Good character development consists of a few elements, but the one we’re going to focus on in this post is wants and needs. These internal and external desires are what make your characters real, what drives them, what causes them to make foolish, often non-sensical decisions.
The ‘want’ is what propels the plot forward, while the ‘need’ is the hidden truth that lies beneath, waiting to expose the protagonist for what they are.
The appeal of a ‘want’
A widow bent on avenging her dead husband. A writer desperate for recognition. A bookish child aching to fit in with the popular kids at school. These are a character’s ‘wants’, the tangible, external or internal goals that drive them forward. The outset of the plot should be them striving to achieve these goals. The widow tracks down her husband’s killer, the writer chases perfection to win a coveted award, the child throws out their books and their old clothes, changing their outward appearance to look more ‘cool’.
This ‘want’ is the first flame of the story, the embers catching fire. A lot of times it will come in the form of a lesson the protagonist has to learn from, and when their actions inevitably don’t work out for them, that is where the ‘need’ comes in. This is a significant moment of character growth, when the protagonist must contend with their truest emotional flaw or wound, the truth they’ve been avoiding.
The agony of a ‘need’
The ‘need’ is quite often not as tangible and obvious as the ‘want’ – it’s not a simple task to fulfil. The widow doesn’t need revenge, she needs to face her grief and allow herself to feel the loss of her loved one. The writer doesn’t need fame and renown, they need to be true to their authentic voice, writing from the heart. The child doesn’t need to fit in with the cool kids, they need to embrace what makes them unique and find the crowd that loves them for who they are, not who they pretend to be.
These are internal, quite often subconscious desires that connect in some way to the protagonist’s past, their deepest fears, the things they long for more than anything else. The widow has spent the majority of her life with her husband and she’s scared to face a world without him. The writer was told by his favourite tutor that being known was the mark of a true writer. The child has been bullied and ridiculed for participating in the activities they enjoy.
The battle between them both
This ‘need’ can often be so well buried that the characters aren’t even aware of it themselves until they reach the turning point in their story. This is the core conflict – the battle between the immediate, tangible goal and the deeper, hidden truth.
And this is where the agony lies, because in order to grow and change, the protagonist must first look at themselves, really look, particularly at the ugly parts, and actively make a choice – to carry on down the path they’ve been following, or to change course.
For example, in the first Thor film, Thor wants to be named the next ruler of Asgard, and at the start of the story he takes actions that he thinks will help him achieve this, making a show of the power he wields through his mighty hammer. But on his return, he realises his father isn’t proud of his actions – quite the opposite.
It’s not until he’s stripped of his power and cast down to Earth, forced to live as a human, that he starts to realise that his ‘want’ was pushing him in the wrong direction. Through meeting Jane and protecting Earth from the threat of Loki, his brother who uses his power to abuse and torment, Thor learns that what he actually ‘needs’ is to understand what it truly means to be a ruler and to wield your power wisely. Only when he learns this can he fulfil his character arc.
Creating compelling characters
Now you know what ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ are all about, how do you go about using them to craft compelling, believable characters? Here are a few tips:
Dig into their backstory – What is your protagonist’s past? What events have shaped their fears, desires and motivations? What has made them who they are on Page 1? In discovering this, you’ll discover their ‘want’.
Leave room for doubt – Your character might set out with confidence in pursuit of their ‘want’, but there should be a seed of doubt, a hint at the conflict between their as-yet-undiscovered ‘need’. The reader should be able to tell that all will not end well if they keep down their starting path.
Let your character take control – If you’re a planner, this might be a challenge, but often the best way to understand what drives your character, and what makes them act the way they do, is to simply let them loose. See where they take the story, what situations they get themselves into as they pursue their fool’s errand. In doing so, you might find they stumble across their own ‘need’ organically.
Keep the balance – Having your protagonist pursue their need should be entertaining for the reader, and that will require page time, but it’s just as important to explore the emotional depth of their ‘need’ when the moment comes. It’s not enough to have the widow simply stop chasing her husband’s killer; we need to see the impact this letting go has on her, the pain she feels when she learns it won’t bring her comfort, the acceptance that she’s strong enough to go on.
A compelling protagonist should make the reader curious about where they’re going, but also about why they’re on this particularly journey and what led them here in the first place. If you embrace the power of ‘wants’ and ‘needs’, you can reveal the emotional depth buried within your characters, and your stories will show genuine human transformation.