What is the difference between a character’s want and need?
In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger explains that one’s ‘want’ is related to the outer goal in the story—what the character thinks s/he has to achieve in order to solve a problem: get the girl, or the job, and the like. One’s ‘need’, however, is typically hidden from the character. It is revealed only late in the developmental arc as a result of the characters having learnt a series of lessons about themselves, and the world, through life’s hard knocks.
We as writers, however, have to know how to work with this hidden need on behalf of our characters. We have to know how to work with the subtext—with what is suppressed, left unsaid, with emotions of guilt, shame or regret. These are the generators of depth and resonance in our stories. Without them we have only plot. With them we have in-depth characters whose psychological motivation rings true.
“Without an acknowledgement of need, characters are unable to complete their character arcs and achieve their story goals.”
Tootsie’s Michael Dorsey, for example, does not, at first, realise that he needs to be less difficult, more sensitive to others in order to achieve his outer goals as an actor. He does not realise that his insistence on ‘perfection’, his obsessive disagreeableness and fussiness stems from his own insecurities. It is only when he adopts the disguise of a woman in order to procure a television soapie role, a disguise so convincing that he is subjected to the sort of insensitivity and sexism he has inflicted on others, that he realises that his need is to be a better man. It is only then that Michael can accomplish his external goals—his desire for Julie, his need for work, his desire to maintain his friendship with Sandy. The accomplished writer understands this about his character(s) and implements this knowledge. It is a skill well worth emulating.
A character’s acknowledgment of ‘need’ comes late in the story and results in an adjustment of the story goal.
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