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Wants and Needs?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Svrtnsse, Jul 2, 2017.

  1. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    Recently I picked up a piece of advice on character design that says that you should make a note of what your character want and what your character need.

    I found that this made sense and I've started to apply it to my short story series I'm outlining at the moment. For every story I have a section of the outline that looks a bit like this:

    Who is NAME this time?
    What does NAME want?
    What does NAME need?

    And as a practical example:
    This is working out really well for me. It's a really simple trick, but it's really powerful in how it deepens my understanding of the characters involved.

    I've also found that so far, the want question has had a different answer for each story, even when the character is the same. What the characters want seem to change quite easily. This is the opposite of the need question where the answers seem to stay the same for each character from story to story.

    I suspect that the answer to what the characters need will remain the same throughout the entire series, with perhaps a change once each characters completes, or draws near the end of, their respective arcs.

    Have you used these questions in the past, and how do you find them?
  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I've seen that and use it myself. I also find it useful to ask what is the lie the character tells himself.

    I did not like this at first, but I've come to terms. It means (for me), in what way is the character fooling himself about his wants and needs? Most of us are not at all clear on this, and even when we are, we are not consistent. We say we need something when we merely want it. We want two things but the one makes the other impossible. And so on.

    The key on all this (I think it comes from Don Maas) is to move the character from what they want, or think they want, to what they really need (which they may not realize or may actively resist).
    Rkcapps likes this.
  3. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    There does seem to be some void, a chasm between want and need, in the configuration of those two questions.

    Characters who are oblivious of their needs do seem to provide excellent vehicles for tension, dynamism, and meaningful change arcs.

    But there's something to be said, I think, for characters who aren't quite as oblivious or who are even self-aware. And I also wonder about the way needs, real needs, can change at some point during character growth.
    Rkcapps likes this.
  4. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    There's definitely a separation of some kind between Want and Need. It may be that it's in the way it was explained to me that I didn't point that out more clearly. The character isn't necessarily aware of what they need, or think that what they want is also what they need. I also think the lie that skip mentions is made up in some way of the contrast between want and need.
    Aurora and Rkcapps like this.
  5. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I don't formalize anything, but those questions are always hovering around, whether it's book-series, or scene-chapter. I also, informally, look for some internal/external change in the character's want/need status as related to plot/character arc in every chapter.
    Rkcapps likes this.
  6. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I use a slightly different form.

    What does the character want physically?
    - this goal is the most obvious goal from the story. Eg Destroy the Deathstar. Drop the ring into Mt. Doom.

    What does the character want emotionally?
    - this is a deeply personal goal that has its basis in the basic desires/needs of every person. When I'm stuck I used Maslow's hierarchy of needs to get me started. Eg. Become a Jedi like their father. Protect their village and the ones they love from Mordor.
    - sometimes this is attached to a love story of some sort. Sometimes not.
    Rkcapps likes this.
  7. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I try to make the wants and needs opposite, so it forms the character arc.

    What does MC want? To get some time away from her dad, who she believes is an idiot, so she can explore her dream of becoming an investigative journalist.

    What does MC need? To see that she is more like her dad than she would like to admit, and understand that she need him in order to understand her true self.

    The want is the beginning of the story, understanding the need comes at the climax.

    It's like a typical romance story... Matthew MacConaughey wants to stay a sleazy bachelor forever and focus on his career in advertising. What he Needs is a girl to break his heart to bring him down a few notches so he can rediscover his humanity (which ironically will be what actually furthers his career in advertising).

    That's how I use it.
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2017
    Creed and Rkcapps like this.
  8. Rkcapps

    Rkcapps Sage

    I love that movie, Helitrope! Great working example :)

    I've tried a couple things.

    In a book called The Story Equation by Susan May Warren and she recommends a want, a flaw, a story question, a fear, a lie, a wound all culminating in a dark or black moment.

    I find that's complex although I'm finding I do it mostly anyway.

    Lately, I've found this site by Janice Hardy. I can't find the original post but I use this for each scene:

    What is the POV character trying to do in this scene? (the goal)

    Why is she trying to do it? (the motivation for that goal)

    What’s in the way of her doing it? (the conflict)

    What happens if she doesn’t do it? (the stakes)

    What goes wrong (or right)? (how the story moves forward)

    What important plot or story elements are in the scene? (what you need to remember or what affects future scenes)

    This has really helped focus my scenes, if that makes sense.
    Creed, Demesnedenoir and Heliotrope like this.
  9. Aurora

    Aurora Sage

    Yes! This is a great way of adding internal conflict and giving your character an emotional arc.
    Rkcapps likes this.
  10. Creed

    Creed Sage

    Love this method, and I use it with every character I make (may sound strange, but you can come up with some great stuff bringing these questions into a bath). I first encountered this on the screenwriter Allan Palmer's website, and I highly recommend everything he's posted.

    And I totally agree: the internal conflict should balance on the tension between what the character wants and what they need, ramping up to a meaningful and decisive climax. You lead up to the moment when that tension is at its breaking point, and if the character chooses their need, then you have a triumph. If they choose their want, it is a tragedy (not technically, but you get the idea).

    I find that as I'm writing, I solidify the wants/needs more and get a better picture of the character, and kind of morph other characters to be at odds with or draw attention to the want/need conflict. For example, in one prequel story I've got going the main character Dirwaeth wants to understand her past and where she came from before she was orphaned, while her need is to stop looking backwards for acceptance and focus on who she's with at the moment, which is her companion Rayu. So I made Rayu fond of the tales and histories of the Selic Humans that Dirwaeth believes left/lost her, as well as the stories of his own people. I haven't dug into it that much, but his focus on these two separate histories should hint at the two worlds Dirwaeth is caught between, and her own obsession with her personal history.

    I think it's also just a great way to try to approach subtext, which is a pretty elusive concept for me.
    Rkcapps likes this.
  11. Addison

    Addison Auror

    I read somewhere that for a great arc, for both plot and character, a character's Want and Need should contradict each other. For example let's say the Story Goal is to unify the people to save the crumbling kingdom. The Character Goal is to...live on their family's farm in peaceful solitude. If the kingdom isn't saved, the farm will be ruined if not by angry citizens then by knights sent out to get money from everyone. If he wants to save the farm and live peacefully he has to get active and get dirty to save the kingdom.
    Rkcapps and FifthView like this.
  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Is this want vs need?

    Is it a personal want (live on farm peacefully) vs exterior circumstances (which might be the goals/wants of an antagonistic force)? The character might need to meet and vanquish that exterior circumstance, but I'm not sure that's the kind of need being addressed in the rest of the thread. He may end up wanting to conquer those roadblocks to his personal want; so is this new want what's in conflict with the "need" (not want?) for peace and solitude?

    I'm being contrarian here, heh, but not because I think you are wrong. Having that kind of conflict is part of what makes great stories great.

    In any case, I'm not sure there needs to be a lack of awareness, in the character, of this kind of conflict. The character might be fully aware that his primary, personal want (need?) exists and that exterior circumstances are standing in the way. Let's take as an example the movie Gladiator. Maximus Decimus Meridius wants nothing more than to be with his family, pretty much from the very beginning of the movie until the end, and this never changes. He knows this the whole time; it is fundamental to his character. Whether fighting in the war at the beginning or later in the gladiatorial matches, these exterior circumstances stand in his way. True, he develops other wants as events in the plot unfold--for example, revenge--but this doesn't remove that primary want. I think we can say that he achieves his goal at the end.
    Creed, Heliotrope and Rkcapps like this.

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