character's inner conflict

Creating Your Character’s Inner Conflict: Want vs. Need

character's inner conflict pinterestMan vs. Self—it’s the most archetypal of all stories. This is because all stories are ultimately rooted in the primal and personal struggle of a character’s inner conflict.

As individuals, our conflicts with others or the world itself are almost inevitably either reflections or projections of our inner conflicts—our cognitive dissonances, our conflicting wants and needs, sometimes even our conflicting wants and wants or conflicting needs and needs. Finding inner peace is ultimately about working through the chatter of the many competing voices in our heads (some of them accurate, all of them passionate) on our way toward understanding the following:

  1. What each voice is saying.
  2. What underlying motivation each voice is representing.
  3. Which motives and desires are healthy and which are not.
  4. How to harmonize those that are healthy but still seem competitive.
  5. Letting go of some desires in favor of others.
  6. Coming to peace with all choices.
  7. Moving forward in holistic action based on those choices.

As I’m writing that list, it all sounds pretty lofty and serene. (I keep hearing Shifu from Kung-Fu Panda: “Inner peace… inner peace… inner pea— Would you please quiet down!”) But actually what that list describes is nothing more or less than the (positive) arc of a character over the course of a story.

In a story, that internal progression may be the forefront preoccupation of the author and the character. But more likely, the internal conflict is happening behind the scenes and under the surface of the external plot—which, as we’ve talked about before, can often be thought of as an external metaphor for the internal conflict. The external plot is the reflection/projection of the character’s inner struggle upon the external world.

Today, I want to take a closer look at that inner struggle. In discussions of character arc and theme, I’ve talked a lot about how a character’s inner conflict is framed around the dichotomous struggle between the Thing the Character Wants (which is Lie-based) and the Thing the Character Needs (which is Truth-based).

Although this black-and-white dichotomy is helpful for an at-a-glance understanding of the character’s inner conflict dynamics, we can find greater nuance by looking a little deeper at what is actually going on inside your character.

The Thing Your Character Wants: What Is It Really?

At its simplest, the Thing Your Characters Wants is the plot goal. Usually, the Want is part of a bigger picture—a desire or goal that existed prior to the specific conflict of your story’s Second Act—but it will funnel directly into your character’s plot goal.

Luke Skywalker’s Want is to escape his lonely orphaned adolescence and find a life of meaning and purpose in the larger galaxy. In the first movie, this translates to the specifically-iterated goal of wanting to “learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father”—a desire that progresses throughout the trilogy and frames his entire arc.

FAQ: How to Write Character Arcs in a Series

In any kind of Change Arc, the Want shows the Lie the Character Believes in action. The Want itself may not be a bad thing (more on that in a bit), but even if it is positive in itself, it represents a negative mindset or motivation. Within the character’s inner life, the Lie has created either a hole or a block. It is preventing the character from growing toward health; it may even be actively pushing him toward mental or moral sickness.

>>Click here to read about all the different types of character arc.

At the root of the Lie and its ambiguous motivations is a Ghost from the character’s past—something that created that hole or that block.

Luke Skywalker’s Ghost is his orphanhood, particularly the absence of his seemingly heroic father.

Luke Skywalker’s Lie is that to fill this inner hole and be worthy, he must be just like that father. This false belief fuels his impatience and reckless desire for adventure and glory.

luke skywalker tatooine star wars new hope

Because the Lie and the Want are linked (as are the Need and the Truth—see below), the obvious implication is that the Want is bad.

Sometimes this is true. Sometimes what a character wants is blatantly destructive and evil. However, even in these situations, it’s important to note that the character will rarely see it so clearly. He wouldn’t pursue the Want if he didn’t believe, on some level, that it was worthy, that the end justified the means. As T.S. Eliot so chillingly noted:

Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.

At the very least, the character may believe that a “bad” Want at least represents the best possible outcome (as, for instance, when a woman believes she’s safer staying in an abusive relationship rather than leaving).

However, even more often, the Want won’t, in itself, be a bad thing. In fact, the Lie and its resultant motivation may not be obviously destructive either. After all, the reason the character believes in the Lie and wants the Want is because he thinks it will make his life better. Rather than recognizing his misconception of reality as part of the problem, he sees it as the answer.

This delusion is only possible if the character himself is either utterly deluded or if he’s caught between two conflicting choices, both of which bring their own benefits and consequences. In the case of the abused woman needing to leave her destructive relationship, there will be good things and bad things about either of her choices—which is why the struggle to choose may be waged down to the very bottom of her soul before it can be completely manifested in her external conflict.

Luke Skywalker’s Want and plot goal aren’t quantifiably bad or destructive. On the surface, all of his Wants and plot goals are actually quite healthy: wanting to become a Jedi, wanting to join the righteous Rebellion and fight the evil Empire, and wanting to move into a more meaningful life in a broader context.

star-wars-new-hope-death-star-luke-skywalker

Don’t get confused by the terminology. The “Want,” as a technical term within the theory of character arc, specifically references a plot-advancing desire that doesn’t (yet) represent a wholly integrated or holistic mindset. But just because the character currently wants the wrong thing or wants it for the wrong reason doesn’t mean that thing isn’t also something he does in fact need. The Ghost almost always represents a deep gaping need, and the character’s initial attempts to fulfill that need are rarely 100% misguided.

The Thing Your Character Needs: What Is It Really?

Whereas the Want is a direct equivalent of the plot goal, the Thing the Character Needs is a direct correlative of the thematic value. Whatever Truth your story is positing about reality, that is the ultimate Thing the Character Needs.

Luke Skywalker’s Need is to overcome the fear and anger that tempt him into darkness. He Needs to give up his hubristic desire to fight his way to glory as a means of protecting those he loves. What he learns over the course of the trilogy is that being a Jedi has nothing to do with being “like my father.” (Indeed, his father must learn to be more like Luke.) Even more than just that, being a Jedi is about surrendering the need for glory, accomplishment, or even control. He learns these Truths slowly, over the course of the series, climaxing in the moment when he refuses to give in to his hate and throws away his lightsaber.

The Need is always available—an often simplistic antidote to the character’s inner pain and conflict. But the character is confused, usually because the Want realistically seems to offer the correct solution to her problem. Just as often, the character may either push away from the Need or embrace it only halfway because she can’t gain the Need without also accepting significant consequences (for instance, in leaving an abusive relationship, a woman might have to leave behind much more than just the abuse—not to mention facing punitive reactions from the abuser).

And yet, no matter how difficult or Pyrrhic it might be to pursue and accept the Need, the character will never find health or wholeness without it. Ultimately, what the Need/Truth represents is a resolution of the inner conflict. Embracing the Truth shows the character which of the competing voices in her head is right. With this rightness—with Truth—comes a realignment with reality. When that happens, the character may have to face difficult consequences, but she will instantly be freed from the tremendous burden of fighting against reality itself.

Luke Skywalker’s Need is to let go of his fear, anger, and hatred. But in choosing to do so, he consciously puts at risk his own life, those of his family and friends, and even the success of the Rebellion. As it turns out, his story ends positively, since his choice catalyzes his father’s subsequent decision to destroy the Emperor and save his son. However, in a story with a Disillusionment Arc, the choice to embrace the Need and the Truth might, in fact, end negatively with the character facing the full consequences of the choice (e.g., Han and Leia die and the Rebellion fails).

What Is the Role of Theme in a Story's Climax

Just as the Want is not always quantifiably “bad,” the Need is also not quantifiably “good” in the sense that choosing it means everything is suddenly sunshine and roses. If embracing the Need were that simplistic, the character would have no reason not to choose it outright at the beginning of the story.

The only reason any of us obstruct our own progression toward health is because pursuing health is hard. Anyone who chooses to lose weight for health reasons can attest to this. Even knowing your excess weight might someday threaten you with heart disease or diabetes does not mean the daily grueling sacrifices of exercising and eating right are easy choices. This is true even when your bad choices have direct consequences. Maybe you know eating that donut is going to make you feel crummy about five minutes from now. But saying no to all that yumminess is super-hard, so you eat it anyway.

The same goes for healthy mental and spiritual choices. Doing the right thing doesn’t always get you a pat on the back; sometimes it gets you crucified—metaphorically and even literally. Choosing to recognize truths about yourself and the world around you doesn’t always make life easier; sometimes it rips off the Band-Aid and makes your psychic wounds start bleeding all over again.

That said, the Need always represents the path toward health and recovery. A nuanced presentation of the Need will accurately portray all the reasons the character doesn’t embrace it outright. But this does not always mean the character might not also actively want the Need. For instance, anyone who is overweight (and lots of people who aren’t) want to lose pounds. They probably even know they need to lose pounds.

This is where some of the most powerful of a character’s inner conflict comes into play. A conflict between something a character Wants and something she does not (even if she Needs it) can be powerful and compelling. But usually, an even more compelling scenario is that in which the character internally struggles between two competing wants—or even two competing needs.

She can’t have both. She can only have one. In these cases, the true Need (in its technical, character-arc definition) will be the one that serves the greater good. For example, the character might Want to be with her true love. Nothing wrong with that. Indeed, the relationship may represent everything that is good about her. It promises nothing but health and happiness for the future.

But the character also Needs to do the right thing. For example, she has to make the big sacrifice and save the world because only she can do what must be done. Or, on a smaller scale, maybe doing the right thing means staying faithful to her marriage vows and making sure her children grow up in a stable family environment. If she were to choose the good Want over the better Need, she isn’t the only one who will suffer. And she will suffer. Choosing a Lie over a Truth is always a recipe for suffering, even if the consequences are delayed.

***

Why is all of this important? It’s important because as you’re planning your character’s arc and trying to identify the Want, Need, Lie, and Truth, it can be confusing (and limiting) when you feel you have to make the Want and the Lie obviously “bad” and the Need and the Truth obviously “good.” Even a good-vs.-evil conflict as obvious as Star Wars offers a nuanced view of why a character might simultaneously need the Want and want the Need.

Don’t get too caught up in the terminology. Ultimately, a character’s inner conflict is always between two things the character wants on at least some level. This is, in turn, mirrored in the outer conflict, which also represents want vs. want—the protagonist’s plot goal vs. the antagonist’s plot goal.

The more nuanced your approach to the dichotomies of Want vs. Need and Lie vs. Truth, the more nuanced your thematic discussion and your presentation of plot and character will always be.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What Want and Need represent your character’s inner conflict? 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. Thanks, K.M. Another great post! And timely – having nearly finished the first draft of my WIP, I’d already realized I need to revisit this topic for my protagonist to better align her arc with the theme and plot.

    Since I’m struggling with hers, here’re the want and need of a supporting character. His cooperation is key to my protagonist’s story. But his want is stability in his own life by continuing in his father’s ways. He’s active and productive, doing good honest work and treating others well in the process. He’s not opposed to her goal, he’s mainly just preoccupied with his own and a bit complacent. His need is to accept that he’s not living his father’s life, and must live his own. And that means helping the protagonist reach her goal.

    Of course, I know I may need to modify his want and need when I resolve my problems with hers!

    Thanks again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s interesting/ironic, but sometimes I find the Want/Need hardest to figure out for the protagonist. Supporting characters are often simpler.

      • That’s certainly been my experience. Maybe it’s not so surprising, since the protagonist’s arc is most central to the story and any misalignment with theme and plot will be evident.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, there’s more room for tangents and flexibility in supporting characters’ arcs. The protagonist has to be perfectly aligned with the plot and theme.

  2. What a great and timely post! I’m planning my second story and will be incorporating your tips to strengthen my MC and supporting characters. I do have a question – I write for the Middle Grade reader, and was wondering just how complex a MC should be. Your thoughts and expertise are greatly appreciated.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s important to distinguish “complex” from “complicated.” The former is deceptively simple and can be employed for any age. The latter is just messy and usually confusing. There can be great complexity within very simple presentations–which is why some children’s books remain classics that adults re-read throughout their lives.

      I think I’ll do a post about this in the future. 🙂

      • Yes, please do a post relating this to middle grade. I would also love to read it. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Actually, I was thinking about a post on the difference between complex and complicated fiction. :p I don’t read or write MG, so don’t feel particularly qualified to teach about it.

  3. This simplified a complex subject in a way that will make it easier to achieve. I particularly liked the examples of losing weight and better health choices. Now I will have Darth Vader in my head whispering, ‘give in to the power of the dark side’ whenever I see a donut, so thanks for that too. 🙂

  4. A famous principle is that “Discipline is doing what you want most, instead of what you want right now.”

    Except that’s a perspective that comes when we know what those are, and we can consider the long-term need as another form of “want” that we care about more, so it’s worth the effort and lack of short-term rewards.

    As writers, we get to build characters that (like many real people) don’t know the difference yet. We can make a Luke who only understands purpose as “adventure, excitement” plus the absence of his father, because those ideas are all he’s known, and they seem to get the job down. Another useful lesson is that “A weakness is just a strength we keep using after it stops working.”

    So that makes a story arc like this slowly showing our hero that his familiar strength (exterior goal) and his short-term Want (interior goal) aren’t enough for the complete world.

  5. You have done a masterful job, once again, of articulating character arcs. And it is coincidental that just yesterday I was pondering how George Lucas does such a pitiful job of crafting truly good characters. From Anakin Skywalker who succumbed to the dark side to Luke who struggled with it to limited success, Lucas has a difficult time crafting coherently good characters that triumph in the end. They have to die tragically, their life’s mission unfulfilled.

    I think this is, in part, due to Lucas’s attachment to the Hero’s Journey as outlined by Campbell. He’s unaware of an alternative messiah story where the hero’s struggle is triumphant against evil and his aims are achieved. Or perhaps he doesn’t consider it realistic. For him redemption only comes at the very end, it seems, not in a life lived wholly given over to good.

    And this gets back to your earlier post on how difficult it is to write convincingly about Good Guys who remain compelling characters throughout the narrative.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, good guys really are tough. It’s so easy to let them slip into two-dimensionality, where they’re just good for the sake of being good.

  6. Great explanation. Inner conflict is trickier than external.
    Thanks, K.M.!

  7. Excellent post as usual. Yours is the only blog I read in full and re-read. You provide such hands on useful advice every time. These observations and suggestions on character arc are spot on for me, as I work on my first full length novel. I feel like you are personally guiding me through the process. Also heavily relying on your story structure book!

  8. (wo)Man, do you know your stuff. You (and your books, several of which I own) have helped me so much. I have a question on the wants part of what drives my character.

    My second act is a drive mostly downward culminating in a false defeat at the midpoint of the second act. My “antagonist” dies. I must switch antagonists. I’ve seen references to protagonist changing mid-stream, but antagonist’s? My new antagonist had been behind the scenes until she’s revealed at the midpoint and things change. (It’s not like she pops up out of nowhere. She’s mentioned/seen during act on and through to the midpoint of act two.)

    My protagonist’s needs remain the same. Her wants are the same too but the struggle is against a different antagonist (the mother of the first antagonist).

    Does anything strike you wrong in the above scenario? Or have you seen something like this before? Am I mad to try this? In my mind it’s working.

    Hope you are enjoying a labor day of minimal labor.

    Dennis

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As long as the original antagonist is always a proxy for the emerging antagonist, you should be fine. You want readers to have a sense of the “new” antagonist being an evolution/expansion of what was understood in the first half, rather than a switch of any sort.

  9. Considering I’m sort of working on 3 WIPs, I’ll just go with the protagonist from The Woodsman:

    Amber’s Lie is that she thinks she needs to know all the answers. She wants the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth every single time. (Hence why she’s so obsessed with mysteries, both real and fictional.

    What she needs to learn is that it’s okay to not know all of the answers, because truthfully, us mere mortals will never know all the answers.

    Ironically, her being nosy and wanting answers is precisely what puts the titular character at risk, even if she didn’t intend for it to.

    The titular character, Woodsman, is the same, only he already knows the truth at the core of this story’s mystery. At least he thinks he does. His memory is a bit fragmented due to both physical and emotional trauma he’s been carrying around for fifteen years.

    His arc seems like it’s flat, but considering he doesn’t have a POV…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Love it. I actually really like it when the Truth is about the truth. Because, really, isn’t it always? 😉

  10. Colin Braidford says

    Another wonderfully informative podcast KM. I have your books on Character Arc and Story Structure, both of which have helped me tremendously but hearing you speak on the subject of want and need helped me properly identify the ‘real’ Lie that drives her. Thank you

  11. Thank you for another great post. I’ve been having a feeling for some time that my protagonust does have two Wants and have been wondering if it’s a good thing. Your explanation has helped a lot.

    I still have a question. At the Key Event my character chooses the “healthier Want” while still trying to simultaneously pursue the “unhealthier Want”. He is still far away from seeing the Truth. Is it a good way to go? Or is it better for the story if the character begins with the worse Want and gradually procedes to the better Want?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There are variables, but generally it’s best to keep the character focused more fully on the Want until around the Midpoint/Moment of Truth when the Need starts becoming more visible and viable.

  12. After reading this, I wrote a monologue by my character that I believe captures her wants and needs:

    “I left Avdiivka to find peace, but it was hard to leave home. I left Kiev to find peace, but it was hard to leave Ukraine. I left Moscow to find peace, but it was hard to leave the university. I left Kazakhstan to develop my machine, which I thought would bring peace, but instead it has brought death and discord.

    I love Bishkek and I can leave Avdiivka, Ukraine, and the university behind me. My invention no longer seems important although I still believe it can bring peace, but not if men like Nikolai Kabulov have it. There is nowhere else to run, so I must use my creation to kill Kabulov and end his terrorist attacks on humanity. It will not bring peace, but it will bring respite”.

    Somehow, there is still something lacking in the statement of Raisa’s (the MC) need but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

    Love your instruction. BTW, the invention is a machine that manufactures nanobot organisms with built-in artificial intelligence. They are large enough to cover entire continents and intelligent enough to build cities. I am at the 70% mark on my first draft.

  13. Loved this post! It really makes me see that I need to dig deep into my protagonist’s motives. My character wants to see himself and those like him as superior to other types of people. But what he needs is to understand what in his history, relationships, etc., has brought him to have this bias and what it’s ultimately doing to him. I’m writing this in a short story, so I might not get into too many details for the reader, but it does remind me that I need to really grasp his back story. It also makes me consider that the more we seek to confirm our wants as needs, the harder it can be to tell the difference. In my protagonist’s case, it literally takes divine intervention to start cracking that shell.

  14. Aaron Jacob Little says

    I hope I’m on the right track of Want vs Need. I also hope I can capture the nuance you discuss. My 13-year-old MC Reggie has grown up with social anxiety and the fear of being picked on and publicly humiliated. What he needs is to overcome this fear and take a chance to make friends. The story revolves around Reggie (and four others) being haunted by one person who helped him. His parents can’t see these manifestations so he figures out he’ll have to reach out to the others he knows are haunted, too, or perhaps remain haunted forever … Then there’s the very real fear of going against the spirit’s killer.

  15. Hi K.M,

    I have characters with inner wants and needs and motivations, but I don’t know how to write a good external conflict for these characters. I hope what I’m saying makes sense, apologies for bad English.
    Thank you!

  16. Hey K! Great post as always 🙂

    And it made me question… Is it ok to have two themes?

    My guy thinks he’s to blame for his sister’s murder. He wants justice and wants to make up for his guilt, so he’s gonna try to kill the murderer

    The thing is that, in the end, I think he should realise that 1) he is not to blame for his sister’s murder and that 2) justice also applies to him (he’s gonna do a lot of bad things in the book to get to the murderer)

    Do you think this is too much?

Trackbacks

  1. […] of writing a character that walks off the page and into the readers’ lives. K.M. Weiland explores creating your character’s inner conflict between want vs. need, Janice Hardy gives us 5 things to consider when choosing a character’s career, and Tom Bentley […]

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