Creating Your Character’s Inner Conflict: Want vs. Need
Man vs. Self—it’s the most archetypal of all stories. This is because all stories are ultimately rooted in the primal and personal struggle of a character’s inner conflict.
As individuals, our conflicts with others or the world itself are almost inevitably either reflections or projections of our inner conflicts—our cognitive dissonances, our conflicting wants and needs, sometimes even our conflicting wants and wants or conflicting needs and needs. Finding inner peace is ultimately about working through the chatter of the many competing voices in our heads (some of them accurate, all of them passionate) on our way toward understanding the following:
- What each voice is saying.
- What underlying motivation each voice is representing.
- Which motives and desires are healthy and which are not.
- How to harmonize those that are healthy but still seem competitive.
- Letting go of some desires in favor of others.
- Coming to peace with all choices.
- Moving forward in holistic action based on those choices.
As I’m writing that list, it all sounds pretty lofty and serene. (I keep hearing Shifu from Kung-Fu Panda: “Inner peace… inner peace… inner pea— Would you please quiet down!”) But actually what that list describes is nothing more or less than the (positive) arc of a character over the course of a story.
In a story, that internal progression may be the forefront preoccupation of the author and the character. But more likely, the internal conflict is happening behind the scenes and under the surface of the external plot—which, as we’ve talked about before, can often be thought of as an external metaphor for the internal conflict. The external plot is the reflection/projection of the character’s inner struggle upon the external world.
Today, I want to take a closer look at that inner struggle. In discussions of character arc and theme, I’ve talked a lot about how a character’s inner conflict is framed around the dichotomous struggle between the Thing the Character Wants (which is Lie-based) and the Thing the Character Needs (which is Truth-based).
Although this black-and-white dichotomy is helpful for an at-a-glance understanding of the character’s inner conflict dynamics, we can find greater nuance by looking a little deeper at what is actually going on inside your character.
The Thing Your Character Wants: What Is It Really?
At its simplest, the Thing Your Characters Wants is the plot goal. Usually, the Want is part of a bigger picture—a desire or goal that existed prior to the specific conflict of your story’s Second Act—but it will funnel directly into your character’s plot goal.
Luke Skywalker’s Want is to escape his lonely orphaned adolescence and find a life of meaning and purpose in the larger galaxy. In the first movie, this translates to the specifically-iterated goal of wanting to “learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father”—a desire that progresses throughout the trilogy and frames his entire arc.
In any kind of Change Arc, the Want shows the Lie the Character Believes in action. The Want itself may not be a bad thing (more on that in a bit), but even if it is positive in itself, it represents a negative mindset or motivation. Within the character’s inner life, the Lie has created either a hole or a block. It is preventing the character from growing toward health; it may even be actively pushing him toward mental or moral sickness.
At the root of the Lie and its ambiguous motivations is a Ghost from the character’s past—something that created that hole or that block.
Luke Skywalker’s Ghost is his orphanhood, particularly the absence of his seemingly heroic father.
Luke Skywalker’s Lie is that to fill this inner hole and be worthy, he must be just like that father. This false belief fuels his impatience and reckless desire for adventure and glory.
Because the Lie and the Want are linked (as are the Need and the Truth—see below), the obvious implication is that the Want is bad.
Sometimes this is true. Sometimes what a character wants is blatantly destructive and evil. However, even in these situations, it’s important to note that the character will rarely see it so clearly. He wouldn’t pursue the Want if he didn’t believe, on some level, that it was worthy, that the end justified the means. As T.S. Eliot so chillingly noted:
Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.
At the very least, the character may believe that a “bad” Want at least represents the best possible outcome (as, for instance, when a woman believes she’s safer staying in an abusive relationship rather than leaving).
However, even more often, the Want won’t, in itself, be a bad thing. In fact, the Lie and its resultant motivation may not be obviously destructive either. After all, the reason the character believes in the Lie and wants the Want is because he thinks it will make his life better. Rather than recognizing his misconception of reality as part of the problem, he sees it as the answer.
This delusion is only possible if the character himself is either utterly deluded or if he’s caught between two conflicting choices, both of which bring their own benefits and consequences. In the case of the abused woman needing to leave her destructive relationship, there will be good things and bad things about either of her choices—which is why the struggle to choose may be waged down to the very bottom of her soul before it can be completely manifested in her external conflict.
Luke Skywalker’s Want and plot goal aren’t quantifiably bad or destructive. On the surface, all of his Wants and plot goals are actually quite healthy: wanting to become a Jedi, wanting to join the righteous Rebellion and fight the evil Empire, and wanting to move into a more meaningful life in a broader context.
Don’t get confused by the terminology. The “Want,” as a technical term within the theory of character arc, specifically references a plot-advancing desire that doesn’t (yet) represent a wholly integrated or holistic mindset. But just because the character currently wants the wrong thing or wants it for the wrong reason doesn’t mean that thing isn’t also something he does in fact need. The Ghost almost always represents a deep gaping need, and the character’s initial attempts to fulfill that need are rarely 100% misguided.
The Thing Your Character Needs: What Is It Really?
Whereas the Want is a direct equivalent of the plot goal, the Thing the Character Needs is a direct correlative of the thematic value. Whatever Truth your story is positing about reality, that is the ultimate Thing the Character Needs.
Luke Skywalker’s Need is to overcome the fear and anger that tempt him into darkness. He Needs to give up his hubristic desire to fight his way to glory as a means of protecting those he loves. What he learns over the course of the trilogy is that being a Jedi has nothing to do with being “like my father.” (Indeed, his father must learn to be more like Luke.) Even more than just that, being a Jedi is about surrendering the need for glory, accomplishment, or even control. He learns these Truths slowly, over the course of the series, climaxing in the moment when he refuses to give in to his hate and throws away his lightsaber.
The Need is always available—an often simplistic antidote to the character’s inner pain and conflict. But the character is confused, usually because the Want realistically seems to offer the correct solution to her problem. Just as often, the character may either push away from the Need or embrace it only halfway because she can’t gain the Need without also accepting significant consequences (for instance, in leaving an abusive relationship, a woman might have to leave behind much more than just the abuse—not to mention facing punitive reactions from the abuser).
And yet, no matter how difficult or Pyrrhic it might be to pursue and accept the Need, the character will never find health or wholeness without it. Ultimately, what the Need/Truth represents is a resolution of the inner conflict. Embracing the Truth shows the character which of the competing voices in her head is right. With this rightness—with Truth—comes a realignment with reality. When that happens, the character may have to face difficult consequences, but she will instantly be freed from the tremendous burden of fighting against reality itself.
Luke Skywalker’s Need is to let go of his fear, anger, and hatred. But in choosing to do so, he consciously puts at risk his own life, those of his family and friends, and even the success of the Rebellion. As it turns out, his story ends positively, since his choice catalyzes his father’s subsequent decision to destroy the Emperor and save his son. However, in a story with a Disillusionment Arc, the choice to embrace the Need and the Truth might, in fact, end negatively with the character facing the full consequences of the choice (e.g., Han and Leia die and the Rebellion fails).
Just as the Want is not always quantifiably “bad,” the Need is also not quantifiably “good” in the sense that choosing it means everything is suddenly sunshine and roses. If embracing the Need were that simplistic, the character would have no reason not to choose it outright at the beginning of the story.
The only reason any of us obstruct our own progression toward health is because pursuing health is hard. Anyone who chooses to lose weight for health reasons can attest to this. Even knowing your excess weight might someday threaten you with heart disease or diabetes does not mean the daily grueling sacrifices of exercising and eating right are easy choices. This is true even when your bad choices have direct consequences. Maybe you know eating that donut is going to make you feel crummy about five minutes from now. But saying no to all that yumminess is super-hard, so you eat it anyway.
The same goes for healthy mental and spiritual choices. Doing the right thing doesn’t always get you a pat on the back; sometimes it gets you crucified—metaphorically and even literally. Choosing to recognize truths about yourself and the world around you doesn’t always make life easier; sometimes it rips off the Band-Aid and makes your psychic wounds start bleeding all over again.
That said, the Need always represents the path toward health and recovery. A nuanced presentation of the Need will accurately portray all the reasons the character doesn’t embrace it outright. But this does not always mean the character might not also actively want the Need. For instance, anyone who is overweight (and lots of people who aren’t) want to lose pounds. They probably even know they need to lose pounds.
This is where some of the most powerful of a character’s inner conflict comes into play. A conflict between something a character Wants and something she does not (even if she Needs it) can be powerful and compelling. But usually, an even more compelling scenario is that in which the character internally struggles between two competing wants—or even two competing needs.
She can’t have both. She can only have one. In these cases, the true Need (in its technical, character-arc definition) will be the one that serves the greater good. For example, the character might Want to be with her true love. Nothing wrong with that. Indeed, the relationship may represent everything that is good about her. It promises nothing but health and happiness for the future.
But the character also Needs to do the right thing. For example, she has to make the big sacrifice and save the world because only she can do what must be done. Or, on a smaller scale, maybe doing the right thing means staying faithful to her marriage vows and making sure her children grow up in a stable family environment. If she were to choose the good Want over the better Need, she isn’t the only one who will suffer. And she will suffer. Choosing a Lie over a Truth is always a recipe for suffering, even if the consequences are delayed.
Why is all of this important? It’s important because as you’re planning your character’s arc and trying to identify the Want, Need, Lie, and Truth, it can be confusing (and limiting) when you feel you have to make the Want and the Lie obviously “bad” and the Need and the Truth obviously “good.” Even a good-vs.-evil conflict as obvious as Star Wars offers a nuanced view of why a character might simultaneously need the Want and want the Need.
Don’t get too caught up in the terminology. Ultimately, a character’s inner conflict is always between two things the character wants on at least some level. This is, in turn, mirrored in the outer conflict, which also represents want vs. want—the protagonist’s plot goal vs. the antagonist’s plot goal.
The more nuanced your approach to the dichotomies of Want vs. Need and Lie vs. Truth, the more nuanced your thematic discussion and your presentation of plot and character will always be.