict-creating, mutually exclusive needs of every character.

The ever wise and entertaining Victoria Mixon (in her book The Art and Craft of Story) says it this way:

Characters are only important to readers insofar as they need things. Things that contrast. Things that conflict. When someone seriously, desperately, aggressively needs two mutually-exclusive things, well, stuff tends to happen to them. Big, exciting stuff! That’s the fabulous stuff of fiction.

Creating Character ArcsSo how does this work? How do you go about choosing not just one but two story-shaping needs for your character? Let’s break this down and take a closer look. To begin with, consider the three intrinsic elements of character needs:

1. Your character’s two needs must be equally important. If they’re going to create the necessary conflict, they have to be heavyweight enough to challenge each other.

2. Both needs will be present essentially from the beginning of the story. Since they rest at the heart of your character’s inner conflict, they must be there from the get-go in order to fuel his arc.

3. Your character can (and probably will) have more than just two needs. The more needs he has, the more complicated and intricate the book’s conflicts and themes will be. Just make sure the needs all conflict on one or more levels.

Got that? Good. Now we’re going to take a head-on dive into the specific elements of our two needs

Character Need #1

This need is the one riding the breaking waves of your plot. This is the foundation for the goal your character is trying to accomplish. It’s his outer need, the thing he knows he wants and thinks he has to accomplish to reach his primary objective.

For example, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jane’s primary need is to marry and live with her soul mate, Rochester. In Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, Rick’s primary need is to reunite with his lost love Ilsa. In Karen Hancock’s The Light of Eidon, Abramm’s primary need is to survive his enslavement and return home to wrest his throne from his treacherous brother.

Character Need #2

In many ways, the secondary need is the more important of the two. But, ssh! Don’t tell anybody. Even the character himself may not realize how important this need is until late in the story. This need is curled up deep inside him and is at the core of the weakness holding him back from achieving his full potential. Sometimes, this need can stand in stark contrast to Need #1, to the point that achieving either one of the needs means completely abandoning the other. And sometimes, this need can end up being the perfect complement to the primary need—in which case, it’s the character’s resistance to this need that stands in the way of his achieving not just its fulfillment, but the fulfillment of Need #1 as well.

For example, in Jane Eyre, Jane’s need to remain true to her moral duty, as well as her need to grow into the strength to truly stand as Rochester’s equal, impedes her from remaining with Rochester after she learns of his insane wife. In Casablanca, Rick’s need to fight the Nazis and support Ilsa’s freedom-fighter husband prevents him from running away with Ilsa. In Light of Eidon, Abramm’s deep spiritual need to submit himself to the true God and His will for his life first stands in the way of his achieving his ultimate goal of survival (thanks to his resistance to Need #2), and then removes his anger and need for vengeance against his brother.

The more deeply at odds these two needs, the stronger and more compelling an inner conflict will emerge from the fires. As our character wrestles with either relinquishing one of these needs (and if he truly needs it, then relinquishing it will always be bone-breakingly painful) or somehow harmonizing them, he will plumb the depths of himself and present a story arc that will resonate with readers for years to come.

Tell me your opinion: What are your characters two conflicting needs? 

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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. My main character is a 17-year-old boy in 1969 New York. His #1 need (he thinks) is the need to be accepted by his peers. His #2 need (unknown to him at first) is the need for him to accept and love himself for who he really is, and to find a place where people accept and love him for who he really is.

    Are the two (or more) needs (outer and inner) the same concept as the Thing the Character Wants (need #1) and the Thing the Character Needs?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, you’re spot on with the connection between this post and what I’m discussing in the more recent character arcs series.

  2. Adam Rickman says:

    I’d like to start off by saying that you’ve been a tremendous help to me in my journey to becoming a writer. I’ve been lurking and reading (and really just gobbling up) everything I can from your site, Outlining Your Novel, and Structuring Your Novel in order to finish my first big outline and start on my first draft. Having said that, thank you for producing such great content and helpful lessons–they have been invaluable to me thus far!

    My MC, Nia, is a member of a shady group of individuals that do odd jobs for clients who wish to stay anonymous. They find non-violent ways to steal, con, manipulate, and even sabotage to get to a desired objective, for a price. Nia’s older brother runs the group and has sheltered her for many years after their parents left them (for reasons they both don’t yet understand). He wishes for her to stay out of trouble, play it safe, and let him protect her, as he always has.

    The conflicting needs here are that she desperately wants her brother’s respect, but constantly goes against his wishes by attempting to prove that she can take risks and protect herself. At the end of the 2nd act, her brother is suddenly removed from the picture, and she is forced to face the truth that in order to survive, she has to keep going on her own, regardless of what anyone else thinks. She eventually realizes that the thing she’s wanted was in direct contrast to what she needed all along, confidence in herself to be her own person.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good job! It’s always great when the rug gets pull out form under the character, and she has to face the ugly Truth about what it is she really needs.

  3. This post was quite juicy! A t-bone steak perhaps. Absolutely sunk my teeth into it. Love the nature of the silent war and conflict at the heart of the story. Tasty, tasty.

  4. My character StarGirl learns to control her powers and decides to help people by being a superhero, but is dealing with lack of self-confidence and not trusting her instincts and needs to overcome them, and that’s what she manages to do.

  5. Can u guve another exanple of secondary key that can help me understand it well? I woupd like to use this technique in my story too. Can I?

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