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.

Creating Character ArcsBut, 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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. My protagonist’s goal is to find out who killed her parents (which occurs way before the start of my novel) because she thinks it will allow her to have closure. The problem I have is that I’m not really sure whether this ties into her Lie very much? Her Lie is that she thinks that nobody will listen to her, since nobody came to her on the night her parents were killed, even though she was screaming for help. Any thoughts or advice?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Lie should tie directly into the Ghost, so I don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t work.

      • That’s great, thank you! I was also wondering if it is possible to have multiple Lies or even multiple wants which are linked together. Would this complicate things too much? Would I need to merge multiple Lies/wants together in order to achieve this? If it was possible, how would it fit into the character arc?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, it’s very common to examine many related facets of the same Lie. As long as it all comes together in the end into a Truth that is pivotal to the Climactic Moment, it shouldn’t be too much.

  2. Brilliant advice, thanks. Would love your thoughts on the following set in Ancient Rome

    As result of my MC’s selfishness her sister accidentally dies. MC full of guilt and thinks embarking on a life of “good works” will atone /make her unselfish. She meets a young girl, who reminds her of dead sister, who is at risk and decides to help her. But young girl resents being seen as a sister substitute/victim and rejects help. MC is forced to acknowledge that she isn’t helping for girl’s sake but to make herself feel better and external validation ie selfish reason. Only towards end when MC sees girl as person in her own right and helps her for the right reasons does MC complete her positive character arc. Her flaw is selfishness. Her Lie is thinking that its enough to do something good, whereas really needs to change her motivations. Her Want is to atone by saving girl but her Need is to consider other people have needs too.
    Am I on right track? Are there things I could strengthen?

  3. What my protagonist wants is her mother back who suddenly disappeared. As she was home schooled and never knew her father my character desperately wants to get back the woman who was the center of her life. What she needs to do is come in terms with that one of the reason why she wants her mother back so much is because she relied all her life on her and feels that without her presence she can’t do anything. She needs to learn to stand on her own feet and figure out who she is without her mother. It is supposed to be a coming of age story of where she grows from a helpless and scared young girl into a powerful and confident young woman.

  4. Hi. I’ve read all your books on the craft and I have a question. I was wondering if the Thing the Character Wants is the same as the plot goal or if they’re both different things, and the plot goal is based on the Thing the Character Wants. If you could elucidate me on this, I’d be thankful.

  5. theotherpacman says

    Hey K.M.! I’m kinda confused about something… what is the antagonist’s role in this? You’ve said that the antagonist must stand in the way of the protagonist’s goals, but does that mean the antagonist should oppose what the protagonist wants, or needs?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The antagonist stands opposed to the protagonist’s plot goal. The plot goal, although influenced by the Want, is usually distinct; it’s usually a much more specific manifestation of the Want. So, for example, Thor’s Want is to be king, but his plot goal is to return to Asgard, which is blocked by the antagonist Loki.

  6. Could a character get what he wanted in the beginning only to realize he lost what he needed. Like a character at first wanting to leave his hometown only to realize he needed his family, but for some reason he couldn’t go back.

  7. As a want/need dilemma, how’s the following?

    “Protagonist, though exuberant, also has something of a self-blame complex. Her goal is to hold onto a job she has the skills for and needs the pay from, but she believes that subservience to her superiors is the only way to stay in her position. Thus, she allows herself to be mistreated (it’s a choice), and refuses to admit any feelings of confidence in hey) herself (even though she has plenty) to others. The job isn’t paying well, and it stifles her creativity, but she thinks it’s the right path. Need: quit and get new job OR stand up for herself and ascend the ranks. Want: avoidance of change. Lie: flying under the radar and being mistreated is better than having healthy self-compassion. Ghost: lives in place where current job is thanks to having moved out of old home due to feeling like a big fish in a little pond, before preceding to fail miserably upon arrival, thus wrecking self-confidence and blaming the so-called ‘bigheadedness’.

    My worries are that this a) overly turns the character into a victim rather than anything else, even though it is her choice to allow the workplace maltreatment to continue, b) that because her issue comes from her perceiving what isn’t a flaw as a flaw, she may be unrealistically ‘nice’. Though these can be countered and balanced (a: her issue comes from thinking that being somebody’s victim is okay, thus allowing her to become a victim, but also allowing other characters to point out either that it’s not okay or that she made that choice herself; b: load on other flaws e.g. venting frustration on others?), I’m not sure if this is a plausible character pitch. Thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Handled well, I think this can be an extremely relatable arc. I would take another look at her Want though. What does she want that’s *causing* her to avoid change?

  8. So, the Thing the Character Wants drives and creates the plot goal… when does the character make/come across the plot goal? I’m outlining my story now and my protagonist’s Want is to cope with her past, and I’m thinking her plot goal is to stop the antagonist from taking over the shogunate, a goal she won’t get until later. When is the proper time for her to accumulate this goal? I was guessing the First Plot Point?

    Thank you for another awesome post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The plot goal fully gels at the First Plot Point when the protagonist leaves the Normal World of the First Act for the Adventure World of the Second Act. He will start specifically forming that goal, via his relationship to the main conflict, at the Inciting Event/Call to Adventure halfway through the First Act at roughly the 12% mark.

  9. @KMWeiland, is there a distinction between the Truth and the Need? It seems there is a relationship between the want and the lie, in that the want is the external manifestation (or perhaps solution) to the lie. Is this the same with the truth and need, or are the truth and need one and the same?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In many instances, the Need *is* the Truth. But it can also be more of an externalized, distilled object/manifestation as well, depending on the needs of the story.

      • In that case, can the “need” be the realisation of the “truth”? For example the want is to be accepted into society and the needs is the realization that they will never be accepted?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, in most stories the Need is the Truth, although it can also be symbolized by something more concrete within the story conflict as well.

  10. Ricarr 97 says

    Hello, so the thing a character wants must be something unhealthy, something that they don’t really need, something negative or can it be something healthy, positive like the protagonist has an awful life, and all he wants to do is to escape from his awful life?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Thing the Character Wants doesn’t necessarily have to be unhealthy in itself, but the *reason* the character wants it (i.e., the Lie) is unhealthy. If the character is able to come to a healthy way of understanding and pursuing the Want, she may be able to keep it in the end.

      • ricarr97 says

        Hello again, thanks for your reply, I have another question, should the need be the same with the truth? Like the truth of my character is: Stand up for yourself, what could be the need? The same thing?

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