What Does Your Character Want? Desire vs. Plot Goal vs. Moral Intention vs. Need

We often hear “conflict is story.” What does that mean? If we walk it back, we see that conflict is driven by opposition. That opposition stands between the characters and something they want. Therefore, we could just as easily say “desire is story.” But that isn’t always simple to figure out either, particularly since story terminology includes many seemingly applicable terms, including the character’s want, desire, plot goal, and even moral intention.

On this site and in my books on writing, I often talk about the Thing the Character Wants and the Thing the Character Needs as driving factors in character arc, and thus plot structure. But desire and plot goal are also important frequently used terms. What’s the difference?

Last week’s post touched on the important nuances in terms used to describe your characters’ pain points (“Your Character’s Ghost vs. Wound vs. Lie vs. Weakness“). This week, I want to stay in that lane and explore some terms used to describe what the character wants.

Once again let me note there is often much variation and subtlety in how these terms are employed. For instance, some people may use the word “desire” to encompass all of the terms we’ll be talking about today. This points to the importance of not relying too much on specific terms and instead learning to understand the underlying principles, so you can quickly translate them into your own preferred verbiage. Today, I am sharing how I use these terms.

The Four Driving Forces of Plot and Personality

First, let’s just touch briefly on the generalities of what “want” is within a story. All variations of a character’s desire will function as driving forces of both that character’s personality and the plot. Some desires may be low-key and used only to dramatize certain aspects of the character’s nature and/or to drive goals and conflict on the scene level. But the Want/goal/desire/etc., creates the backbone of your story. This desire will be throughline of momentum for your plot, the fulcrum upon which the character’s arc turns, and an important factor within the revelation of your story’s theme.

This element of the story should never be chosen randomly. Even when you allow it to emerge organically from your own telling of the story, you must make certain it works with every other part of your plot, character arc, and theme to create a cohesively propulsive experience for readers.

What Is the Thing Your Character Wants?

Creating Character Arcs

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

The Thing Your Character Wants, or the Want, is the term I use throughout my teachings to reference the specific fulcrum upon which character arc turns. The Want is contrasted against a Need (see the last section in this post) to form the basis of the character’s inner conflict.

The Want is a desire arising from the limited perspective (based upon the Lie the Character Believes) with which the character begins the story. The Want informs the story’s specific desire and plot goal, but is not necessarily either. Rather, it is the deeper, more foundational longing that inspires the specificities of the story’s plot. The Want will be directly motivated by the character’s backstory Ghost.

By itself, the Want may or may not be as limited as is the Lie, but because it is motivated by the Lie, the character’s initial understanding of the Want or the means for obtaining it will at least start out from within these same limitations.

Therefore, the Want, although powerful, is not strictly an aligned desire for the character. Either it is the wrong thing to want or it is wanted for the wrong reasons. This misalignment will create fierce inner conflict between the character’s desire for this thing and his ultimate and even deeper need to come into wholeness. Whether he experiences a Positive Change Arc or a Negative Change Arc will decide whether or not he is able to harmonize this inner conflict and either give up the misaligned Want or bring it into alignment so that he may achieve it in a healthy way.

For Example: In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s Want is to amass great wealth. This Want arises from his personal backstory Ghost—an unloved and insecure childhood—and is motivated by his belief in the Lie—that personal worth and security can only be gained via material means. His Want is not his plot goal (as we shall see below), but it is the driving motivation of his life. His desire to cling to this mindset is what creates the plot conflict as he resists the attempts of the Christmas Spirits to show him a better way.

Scrooge (1970), Cinema Center Films.

What Does Your Character Desire?

“Desire” is a term frequently used to broadly indicate what your character wants (note the small case “w” to differentiate from the thematic Want describe above). The desire refers to what your character wants within the context of the story.

The desire will be for something concrete, or at least something specific. Although the desire may be something etheric such as a state of mind (e.g., to feel good about one’s self), it should be refined to its most concrete point. For example, the character may desire something physical such as a new car, or she may desire a promotion, or she may simply want the boss to shake her hand. In the end, she may realize she simply wants to feel proud of herself.

The desire and the plot goal are, in many ways, one and the same. However, the nuance is that the desire creates the goal, while goal is a practical attempt to obtain the desire.

For Example: Within the confines of the story, Scrooge’s primary desire is to “wake up” from his nightmare of the Christmas Spirits and return to his routine life as a hard-hearted moneylender who doesn’t have to worry himself about the affairs of others. Note that this desire doesn’t come into play in the story until after the Inciting Event. In contrast, the Want pre-dates the story’s specific plot conflict and is therefore available to influence Scrooge’s choices and actions in the early chapters before the main conflict becomes explicit.

Never Confuse the Key Event and the First Plot Point in Your Book Again!

A Christmas Carol (2009), Walt Disney Pictures.

What Is Your Character’s Plot Goal?

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

The plot goal is the practical manifestation of the desire.

  • If the character desires to get married, then the plot goal would be to win over the woman he loves.
  • If she desires to overcome grief from a loved one’s death, then the plot goal might be Cheryl Strayed’s plan to walk the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild.
  • If he desires to write a newspaper piece about a murder, then the plot goal would be discovering the murderer.
  • If the character desires a luxurious Italian vacation, then the plot goal boils down to getting to Rome.

Often, the line between desire and goal is paper thin, and it’s not always beneficial to differentiate between the two in every story. What’s most important to grasp is that the plot goal will drive the plot. It is the practical manifestation of the desire and a means of helping the character achieve the deeper Want.

Every scene in the story will measure up against the plot goal in one way or another. Indeed, the plot goal will be broken down into many smaller goals which can be executed on the scene level, as the character works toward the ultimate goal. This goal may or may not be achieved in the story’s Climax. Whether the character succeeds in pursuit of the goal will depend on many things, including the type of story (e.g., comedy or tragedy) as well as whether or not the goal can ultimately be aligned with the character’s final thematic relationship to the story’s Truth.

For Example: Scrooge is a pretty reactive protagonist who doesn’t have much choice but to follow along with his ghostly abductors. However, we can extrapolate that his plot goal is to escape the Spirits and end his ordeal. At first, he tries to accomplish this by denying the Spirits’ existence, then by struggling against them, then by grudgingly going along with them, then finally by cooperating with them. How he goes about trying to accomplish this goal evolves over the course of the story as his own perspectives relative to the Lie and the thematic Truth also evolve. In short, the plot goal arcs with him.

A Christmas Carol (1999), TNT Productions.

What Is Your Character’s Moral Intention?

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

One final consideration is that of your character’s moral intention. Want, desire, and goal will all be influenced by what your character views as her moral reasons for pursuing the goal. This moral alignment will be entirely relative. Usually, the character will believe in the correctness of her own morality, regardless how society or objective reality may view it. Alternatively, it’s also possible, for example, that she may choose to act in a relatively noble or heroic way and yet view her own intentions as morally repulsive.

Regardless, what’s important is identifying how your character morally categorizes her relationship to her desires. What is her intention is trying to fulfill this desire for herself? She may believe she is doing it for the good of all, or she may believe she will be damned for pursuing it. Either perspective will lend nuance to why the character is seeking this goal and how she goes about approaching it. It will certainly color her inner conflict and perhaps become the central issue of her character arc.

In short, if the desire is the what and the plot goal is the how, then the moral intention is the why. (The Want is also a why, and can also be considered in light of when, due to its correlation to the backstory Ghost.)

For Example: Scrooge states his moral intention plainly in the beginning of the story when he repeatedly refuses to help those who cannot help themselves. His speech to the charity collectors about the poor belonging in jails and workhouses makes his perspective perfectly clear. This view of morality influences all of his early choices in the story and is the primary catalyst for the Spirits’ intervention. Only once Scrooge’s arc leads him to a more compassionate view of his own relationship with humankind is he set free to begin anew.

A Christmas Carol (2009), Walt Disney Pictures.

Bonus: What About Your Character’s “Need”?

As mentioned in the first section, about the Thing the Character Wants, the Need stands in opposition to the Want. If the Want is Lie-based—a desire arising from the character’s currently limited perspective of himself and the world—then the Need is Truth-based. Indeed, the simplest way to think of the Need is as the Truth. The character Needs the Truth.

The Truth is the antidote to the Lie. It is the next step up in the character’s understanding of life. It is not ultimate Truth, but rather a comparative Truth—a slightly more expansive viewpoint than that offered by the Lie. It is the viewpoint that is necessary to bring wholeness to the character’s inner self, to heal the pertinent wounds of the past, and to fulfill the true longings of the Want.

The Truth may or may not be able to grant the character the specific plot goal he has been pursuing throughout the story, but it is still likely to bring peace and contentment. If the character is following a Negative Change Arc and is unable to accept the Truth by the end of the story then even if he gains the plot goal or the Want, he is unlikely to find true satisfaction in them.

The Need may also be expressed more practically than simply a shift in mindset. It may be represented by something equally as explicit as the Want. For a really basic example consider, how you might Want a candy bar, but know you Need a salad.

For Example: As is the case with most characters, Scrooge’s Need is for the Truth. The Thing He Needs is to reframe his perspective about human worth and realize the true measure of wealth is not material goods one hoards but rather the ability to bless others with love—and be blessed in return.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Walt Disney Pictures.

***

Writers can find value and nuance by digging deeper into the functionality of all of these terms for characters’ desires. However, if you were to add just two to your writing toolbag, I recommend the Thing Your Character Wants and the Thing Your Character Needs. Even by themselves, these two create the all-important fulcrum of inner change, drive the plot, and add thematic depth. All of the other terms arise from them.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What does your character want in your latest story? Tell me in the comments!

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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. Victoria C Leo says

    My cats want to thank you for that perfect icon of Want: them watching the food.. uh, fish… in the bowl. For anyone who lives with cats, WANT as their single-minded focus on predation makes it clear that we’re not talking about a wishy-washy ‘goal’ but a full-heart-and-soul gotta-have-it (or I’ll die).

    Love the book of yours that helped me separate what my characters want vs what they need.

  2. I read this today on Dr. Demartini’s blog
    https://drdemartini.com/blog/what-are-the-7-fears?utm_source=infusionsoft&utm_medium=mailer&utm_campaign=blog&utm_term=latest-blog-what-are-the-7-fears-and-how-to-overcome-them&utm_content=targ-global&inf_contact_key=a691a9947d333b36d4c25c39386bc5bc9042a6429cc6d781f779b0d187b52794#article
    I always wonder: in a positive change arc, does the character get what they want? (Would love to hear your answer) and I wonder if the want is a fantasy desire the character has and the conflict introduces them to the dark side of the fantasy they were unaware of. Once they understand the dark side, they can choose from a place of Truth instead of distortion

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not always. It will depend on the story. The character may grow out of their desire for the Want, seeing it as either destructive, unnecessary, or redundant in light of the fulfilled Need. But in other stories, the arc is about changing their perspective so they can claim the Want in a more aligned way.

  3. Stephen Grimes says

    I have been following instructions given in Robert McKee’s “STORY” and Lisa Cron’s “Story Genius.” I think I see the points you’re making and how they fit together with Cron’s “misbelief”/”want.”

    However, I am also listening to McKee’s assertion that to have a “complex” protagonist is the way to insure the best, long-enduring, most interesting and artistic main character. He defines “complex” as having an internal desire that is mutually exclusive with an external desire (can’t have it both ways.) The internal desire is what is really driving them and without it they cannot have “fulfillment” (“self-actualization” – to use Abraham Maslow’s term.)

    I have two protagonists (a male and a female) who begin with the misbelief that they love creating art (he: visual, and she: literary.) They have each come to believe that they must not make that their main goal since it is impractical. It’s just a fantasy to think they could earn a living that way. Both have (independently – when the first meet) decided they must find the right life-coach to guide them to the best livelihood possible for them and keep their art as a hobby.

    Eventually they each discover that they have been asking other people questions only they themselves could answer. And they decide to put full effort into what they really love to do, and that it is worth risking everything to “go for it”.

  4. I took a hiatus from writing for the past couple of months. Okay, traipsing through Central Europe gave me a great excuse and was more than a bit distracting.

    Anyway, I just got back and caught up on your podcasts. What struck me about the last two and the Shadow podcasts is the concept that every character has their own story to tell even though we as authors choose one or two as the focus of our efforts.

    How do your, in my opinion, brilliant exposes on character complexity help or hinder the development of the cast? While they prevent flat characters, where do we draw the line and say enough is enough?

    Thanks, Peter

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Traipsing” through central Europe sounds amazing. 😉

      I think the question of “enough is enough” has to be subjective in each case. Each writer must intuitively determine what is best for their story. I wrote a post touching on this here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/when-writing-how-do-you-know-when-enough-is-enough/

      Much of what I explore in these posts is ultimately an exploration of human nature and the tools we can use to “crack its code.” Having a deeply complex understanding of the human mind can only benefit a writer in creating the inevitably more simplified avatar of the human that is a character.

  5. Well, this has been a major struggle for me in my current WIP. In simplified storytelling, the Want is defined as the main objective or Goal, but in my case, what he wants is ultimately not good for him. He continues to believe that staying in his comfort zone is his goal, when really it’s to step beyond his comfort zone. Separating what the character thinks he wants from the plot goal and from what he needs helps tremendously. Also, much like Scrooge in ACC, his want pre-dates the plot conflict. It feels like the story has two beginnings.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like you’re doing a good job analyzing what’s really going on in your story.

  6. Kate wants to help her brother who is suffering from kidney disease find a donor which means that she first needs to search for her biological father-who is a complete unknown to her. But her need is to face her abandonment issues by both of her biological parents.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice. Great juxtaposition of two mutually exclusive but equally deep-seated desires.

  7. Hi, Katie. This is a thought-provoking post. I never distilled my character arcs as Want and Need but realize that’s what propels my protagonists to do what they do. In The Leavings, for example, my MC wants to be accepted despite a genetic bleeding disorder but he needs to conquer his self-defeating attitude to get what he wants. It’s a nuanced dance that dips and bows, skitters and waltzes throughout the novel. Now that I’m better aware of how want and need create conflict (which I previously intuited), I’ll be able to use them more effectively for plot development. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “It’s a nuanced dance that dips and bows, skitters and waltzes throughout the novel.”

      Niiiice. 🙂

  8. Thanks for this post. I just found your blog a couple of weeks ago and I can’t stop reading, every day I find something new and useful.
    I have a main protagonist which has a Flat Arc, his Want should be the same as his Need, right? As I understand, this kind of characters usually help other characters to change their arcs.
    I read a couple of your posts regarding character Arcs, but I’m struggling when I have the main protagonist affecting the other main characters which have Positive and Negative arcs, those characters have different ideals than the protagonist but he always find a way to convince them to follow him in exchange to helping them to achieve their goals. This ends up feeling like the other characters are passive. Do you have any suggestions for this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      My recommendation would be to chart out the Change Arcs for the supporting characters, beat by beat, as I’ve shown in the series on those arcs. These characters may not be the driving forces in the main conflict, but their change should happen at that same rate of evolution as it would if they were. The Flat Arc character does not have to “always find a way to convince them to follow him.” The supporting characters’ evolving relationship with the Lie/Truth should be just as dynamic and carefully paced as it would be if they were the main character. They will be in resistance to the Flat Arc character, at least mentally, for much of the story–thus creating the conflict.

      • Thanks! Thinking about conflict and looking at that Change Arc chart, in the Midpoint (Moment of “Truth” for everyone) I came up with supporting characters first rejecting and then imposing conditions to the protagonist when he invites them to the final battle, instead of them accepting directly.

        The Positive Arc characters first negate the invitation because is not what they Want, and when the protagonist convince them with what they Need, they impose conditions related to their Truths.

        A Negative Arc character already have the Truth but she has conflicting Needs with the protagonist, so the protagonist convince her with a new better Need and this leads this supporting character to take a personal Want with the antagonist while working for that better Need. Then she ends in prison, protagonist achieved the story Truth but feeling responsible for her, so he promises to change the world the other way she Needed (next book).

        This makes me think that, specially in that Negative Arc, the Truth and/or the Lie of the character could have multiple or changing Wants and Needs, unless I’m missing something.

  9. Felicity S. says

    In an over-politicized, suspicious world, FBI Agent Amanda Velin Wants to work in a department that will value her efficiency and dedication more than what connections she has. She Needs to learn that being trustworthy requires compassion, and compassion is as important to her job as efficiency. (In the end, because she chooses compassion over efficiency, she loses her place in her dream department. Because she better understands the people around her, though, she knows she can survive–and even inspire change–in her old department.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I actually quite like stories in which the protagonist realizes that in the end they can’t accept the Want, even if they’ve earned it, due to their new sense of personal alignment. Always very poignant.

  10. Michael R. Kujawski says

    I’m the new-guy on the block, having recently identified creative writing as my post retirement hobby. I am quite visually oriented. Is there a graphic version of your arc so I can plug my ideas into the slots and see if I’m laying down a cogent story line. (I promise to do it in pencil.) Last semester I was exposed to Blake Snyder’s, Save the Cat and his extended beat sheet. I have a story in mind. Thoughts?

  11. John Molnar says

    Some thoughts… “Conflict is driven by opposition”. Conflict actual arises from choices. The characters overriding choice is driven by a need which is a mandate. A desire is not.

  12. Am7gWJ1m says

    Thanks for another solid column. Looking at this, it strikes me that you could have a solid story, particularly a short story, where there is nothing wrong with the character’s Want or desire or morality, they just either are mistaken about approach, or have significant obstacles to hack through. Maybe the nerdy guy is a match for the cheerleader, but it’s going to be a tough sell…

  13. Carol Painter says

    Thank you, very much a thought-provoking episode. I’m in revising/rewriting mode and finding this useful to think about the overall ‘shape’ of the whole story an where I can add nuance, or pump up the weight I’ve given to that particular piece of action to accord with overall theme and individual characters arcs.

  14. Is The Want and the Inciting incident linked in some way? And if so, how?

    It’s all so confusing… haha thanks 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      All of the structural beats will be driven by the character’s Want and therefore the specific plot goal that is inspired by the Want. The Inciting Event will be the first structural turning point in which the Want begins to be distilled into a very specific plot goal.

      • Are you able to give an example please?

        I also purchased your character arc book. Is this subject explained more deeply in it?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          You can find more information about the Inciting Event here and here, as well as in my e-book 5 Secrets of Story Structure, which can get for free by signing up for my mailing list. The book Creating Character Arcs doesn’t specifically discuss the Inciting Event, but does talk about the character’s Want and how it influences the character arc. You can read more about the Want here as well.

          • Awesome thank you!

            Do you have other information about the moral intention that I’m missing? I’m wondering if it’s something only introduced when a character has to rationalise going against their moral codes or values?

            Thanks a bunch! Love all of your resources. Am learning so much.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            The moral intention never has to be made explicit (although it’s fine if you do). Rather, it’s just a nuance to help you further characterize the character. It’s important to understand how the character views the relative morality of their Want and plot goal.

      • So K.M., the want motivates the inciting incident, then the inciting incident motivates the plot goal?
        Like for example, a man starts the story wanting to get back with his wife because of the backstory, then the inciting incident creates a problem for that want, which would be the wife getting kidnapped or something. Then that motivates the plot of the man getting his wife back so he could then get his want?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          That can be a little simplistic–in that the desire for the plot goal can sometimes predate the Inciting Event–but, yes, generally speaking, this is a useful way to view the progression.

  15. Does the moral intention stem from their false beleif or wound? Where exactly does it come from?

    • And does it change with the arc? What’s the second part of moral intention (like want vs need and lie vs truth)??

  16. If a character gives up their Want for their Need, what is their next want and goal? They’ve realised their Need and learnt the Truth but what do they spend the rest of the story pursuing?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Need won’t be fully realized and integrated until the final part of the story when the character completes their arc into the story’s Truth (in a Positive Change Arc). The Want may be realized earlier but only if it leads to a clearer understanding of the what the character really Needs. Smaller wants and needs may, of course, be achieved throughout the story as a build-up to the finale.

      • Ohhh okay. Would their next goal into Act 3 still a little fear-based? Is that how we show that they still haven’t fully realised their Need?

        Thanks 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, the character will see the Truth at the Midpoint, but will not fully overcome the Lie and its effects until the Third Act.

  17. So, there are two lessons/Truths in a story. One that opposes their false belief and one that confronts their moral intention. Is that right?

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