Flesh Out Your Character with Want vs. Need

Today’s guest post is by Jessica Flory

We all know that characters are crucial to the success of a novel. The character takes your reader through the plot. We laugh with them, we cry with them, we cheer for them. Well, we do if the character is well-written. A badly written character can bore a reader or make them cringe—or, worse, put down the book.

So how exactly does a writer craft characters so they feel real? Characterization is pretty complex if you want your characters to feel like a real human beings.

Want vs. Need is just one tool you can use when your crafting your main characters.

What Does Your Character Want?

First, think about what your character wants out of life. Is it love? Peace? Resolution? To be left alone? This is how your character feels at the beginning of your novel.

If you’re stumped, take a look at your own life. What are some of the things you want? Human beings are remarkably similar on a base level. Take a look at your wants, and pick and choose a few for your character.

Keep it focused. Keep it relatable. You want people to be able to see themselves in your character so that they cheer for him or her.

What Does Your Character Need?

Now think about what your character needs. The character’s wants and needs should be different, and quite often the character doesn’t know what they need.

Do they need to find inner peace? Forgiveness? Repair a relationship? The possibilities are endless, but the key here is that the need is undiscovered and unfulfilled at the beginning of the novel. The journey is in learning and filling the need in sacrifice of the want.

That acceptance of not getting what the character wants but getting instead what the character needs, that is the heart of your character’s arc.

To see this in action, we’ll turn to a beloved children’s movie—Finding Nemo. Nemo’s dad, Marlin, has lost everyone he loves except Nemo. Marlin will do anything it takes to protect the little guy. Marlin’s want is to keep Nemo safe.

What Marlin needs (and doesn’t realize at the beginning) is to let Nemo live. Marlin needs to give Nemo some space to grow, and it will improve their relationship.

Throughout the story, Marlin learns how to do this. The ultimate test comes at the climax of the movie, when Marlin has a choice—will he let Nemo swim into the dangerous net to save the other fish, or will he hold Nemo back to keep him safe? Marlin lets Nemo go, and in doing so he sacrifices his want (keeping Nemo safe no matter what) to get his need (letting Nemo live and improving their relationship).

The character arc happens between these two points.

We connect with that. It’s relatable. And we cheer for Marlin when he makes the choice and gets what he needs.

Can’t My Character Have Both?

Yes, there are some books and movies in which the character by the end does get both what they want and what they need. The movie Finding Nemo pushes close toward this, as Nemo is essentially safe by the end, which is what Marlin wanted. But Marlin still changed and grew and achieved his need, and that is what makes him a successful character.

Think hard on whether or not you want your character to have both their wants and their needs met by the end of your story. Sometimes it can work really well, but often it is more powerful and satisfying when the character gets what they need but not what they want.

One Final Example

If you’re still scratching your head over this, let’s take look at another example, the movie Onward (Pixar does a really good job with character arcs). The want vs. need is very clear here. Ian wants so badly to have a relationship with his deceased father. When he’s given the chance, through magic, to spend twenty-four hours with his dad, he jumps to take it. But, of course, there are complications. Ian’s brother, Barley, sets out to help Ian solve the puzzle of the magic so they can be with their dad.

Ian yearned for a father. But by the end of the movie, he realizes that his brother is the one who’s been there for him his whole life. The chance to be with his dad is waning. Ian must choose between taking a few moments with his dad, or fighting off a magical dragon so his brother can have that chance. Ian chooses to let Barley talk with their dad and find closure. He gives up his want (a father) for his need (his brother).

It’s heart-wrenching and powerful, and we cheer for Ian. What Ian needed was there all along. He just had to realize it.

Should you use want vs. need with all your characters? Definitely not. Only use this tool for characters who you want to have an arc. Side characters don’t need this kind of complexity; you can make them stand out with one or two attributes. Your main character, though, has to go on a journey. They’ve got to go to the pit of darkness and come out better for it.

You Can Do This!

Put this into practice in your own writing. Think about your character. What do they want at the beginning of your novel? What do they need to achieve by the end that they probably don’t know about by the beginning?

Here’s a hint for you: wants and needs are internal, not external. The journey takes place within the character. We could say that Marlin from Finding Nemo had several external needs—he needs to escape the sharks, needs to get to Wallaby Way in Sydney, etc., but it’s the internal need that counts the most. This is where a character arc is found.

Look at what your character needs inside. The external needs are the visible conflict; the internal need is where your arc is.

How do you flesh out your characters? What are your characters’ wants vs. needs? Share in the comments.

Jessica Flory is the author of Oceans of Sand, a YA fantasy novel releasing June 2023. She has a BS in Molecular Biology, and she uses that to dream up cool settings for her novels. She is also a mom of four, fitness instructor, and baking enthusiast. Hang out with her and get updates on her book at her website here. And visit with her on Instagram and Twitter.

Featured Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

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