Thursday, 9 September 2021

Want Vs. Need in Character Motivation

The most important questions that I ask authors about their characters are … What is driving them? What is their quest? What do they want? 

Hopefully, these questions aren’t too difficult to answer. They want to make a million, climb Everest, fall in love, defeat the monster, escape the zombies, bring down the system, solve the murder, etc. etc. 

They need a goal, and it needs to be specific and measurable so that readers can join them on their journey and dance around the room or cry into their pillow when they succeed or fail.

Perhaps more difficult to answer is … What does your character need? But it is every bit as important, if not more, than their surface motivations, and it is going to give them depth and multiple dimensions.

Often, characters – in common with real people – have no idea what they need, and it is the conscious quest to fulfil their desires (what they think they need) that leads to personal revelations, growth and healing (what they actually need). This could take the form of learning to forgive, trust or love again, processing grief, building confidence, independence, faith … anything connecting to emotional development.

Characters’ needs often appear naturally and are obvious from the novel’s conception, maybe even forming the focus of your book. Sometimes, however, especially if you are a plot-driven writer, they require a bit more thought.

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Save the Cat! (Brody, 2018) explores the distinction between want and need in depth, referring to them as the A and B Story and outlining a specific plan to structure the former while the latter develops under the surface. This is an incredibly useful resource, but we have to look no further than our own lives for inspiration.

For example, I trained for a half marathon a few years ago. It was something that I had always wanted to do and I relished the challenge. The journey from couch potato to finish line is a worthy and interesting one. 

Underneath the surface, however, running was giving me the space to deal with a loss that I had suffered, and I needed to prove to myself that I was still strong, that I wasn’t completely broken. I also needed to learn to run joyfully rather than painfully, to enjoy life again rather than suffer.

In literature, we need look no further than classic characters for further examples: Austen’s Emma’s driving force was to matchmake, oblivious to her own need for love; Verne’s Phileas Fogg was desperate to prove that he could speed his way around the world, but he needed to learn to stop and appreciate the beauty of the moment; Steinbeck’s George and Lennie were chasing the American dream, but their ill-fated brotherhood was the real treasure; Sherlock Holmes wanted to solve the crime but needed the puzzle; Bridget Jones was desperate to change herself to find a man, but she needed to accept herself just the way she was; Harry Potter wanted to become a great wizard, defeat Voldemort and avenge his parents’ murder; what he needed more was simply a place to belong.

Every character has both a want and a need and the two converge at the journey’s end when they solve the crime, having faced their personal demons; escape the prison, finally finding the strength to forgive themselves for the crime; find romantic love, along with the self-care that they never knew they needed, etc. etc. The wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented here because human emotions are universal. As long as there is depth to discover, your readers will be happy.

Hayley Sherman has spent more than a decade supporting authors on their novel-writing journeys. Would you like her to assess your manuscript?


Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash