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 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.


  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.


    • 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. 😀

    • 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. 😀

      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!

  14. I managed to develop my entire story without my main character really having a goal. I’ve thrown out goal after goal and it’s all burned down to her being a victim of circumstance. She loses her mother before the story begins and when the antagonist enters her life, he takes out everyone who gets in the way of him having her. Eventually her goal is to avenge her loved ones, but that doesn’t happen til far later in the story. She has no real goal before she reaches that point. Any advice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      To start with, you might also find this post helpful:

      I would encourage you to look at the end of your story and consider what your character ends up with that she didn’t have in the beginning. Peace, family, justice, a place to live, etc. Likely, this will be the most appropriate goal for her to be pursuing throughout the story. See if you can work it into the earlier parts of the story.

      It might also be worth considering that your story is starting too soon. It might be that the *real* story doesn’t start until later on when she acquires her goal of vengeance.

      • I understand what you mean about starting point, but I started at the point I did so that I could formally introduce the antagonist at the moment he entered her life. And what she ultimately obtains at the end is peace, which I suppose is something she craves, given she loses her mother, love interest, brother, and best friend within the span of less than two years. I just don’t know how to work that in with such an introverted character.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Another good way to figure out the character’s goal is to look at the conflict. Conflict is the result of a goal that is being stymied. What is causing the main conflict with the antagonist? What is he keeping her from getting (this would include safety and survival)? Conversely, what is she keeping him from getting?

          • She’s unintentionally fueling the antagonists goal for most of the plot. He falls for her, she starts to care for him, but he kills anyone who gets in the way of him being with her and she doesn’t find out until the death of her brother. He’s keeping her from finally being at peace with the death and pain around her. He’s constantly putting chaos into her life to keep her on his leash without her knowing.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Sounds like maybe her Lie is something to do with whatever motive is keeping her in this destruction relationship. The Thing She Wants Most might *be* the relationship–i.e., to be loved, even if its for the wrong reasons or by the wrong person. But the Thing She Needs is to embrace the Truth, however painful. Or something like that.

        • Laura, you might want to look into “narcissists” and “gaslighting” for more material and insight about the deliberate injection of chaos into someone’s life for the purpose of control

          • So, in these gaslighting-by-a-narcissist cases: What’s in it for the victim? What’s the “payoff” or “bait” that keeps the victim ensnared, keeps the victim from walking away?

  15. Shankar Pandalai says:

    My character is now employed. He would retire soon, and he fears that he would have to depend on his rich wife in future. This fear drives him to School to learn new skills. Isn’t it a genuine need? Or is it a lie?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Often the things the Lie drives the character to do aren’t necessarily bad things. It’s the reason behind them that is “bad.” In this instance, the “bad” aspect might be, not so much his desire not to be dependent, but rather the insecurity that drives that desire.

  16. What if your MC has already reached the lowest of the low? My MC grew up with a mother who when not in drunk/drug induced stupors raged against the MC and blamed her for her father’s death. So she learned to fake normal to the outside world, to lie and to manipulate, and blackmail to stay ‘safe’.
    Her major lie in the book is that relationships end in pain and are unnecessary. I know her Need is that relationships are healthy, by accepting this she will be able to grow as a person and choose how to handle the bad habits that she has molded into her character so that she could survive. But I am having trouble developing her Want and trying to figure out how to handle her, let’s call it, ‘edgy’ character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like maybe she would be the type of character who would *want* to stay safe by avoiding relationships. Depending on your plot, that could easily translate to her overall physical story goal in some way.

  17. I am getting stuck trying to figure out my character’s story/plot goal. Is the goal the same thing as her Want, and then the goal can change when she starts to realize the Need? My MC also doesn’t seem to have what I think is her plot goal until the Inciting Event. Her backstory and general temperament prepares her to have this goal, but it’s not quite in play on page one until she’s reacting to the inciting event (and she is very definitely reacting to something unexpected, which was true before I read what you’ve written about MCs are usually being reactive in the first half). I realize this might not be a clear question, but I don’t want to go into too much detail! Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The plot goal and the character’s Want are very comparable. The goal associated with the Need should also be present from the beginning, so it isn’t as if the character conceives a brand new goal as he shifts attention to the Need. It’s more that his priorities shift.

      The Inciting Event is a perfect place to fully introduce the goal, especially if you’ve been laying the groundwork for it in the story previous to it.

  18. I’ve got this introverted main character who believes that others don’t notice or appreciate him, and so he thinks that he and everyone else would be happier if he could just go away and live in his daydreams. He gets a chance to achieve his goal–of being able to live out his daydream, via a magical virtual reality device–only to find that it isn’t as fulfilling as he thought it would be. The truth he discovers is that life is beautiful because of our positive relationships with ourselves and with other people, and that happiness comes from within, and not from outside of yourself. When he realizes this, he starts to learn that people do love and appreciate him, but he had shut them out. Then he opens up and becomes happier and more involved with the loving people around him, and as a bonus he gets some of the fun and excitement that he craved in the first place. The end. 🙂 If we start with a simple/obvious character arc like this, how can we avoid making the completed story too simple/obvious? First of all, does this arc sound super obvious and/or cliche to you?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The complexities of theme will always come out of asking questions that seem to have more than one right answer. Or by making sure that for whatever the character gains in the end of the story, he also has to sacrifice something. Theme and character arc are inherently entwined, so you may find these posts useful as well.

  19. Paul Macklin says:

    If, for example, a want is interrupted, derailed, for instance by some kind of emergency, does the primary want simply change or morph into something else?

    In my WIP my MC’s sister is kidnapped. They don’t really get along in the first place and really, the MC wants nothing more than to be left alone, because usually their sister interferes with everything.

    In this case, the MC gets what they want very early in the story and they have conflicting thoughts about this – obviously, being a relatively good person, they are scared for their sister. On the other hand they have feelings of guilt because this is what they wanted all along.

    Basically, the problem I am having is whether achieving that initial want so early in the story voids the conflict between need and want? Because realistically they still want the same thing, but they just don’t realise why what they want isn’t the same as what they need, and that’s the journey I’m hoping to lead them through. Does that make sense?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a very common scenario (early wants seemingly being achieved). The trick in understanding how this plays into the bigger picture of Want/Need is to look deeper behind that initial surface want. If the character *truly* wanted to be left alone, he would never go searching for the sister. So perhaps what he really wants is a better relationship with the sister–which he will continue to want over the course of the story, and which will, presumably, create an evolution in both him and the relationship.

      • Paul Macklin says:

        Thank you for the really quick response. I’m now up to the climax in your series of blogs and feel like I’ve definitely managed to clear up some areas of my story planning. Sometimes I feel like I have to interpret these different points in different ways so as to suit my story.

        If the need for a better relationship then becomes the want, I feel like I’m at a loss for my need – or are these things usually not contrasting? I’ve scribbled down my character’s want as wanting to be alone, their lie as not needing anybody’s help, would developing a better relationship with those around them and being able to work together with others not count as an acceptable need?

        Thank you for all your help with this.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Often, the character’s Want isn’t necessarily going to be something destructive. It can be a very healthy thing *except* for the fact that the Lie is warping his perspective on it. So if your character wants a relationship (a good thing) but has a Lie that’s warping him into believing he can’t accept help *even in* a relationship, that could be damaging the healthy relationships he’s trying to have and ultimately preventing him from gaining either his Want or his Need.

  20. Hi K.M. – love your site. Screenwriting question – as I understand it, our protag often shifts from pursuit of WANT to NEED at the midpoint. Thus, our PLOT GOAL may change to a new goal to address that need. If that’s the case, is the LIE better constructed as a barrier to (a) the plot goal, or (b) the new NEED goal? In my story those are dramatically different. Thanks for any input here.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Lie is always going to be a barrier to the Need. Very often, however, the character’s Want (if it’s something that’s not unhealthy in itself) will be unattainable without the Need/Truth first being in place. So even though the Lie may be empowering the character’s Want, he may not actually be able to obtain the Want without first overcoming the Lie and embracing the Need. The Dustin Hoffman movie Tootsie is a great example of this.

      • Thank you! Is it a poorly crafted story if he can get his exterior want without his need being fulfilled? I mean, he may get it, but he won’t be happy and the lie will remain. Do I need to ensure this can’t happen for the story to resonate?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s only poorly crafted if he gets the Want while still Lie-ridden–and still feels fulfilled. It’s fine to give a character his Want as long as he finds it hollow since he’s still lacking his Need.

  21. The movie The Princess and the Frog, which was made by Disney not to long ago, relates a lot to this post you made. The movie is about Tiana, who wants to open up her restaurant. She thinks that if the only thing she does is works she can get it. The problem is, she works so much, she ignores her family and friends. All she does is work. But then, Mama Odie opens the eyes of Tiana and tells her that it’s not what you want, but what you need. She tells Tiana to dig a little deeper to find out what she needed.
    Soon Tiana realized that she had to relax more in life and enjoy it more, instead of being a full time work-aholic. I loved the message movie conveyed, ans it’s actually one of my favorites.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Do they actually spell it out like that: “want vs. need”? That’s cool. I need to get around to seeing that one. I thought the trailer looked great, but then it bombed in the theaters and I never made time to see it on DVD.

  22. This article is so creepy! It’s like reading about my own biggest life problem and the solution at the same time, but I assume that is how story really works, and why we like some stories more than others because there is something that resonates in ourselves. Reading this article will save me lots of money at my therapist when I follow my own Hero’s path 🙂

  23. This is nothing but awesomesauce. Enjoying the nature of the character arcs. Starting at part 3, a little backwards. But enjoyable nevertheless.
    Think I’m finally learning something here. Studying is one thing, but obtaining understanding is utterly priceless.


  24. I think I’ve erred again; the first book ends without much looking at the lie.

    My character, Brannon, is a brainwashed secret agent on the run from a far-future Earth Empire wanting to take back all human planets. What he wants: stop by each planet, overthrow the worst bits of their society, and get away before his boss gets there.

    What he needs to realize is that he’s not really free of their mind control, and the people he helps are left completely vulnerable to conquest by the empire he hates. In fact he’s not rebelling at all, he’s just doing his original mission in a different way.

    In the second book, he confronts this realization head on, running from both his old boss and the crazy slave girl who is trying to set him straight, as he doesn’t know who to trust since either of them can really mess up his mind. But that one’s not really begun…

  25. One compelling example i think can be found in Fight Club. There the main character (unnamed – the narrator) suffers an existential crisis. On the one hand he feels compelled to fill up his life with external substance – furniture, IKEA, trendy clothing etc. consumerism, in order to fill the empty hole in his life, however the very things he seeks out contribute to his internal conflict:

    -He works for a company he hates.
    – He recognizes that the only reason he buys anything is for status in a society he feels really doesn’t care about him.
    -He feels alone, isolated.
    -He feels enslaved by this need to consume.

    The lie comes along when Tyler Durden appears. Tyler, a manifestation of his desire to escape leads him down a path of self-destruction through the lens of enlightenment, but ultimately draws him in to a world he has no control over and for the most part isn’t suited to.

    The lie of the narrator is that by rejecting everything society has to offer – by being destructive, violent, self-important, and chaotic, he can achieve a sense of excitement and the status he so fondly desires.

    Unfortunately this only makes him a slave to the opposite end of the spectrum – and it’s only through realizing that what he really needs – balance, is what can bring him happiness. He’s able to understand that on a fundamental level it was never boredom causing his emptiness – it was an unwillingness to take charge of his own life.

  26. James Hargreaves says:

    I think my WIP has similar MC Wants/Needs to what other people have shared.
    Is this too clichè/common/played out?:

    My MC is a teenager who wants to be free from the bully who always picks on him in school. His want is to simply be left alone (by everyone really, so he can just live his private life)
    The problem in the inciting event happens when the classroom he is in (along with 21 other middle schoolers, including the bully, and their teacher) are accidentally sent to another planet. They are forced to survive together, thwarting his desire to be left alone and exist in his own world. He can’t escape the bully now, who takes out his frustration with the situation on our MC.

    The MC’s need is to realize that you can’t live in the world alone, but that you need other people and they need you.

    He eventually comes to discover that his survival skills are valuable to the group of students trying to survive, so he is forced out of his shell (over time) and has to become the leader the group needs to find out how they were sent to this planet and how they can make it back home. (Very interesting planet too; think of “Avatar” meets “the Martian”)

    As a result of becoming the leader, he gains a group of friends and advocates who will stand with him as he learns to face the bully (and his fears).
    Need meets Want.

    Too clichè?

    Writing a Young Adult Sci-Fi Adventure novel.

    Thanks for the site and the podcast. I am finally starting to figure out this outlining thing. Never been able to do that before I read your books.
    Your words of advice are very much appreciated.


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t think that’s overdone at all. Very original and fun! Great to hear you’re enjoying the podcast.

  27. Hey, someone has my name. I have a character who’s want is to help people but in the first book, she’s dealing with lack of self-confidence and thinks that she can’t do the cool things she can do in the second, but gradually learns that she can, whereas Samantha doesn’t think StarGirl is good enough.

  28. Hannah Killian says:

    *groans* Why. Do. I . Keep. Thinking. Of . Hans?! I just now thought of a Ghost, Lie, Truth, Thing Character Wants vs What Character Needs for him!!!!


  29. In my story of the nerd and the tomboy, my character wants to prove his intellectual superiority to the antagonist and everyone else, and continue to live by running things behind the scenes and controlling every aspect of his life; he needs to recognize that, though the antagonist is smarter than he ever could be, he is superior to the antagonist because he does what is right (this would be expanded further in sequels), and he needs to take a larger role (this mostly comes in sequels) and let others help him guide his life.

  30. So is it perfectly fine that the protagonist doesn’t achieve his goal/what he wants in order to gain what he needs?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep. In many positive change arcs, the protagonist will surrender his Want, in a bittersweet moment, in order to have a better life with the Need.

  31. In a flat arc, when the protagonist has the truth figured out, does he still have something he needs since he has already overcome his lie?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      No, he’ll already be in possession of the Thing He Needs (which always boils down to the story’s main Truth). This doesn’t mean he still won’t have something he wants and is seeking in the main plot on a more physical level, however.

  32. I’m in the process of outlining a sequel, and am trying to make sure I’ve got all my character arcs in order. Your posts reeeeaally help!!! My main character struggles with the Lie from page 1. It’s always with him. He abandoned his sister when he was younger to save his own life, and he believes her to be dead. Now he beats himself over it and believes the Lie that because of his past, he’s a coward and nobody should trust him. Problem is, I don’t really know what his Want is. He just goes through life, hiding his personal demons and avoiding any situations that would cause him to hurt others. I know his Need, though, and he’ll realize that at the Midpoint, and slowly he’ll stop believing the Lie. But then another situation develops and he believes another Lie that turns out he’s been believing all along, and that gets resolved too at the Climax. Anyways, is it ok for him not to have a specific Want?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The lack of a Want likely signifies the lack of a solid plot goal, which is problematic, since that’s what drives the entire plot. If you feel the character *does* have a plot goal, then look for a deeper, more universal desire behind that–that’s your Want.

      • Could it be something as simple as a want of peace? Internal peace? I know you can have gentler plot goals, like Anne of Green Gable. The question throughout the story was if she would find belonging. I’m thinking in my story, the question would be if my MC would find inner peace, and if he would ever see his sister again. That would be alright, wouldn’t it?

  33. Great instruction.I have never analyzed a book at such a depth.In the “Lord of the Rings” what is Frodo’s Want vs. Need? I am asking because I am currently
    writing a “quest” fantasy novel and I am a little confused about my MC ‘s
    wants/needs.Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve yet to watch or read the entire trilogy, so I’m not sure. Perhaps someone else can comment?

  34. Love your site… so helpful. I just have one question about my MC’s Plot Goal and Want. The MC’s lie/wound is that he has no self-worth due to the nature of his father. Right now, I have the MC’s Need as: “Wants to finish his apprenticeship so that he can finally marry this girl, and then maybe he can prove himself worthy to his father.” But at the inciting incident, the girl he is to marry is murdered. Now he seeks revenge for her death.

    I guess my question is: is it ok to switch his need from “Wanting to prove to his father that he isn’t a failure by finishing his apprenticeship/starting a family.” to “Get revenge for the murder of the girl he loved.”.

    I read that you said the Plot Goal and Want should be very similar. I would consider the “Get revenge for the murder of the girl he loved.” the plot goal, and in all trueness, all he wants is to prove himself to his father that he is a man, so I guess that plays into the revenge thing right?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Need/Truth is always something primal and universal. It’s only in the plot goal that it narrows down into a specific goal. So your character’s Need wouldn’t be “start a family” or “get revenge.” Those are plot goals. The Need driving both of those is “prove he’s not a failure.” It’s fine for the plot goal to change or be refined at the First Plot Point (inevitable, in fact). The Need, however, shouldn’t change.

  35. I’m late to the game with this post but it’s so helpful, so thank you for that!

    My protagonist, a politically precocious, Latino eleven-year-old’s, LIE is that she believes her absentee Congressman father is a good person worthy of love and admiration, and if she proves she’s special he will accept her. She WANTS a picture with him where he’s looking at her lovingly like he is with his sons in a JPG she downloaded. Can the Want be a tangible thing? Or does it have to be something grander?

    My protag’s GHOST is the continual disbelief (and slights) her classmates and even adults have given her when she tells them she’s his daughter. As such, she sets aside everything: friendships, extracurricular activities, etc… to singularly-focus on politics hoping to prove she’s special. What she NEEDS is to develop her own self-worth outside of her father’s opinion, to recognize he isn’t the man she thinks he is, and form meaningful friendships.

    It feels like my NEED is too grandiose, while my WANT is too concrete. Or is that how it’s supposed to be?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Need will always be something primal, so you’re spot on there. I would look beyond the “concrete” Want to what she *really* Wants: e.g., She wants him to love her. The picture can then be her plot goal (or part of it).

  36. This website is extremely helpful! I’m trying to get around to planning out a first novel that I have always had on the back burner and never got around to doing. I am struggling to get the concept fully of a characters want vs need, and how that applies to their entire character arc. I was hopping to get your opinion on how this applies to a coming of age or having to believe in yourself theme, as my story falls into that category.

    If you could help me analyze A New Hope for instance. Luke is a story of coming of age, and having to believe in himself, but I am struggling to figure out his lie. Specifically, what he wants vs what he needs and how he really overcomes his lie. We know he comes to believe in his ability at the end by turning off his flight computer and blowing up the Death Star, but to me, this isn’t really overcoming a lie, it’s simply growing up and believing in his own ability.

    Thank you for your time and insight, hopefully you can help me better understand this concept!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’d interpret Luke’s Lie along the lines of “self-worth is found in being a hotshot hero (like my dad),” with the Truth he grows into over the course of the series being that “true heroism is about discipline and sacrifice.”

  37. I’m still working on many things dealing with my bugfolk series but so far I got this:

    The protagonist wants: To prove that he can be trusted (to make up for the guilt/ shame in his life – recovering alcoholic backstory/ hurt relationships, friends he betrayed, etc.), a position of leadership and control.
    This desire to be trusted and in control overrides what he needs, allows him to be manipulated into stuff that can conflict with his core values. (His occupation is a soldier, but his core values for desire peace put him at odds.) Hang this need to be trusted pulls him into lies. Result: Negative growth.
    The desire for being trusted leads him to follow a ruthless commander of the colony’s army to carry out very cruel orders such as destroying an entire enemy colony/village equivalent.)

    What he needs: To be true to himself, stand up for his beliefs. Seek redemption, and find ways to make peace to work with his core values. Also be loved for who he is rather than who he wishes to be. (finding and adopting a child allows this need to be explored and developed.)

  38. First, I just wanted to say that this site and the books have already helped me a lot. I don’t often post such things, so I wanted to start with saying thank you!

    I have a slight problem with the Want, Need and Lie. I have a very powerful imagination and I always come up with countless ideas for situations, problems or funny/interesting characters, but those ideas are always external in nature. Basically, all my ideas start with a story goal and I sometimes create one or more characters who try to achieve that goal. Occasionally I expand on these ideas a bit more to see if it’s something that resonates with me. Right now, I’m working on a story that I plan to use for a video game or comic (I’m a video game designer and artist by trade who wants to write for games and comics).

    What I started with was an external (visible) conflict, because I wanted to come up with something that wasn’t too epic in scope. So it involves a group of rebels who intend to start a civil war. The focus of the story is about being a kind of James Bond/Jack Bauer-style character who goes after the Separatists to stop them. I created a main character who’s a Federal Agent (for a FBI-style agency) that investigates corruption and the like. He becomes embroiled in the larger conflict when a bomb kills dozens of people, including supposedly his sister, and also almost kills him. His injuries are healed using experimental cybernetics, which basically improve his abilities and turns him into a kind of superhero (which is all part of a shared universe arc inspired by the design of the Marvel Cinematic Universe).

    What I have so far is that he Wants to stop the terrorists, that’s the goal for the player in the game as well. But what I struggle with is his Lie and Need. What I have written down is that he Needs to accept that some things are beyond his control and that one man can rarely make a difference (this does resonate with me, but I feel it’s still missing something). The Lie is that he believes it’s his fault that the rebels managed to get that far and kill his sister and others. But that Lie is “created” from the Inciting Event or Key Event, not because it existed as part of the character. When I try to dig deeper to find the true Lie, it hit a wall and get somewhat confused.

    Sorry for the wall of text :). Right now, the story feels more like a James Bond movie, where the main character is simply on a mission, without anything tied to a Lie or Need. I love James Bond, and the particular type of “tale” about a flat arc character who influences people around him/her and his struggles to defeat a villain. But that’s not what I want for this story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Lie *can* crystallize with the Inciting Event, but the root needs to be preexistent to the story. Take a look at your character’s backstory, particularly the Ghost, to discover what might be motivating his belief in the fundamental Lie.

      Otherwise, it sounds to me like what you have here is pretty solid.

      • I thought about this for a bit and realized that, in my character’s backstory sketches, there was something that I could use as the Ghost. I completely forgot about what the Ghost was and how it ties to the Lie. Now it actually makes sense. In fact, this also allowed me to identify a few other Lies of the character which don’t directly link to his Want and Need, but which do influence him and which would “create” the central Lie during the Inciting Event.

        So, thank you! I’m thoroughly reading through this series now to see if I missed anything else.

  39. Katie, I just wanted to give you props for putting Green Street Hooligans in this book! A very underrated film and perfect for this type of subject.


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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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  6. […] What is the Thing Your Character Needs (manifestation of the Truth)? Click to read more about the Thing Your Character Wants vs. the Thing Your Character Needs. […]

  7. […] I am working through my character’s arcs at present, and she gives some great examples – see: This and other articles show the importance of reading other novels. The added bonus is that K.M […]

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