Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 3: The Thing Your Character Wants vs. The Thing Your Character Needs
By K M Weiland
The Lie Your Character Believes is the reason for all character arcs. After all, if everything’s hunky-dunky, why change? We might think of the Lie as the cavity in a tooth. Everything might look shiny and white on the outside, but inside there’s decay. If the character is ever to be happy, he’s going to have to do some drilling to excavate the rot in his life.
But, like most of us with a rotten tooth, he’s in denial. Even thought he keeps biting on that tooth and pushing at it with his tongue, he doesn’t want to admit he’s got a problem. In order to avoid facing the painful truth of his Lie, he wants to pretend the problem is something else. Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley, once again:
…we know that characters often work not toward the real solution but to a perceived solution. And characters frequently grapple with a problem that is ultimately recognized as only a symptom of the real problem.
The Lie plays out in your character’s life, and your story, through the conflict between the Thing He Needs (the Truth) and the Thing He Wants (the perceived cure for the symptoms of the Lie).
What Your Character Wants
The first intersection of character arc and plot is found in the protagonist’s goal. What does he want? What’s his major story goal? World domination? A wife? To survive? To die? To get a raise?
Every story starts with the character’s goal. Simple enough, right? But that’s just the plot. What about character?
That, my friends, is where this gets interesting. It isn’t enough for us to create a story goal that’s just a surfacegoal. To intertwine with the character arc, this goal has to be something that matters to the character on a deeper level. He can’t just want world domination and/or a wife because, hey, who doesn’t? He has to want it for a soul-deep reason, one even he may not fully comprehend.
If you guessed that the Lie is at the root of that soul-deep reason, then you guessed right.
If only on a subconscious level, the character realizes he has a problem in his life. His problems may be evident in his miserable standard of living (Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit), or his problem may be an inner discontentment that manifests even in the midst of a seemingly perfect external life (Jon Turteltaub’s The Kid). But what he doesn’t realize, subconsciously or otherwise, is the true solution—the Thing He Needs. Nope, he thinks that if he can just have what he Wants, all will be well.
What Is the Thing Your Character Wants?
The Thing Your Character Wants will almost always be something external, something physical. He’s trying to salve his inner emptiness with exterior solutions. His problem is depression, but he’s busily putting a cast on his arm. He thinks that if he can just have that new job, that new trophy wife, that new set of golf clubs, everything will be perfect. He’ll be rich, powerful, loved, respected—and fulfilled.
Here we are dissing The Thing Your Character Wants, but, really, it may be a perfectly worthy goal in its own right. He might want to:
- Be king. (Thor)
- Be loved. (Jane Eyre)
- Study dinosaur bones in peace. (Jurassic Park)
- Have a real home with his mother. (Secondhand Lions)
- Be Andy’s favorite toy. (Toy Story)
- Gain enough money to be independent and happy. (Three Kings)
- Graduate college. (Green Street Hooligans)
- Be cured of mental problems. (What About Bob?)
Nothing wrong with any of those. But the problem for these characters is that they’re pursuing goals that are furthering their enslavement to their Lies. They’re not pursuing happiness and fulfillment holistically by addressing the Lie. Rather, they’re trying to get what they want in spite of their refusal to buck up and look deep into the darkness of their own souls.
What Your Character Needs
In a word, the Thing Your Character Needs is the Truth. He needs the personalized antidote to his Lie. This is the most important thing in his life. If he misses out on this Truth, he is never going to be able to grow in a positive way. He’s either going to remain stuck in his current internal predicament forever, or he’s going to digress into an even worse state (as we’ll see when we study the Negative Arc later on).
Your character will spend most of the story pursuing his outer goal—the Thing He Wants. But what the story is really about, on a deeper level, is his growth into a place where he, first subconsciously, then consciously, recognizes and pursues his inner goal—the Thing He Needs.
What Is the Thing Your Character Needs?
The Thing Your Character Needs usually won’t be something physical—although it can (and usually should) take on a physical or visual manifestation by the end of the story. The Thing Your Character Needs is usually going to be nothing more than a realization. In some stories, this realization may change nothing about his external life, but it will always transform his perspective of himself and the world around him, leaving him more capable of coping with his remaining external problems.
The Thing Your Character Needs may preclude the Thing He Wants. He will invariably have to come to a point where he’s willing to sacrifice What He Wants in order to secure What He Needs. Sometimes the story will have to end on that bittersweet note of interior gain and exterior loss. But, other times, once the character has embraced the Thing He Needs, he will then be all the more empowered in his pursuit of What He Wants—allowing him to harmonize both his inner and outer goals in the finale.
The Thing Your Character Needs might be to:
- Learn humility and compassion. (Thor)
- Embrace spiritual freedom. (Jane Eyre)
- Protect the living future over the dead past. (Jurassic Park)
- Have faith in people. (Secondhand Lions)
- Be able to share Andy’s love. (Toy Story)
- Find a cause worth fighting for. (Three Kings)
- Find the courage to stand up for himself. (Green Street Hooligans)
- Be loved for who he is. (What About Bob?)
As you can see, these are all incorporeal concepts. But they are all things that can be demonstrated physically and visually because they demand the characters act upon their new belief, once they’ve claimed it.
Further Examples of the Thing the Character Wants and the Thing The Character Needs
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: The Thing Scrooge Wants is to make as much money as possible, no matter how many people he has to run over to get there. The Thing He Needs is to remember that true wealth is the love of his fellow human beings.
Cars directed by John Lasseter: The Thing Lightning McQueen Wants is to become the world’s most famous racecar by winning the Piston Cup and becoming the new face of Dinoco. The Thing He Needs is to let others into his life by helping them and allowing them to help him.
Questions to Ask About the Thing the Character Wants and the Thing the Character Needs
1. How is the Lie holding your character back?
2. How is the Lie making your character unhappy or unfulfilled?
3. What Truth does your character Need to disprove the Lie?
4. How will he learn this Truth?
5. What does your character Want more than anything?
6. Is the Thing He Wants his plot goal?
7. Does he believe the Thing He Wants will solve his personal problems?
8. Is the Thing He Wants holding him back from the Thing He Needs?
9. Does the Thing He Needs preclude his gaining the Thing He Wants—or will he only be able to gain the Thing He Wants after he has found the Thing He Needs?
10. How will his life be different once he embraces the Thing He Needs?
Your protagonist’s inner conflict is all about this silent warbetween his Want and his Need. But it’s also the gasoline in the engine of the outer conflict. If you have these two elements working in concert, you can bet you’ll also have plot and character well on their way to perfect harmony as well.