In trying to write better characters, it’s taken me a while to define want versus need. Writing coaches bang on about these all the time, but what do they mean and why are they important?
To understand the way that wants and needs affect character, we need to know what those are.
- Something the character desires, believing it will improve their life (health, wealth, status, happiness).
- A want is a goal or a mission. This can change and evolve over time.
- The want is usually tied to their misbelief.
- It’s not the solution to their misbelief or core wound.
- A want is an external solution to an internal wound. As such, it fails.
- This is almost always a lesson to be learned; a way to resolve the character’s inner struggle and achieve true happiness.
- The need usually a demands process of acceptance or change
- This change leads them to their truth, overcoming their misbelief
- The need is the internal solution to heal the internal core wound
In this way, wants and needs are most often incompatible or in conflict.
The shift from want to need is the foundation of the character arc; the change from an initial state to the end state.
A Prime Example
In Pride and Prejudice (yes, collect a sticker), Elizabeth Bennett wants her family’s financial future secured. Unfortunately that means a financially advantageous marriage, sacrificing her independence and future happiness.
What she needs is a life partner who will treat her as an equal. Her misbelief is that marriage is a kind of surrender.
The necessity of surrendering in such a marriage creates her core wound. To marry betrays who she is; not to marry betrays her entire family.
It takes her fully three quarters of the book to get past her prejudice (a second misbelief) against Mr Darcy.
Applied Wants and Needs
How have I handled wants and needs in my fantasy series? Let’s go to Book One, where I introduce my two protagonists.
Varla has spent eight years at war, three of those as insurgent. He’s suffered the loss of home, family and friends; this is his core wound. He decides to continue the war alone, refusing help from friends and allies. This is his misbelief.
His want: revenge. He wants to destroy the Vipers, the military unit who inflicted all these losses.
His need: to release his anger and return to peaceful existence. The reader can see this, even if the character refuses to see it. In any case, this is impossible in the course of Book One. Varla can’t let go, and if he could, the Vipers continue to hunt him. Varla has a long character arc.
Jovanka is also on the run from the Vipers, having told the Emperor about the vision of his death. Abused by society and authority figures, she struggles to control her anger. This is her core wound.
More than this, she struggles to understand her second sight, which shows her future as a fixed path. This is her misbelief.
Her want: to find Varla in order to strike back at the Vipers.
Her need: to regain control of her own destiny. That means putting aside the visions in her Sight and taking her own choices, something she didn’t believe possible.
Varla follows an archetypal military veteran’s story. His want, need, misbelief and core wound are fairly straightforward. But I needed to lay them out in order to draw his character coherently.
In the early drafts, I didn’t understand Jovanka’s misbelief, want and need at the beginning. I wanted to write the dam’ book but didn’t know what I needed for the characters. That was my misbelief. See what I did there?
When I arrived at wants and needs, I originally got Jovanka’s badly wrong. This led to a muddled and inconsistent character who made no sense on the page. Something of a problem there, as she’s my protagonist.
That isn’t to say everything is neatly resolved and tied up with a bow by the end of Book One.
Varla comes to value the help and friendship of other characters more than the revenge he enacts on his enemies. His instinctively selfless acts remind him of his true nature as a care-giver; even if that is expressed through some kick-ass violence. He may never find the peace he wants, but now he’s actively seeking it.
In the course of reaching for her want, Jovanka uncovers her misbelief, and begins to take control of her destiny, which is her need. She begins to deal with the helplessness and anger she feels as part of her core wound. But it doesn’t go smoothly, there are set-backs alongside the progress.
Book two expands into found-family, which raises additional challenges for both of them. And in Book Three, their new wants threaten the attainment of their acknowledged needs. And so, the internal conflict within and between characters rolls on.