S2 E14 – Breaking your Story in Five Easy Steps – Part 3 – What does Your Protagonist Need?
It’s essential for you to understand the difference between your character’s want versus their need. It’s also essential for writers to understand how the two things are connected, so that together, they form the whole of the character’s journey – both the plot AND the emotional arc of the story.
To that end, here are two definitions that I’ve found helpful in terms of keeping these ideas separate in my own mind, even as the intersect.
WHY are they doing this? What do they think they’re going to get? What emotional benefit will they receive from winning, or what will be the emotional consequence if they lose? How will impact them emotionally? The need is subconscious in most cases. It’s what’s REALLY driving them forward, compelling them to do whatever it is they feel compelled to do. It’s the subconscious reasoning process behind their actions. What’s truly motivating the character?
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
Season 2: E14: How to Break Your Story in Five Easy Steps (Part 3 – What Does Your Character Need?
Published December 1, 2021
INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
PRESENTATION: I want to return today to the question of how to break your story in five easy steps. Today, we're talking about part three, which is what does your protagonist need? Now, this is an important distinction, because there's a lot of confusion when it comes to what your character wants versus what they need. And so today, I want to try to unpack that for you and really look at all of the layers that are involved in that and why they're so different, and why it is important that you have a clear understanding of each of those component parts.
Now, I also want to say that I'm taking a slightly different approach to this topic than maybe a lot of books that you may have read in the past, because what I'm trying to do is get to this issue, get to these five steps, through common sense, through psychology, through our understanding of ourselves as human beings, and what really drives us as human beings, what's really going on inside of us. So there is a necessary component here of understanding human psychology. And I submit to you that if you have a good understanding of how we are wired, if you just understand yourself, then this is going to be an easier thing for you to construct. So it means that you're relying on a different kind of knowledge, not so much the school knowledge where you have these ideas and theories and words and terms that you have to memorize and then construct around, but rather, just a basic understanding and intuitive notion of what it means to be a human being in all our complexity.
Okay. So given the methodology we're talking about here, the first order of business is to really try to clarify the difference between a want versus a need. But sometimes one of the ways that we know what something is, is by what it is not. Everybody in story world agrees that a character needs to have a want versus a need. But not everybody agrees on what that means or what the definition is. So for example, one of the definitions I read recently was that a want is something your character desires, because they believe it'll improve their happiness. Whereas the need is the lesson that they need to learn to overcome their inner struggle and achieve true happiness. So what this person is saying is that, on the one hand, they're pursuing that object, because they think that's what's gonna make me happy. But what they learn over the course of the story is that they really don't need that thing to make them happy. They need this thing. And that's true happiness, and that other thing was false.
So by way of an example, if you had somebody who wanted to be prom queen, because she thought that being prom queen was going to give her the love that she always wanted. But it turns out, just having a good friend who is really connected to her or a group of friends that she really bonds with, that that's sufficient to fulfill that need, therefore, she didn't need what she wanted.
So that is one way to look at it. And I'm not going to rip any of these apart, because the truth is, there's no one right approach. It's not that my approach is the end all be all and somebody else's approach or understanding is wrong. It's whatever makes it click for you. It's whatever makes it work. I mean, the acid test is does it work? Does it make sense? So for me, this definition is still missing something. I think the want is an objective goal, or outcome or object that is being pursued relentlessly throughout the story by the main character. And this want is what informs the basic plot of the story. Because as the character pursues it, they have to make choices to try to get that thing. And if you think about that want is something tangible, something they can hold into their hands, or associated with some sort of object that they could. For example, if they want to be a prom queen, well, then the object becomes the crown. So if you think about the want in terms of an objective something that they are pursuing, that is tangible, that you can actually sink your teeth into or lay your hands on, and they're trying to get that thing. Right? That to me is the want.
My definition of a need, however, that helps me to understand how to differentiate it in my actual story, is when I understand the need as a psychological reason for the things they're doing, or the psychological motivation behind my main character's actions. In other words, why are they doing it? What do they think they're going to get? Not just the crown. I'm not talking about the crown. I'm talking about what emotional benefit do they think they're going to receive if they win? Or what is the emotional consequence that they'll have to endure if they lose? How will it impact them emotionally? Now, oftentimes, the need is subconscious. And this is true in real life, too. A lot of times we find ourselves desperately pursuing something. And we don't know why. We don't really understand. Why am I doing this?
I remember one time, in high school, I had gone to a boyfriend's house to break up with him. And I had a whole speech planned. Something in my mind, I had it all planned out, oh, it was a good one. Because I'm a writer. See, I can write out the speech ahead of time. And then I can go and deliver it with gumption. And as I started delivering the speech, he interrupted me. And he said, Zena, would you just save it, I know, you lied to me. And I want to break up with you. And he was right, I had lied to him. (I was in high school; give me some grace). But the thing is, in that moment, I found myself begging him not to break up with me. Begging him. I had this reverse experience where I had gone there to break up with him, because I thought I deserved better. And now, here I was, begging him not to leave me. What in the world?
Now, years later, I was able to understand that that was trauma reenactment based on fears of abandonment and rejection. But at the time, all I knew is that what I had come there to do, and what I was actually doing, were two totally different things. And I didn't understand myself. And putting it in story terms, I would say what I wanted as a character, and what I needed, were in complete contrast with each other. But I didn't know what I actually needed. I didn't actually know and therefore I was confused by my own actions. So a lot of times in real life, and in character life, we're not actually consciously aware of what is psychologically motivating us. We don't really know what is driving us, or compelling us to do whatever it is that we're doing. Your characters don't always know why they have this need to do whatever it is they're doing. But they're trying to fill some emotional void, some space of emptiness, something that is unsettled, something that is missing in their soul. That is ultimately what it is. It is something that they're trying to fill.
Now, you've probably heard terms like inner struggle, or the character's wound. Sometimes the inner struggle is characterized as the damaging belief or behavior that your character must overcome, in order for them to become the person that they're meant to become. Maybe they believe that they're weak, or inferior, or unlovable. Or maybe they don't trust anyone, because they don't think anybody's trustworthy, or whatever this inner struggle is, then they have to face this problem before their journey ends. And they have to come to see that, oh, some people are trustworthy, or, Oh, I actually can be strong if I do this, or, maybe I don't need to be strong. I just need to be honest. And that's sufficient. Maybe I have a wrong definition of what strong is, and therefore I need to adjust that and now I'm okay. That is what that inner struggle is. So that's part and parcel with this, this goes along with it. Right? These are connected terms to help us understand need versus want.
In terms of the wound, a lot of times, the wound is just that - it's that childhood wound or that deeply imprinted trauma from their past that feeds their inner struggle, that has caused them to believe the false thing in the first place, or to behave in this way that they're behaving in the first place, like me begging my boyfriend not to leave me even though I'd gone there to break up because he wasn't treating me well. In that moment, I went back to, "I am fundamentally unlovable," which was a wound from my childhood.
So wounds are the foundation of most of these things. And just like in real life, where it comes from our childhood, it almost always comes from your character's childhood. Now, once in a while there could be some formative experience when they weren't children, maybe in their early 20s, they were married, and their wife betrayed them. And now they don't trust anybody anymore. But generally speaking, these things are formed in early development as human beings. And by the time we become adults, we're operating out of those beliefs. And that's what wounds are. It goes back to that moment in time when that belief was formed and took root. And now it informs all of the choices we make, because we're operating based on that premise.
Which then comes back to your characters truth, which, by the way, is one of the fundamental struggles of the story. Because you see, the truth that they're acting on is wrong. It's a false belief. It's still their truth, but it's a false truth. And so part of what the journey becomes is trading in the lie for the truth. Learning what's really true over and against the false perspective that they've learned to operate by. Every story is a personal paradox, which means it is about your character coming to grips with this conflict, this inner struggle towards coming to some sort of equilibrium. Because the truth of the matter is, we want to be internally consistent.
Earlier this week, I had a girlfriend text me and say that she'd love to come over on Sunday, however, she has let her world go into chaos. And it's gotten to a point where she has to take action. And it goes back to the fact that her father died this summer. And she's just sort of slowly but surely deteriorated ever since. Until finally she looked around, and her whole apartment is a wreck. Her car is a wreck. She's past due on certain bills. She's just a mess. And she said, and I don't even know how I got here.
Somehow, as human beings, we have this fundamental desire for our inner world and our outer world to match. We want it to match. So, if you have a chaotic world around you in the outer world, if you always live in chaos, and frantic and you can't find anything, and things are missing, and it's messy, it's a reflection of your inner world. That means that's where you're at emotionally. Now, I'm not talking about the person who has their own file system that's maybe a little creative. I'm talking about where it isn't organized in any sense, and you are constantly fouled up by your own disorganization and chaos. If that's the case, it means that is a reflection of your inner emotional state. Which is why one of the ways to try to order the inner emotional state is to actually try to order the outward world. This is why we start to clean sometimes. Sometimes I just have to stop everything and clean and clean and clean and clean. Because if I can get my outer world ordered, it brings me internal calm and peace. So we intrinsically want our inner and outer states to match.
And that's kind of what this is talking about here. You have a character who is in internal conflict, because the false belief that they have is fouling up their life and it's making it impossible for them to have peace in their external world. And what they're going to have to do is come to terms with it. Now, maybe it's that they have to reject some false belief, like the belief that they are fundamentally unlovable, in which case they have to learn over the course of the story, that they actually are lovable. Alright, great. Inner conflict resolved. But here's the thing. It probably means that to get there, they actually find somebody they desperately want to love them. So now the want and the need are rubbing up against each other. They have to be linked. They have to be connected in some way. They can't be totally disparate things. They end up playing into each other, because that is the character arc.
The struggle between those two things over the course this telling ultimately becomes the whole arc of the story, and your character arc is the whole reason we watch a story or we read a story, or we invest emotionally in a story. Do you know that at the end of the day, we don't really give a lick about plot? We care about the character coming to terms with this inner conflict. Now, yeah, if the world is great, the story building is great, if the plot points are incredible, that's great, because those plot points are feeding into this inner conflict. But ultimately, at the end of the day, that's really what draws us into the story, which is why all this stuff is so important. So you have to know what your character wants versus what they need.
Now, again, I read one article that said your character's want is their goal or mission that they believe will make them happy. Again, not criticizing someone's definition or articulation of that if it works. However, I find that the word happy is not sufficient. And part of that is because I am writing from a Christian worldview. And I don't believe that happiness is the basis of life or the meaning of existence. I think that life is about meaning, it's about purpose, it's about fulfilling our calling for a good purpose, for a bigger reason than ourselves. It is transcendence, and working in tandem with that transcendent being. So that we know that our lives actually mattered, and that our choices matter. And what we do matters. That, I feel, more clearly reflects my understanding of reality.
So that means what we're coming back to here is worldview. Right? We're always coming back to worldview. Because worldview has to do with reality as we know it. Worldview has to do with how we interpret the world and what we see as the nature of reality. Which is why having a biblical worldview is so important over and against another kind of worldview, if, indeed, Christianity is true. Now, if it isn't true, then who cares? If it isn't true, it doesn't matter. But if it is true, then we need to reflect the world as it really is. And remember how I started by saying this is about looking into the nature of humanity? What are we like as human beings. Which necessitates, then, that we have the proper perspective of how human beings are actually wired. And what internally really motivates us to do the things that we do. Which also informs, WHY would we do those things? What does it matter? And if we have a proper worldview, it helps us to understand what's motivating our characters, what their need actually is.
So, where want is some sort of external solution to an internal problem, like the prom queen, your character's need has to do with two things. 1. The internal psychological factors are motivation behind why they're pursuing that. 2. And then ultimately, their acceptance or adoption of a true premise over and against the false one that they've been operating by. Do you see that? Do you understand what I'm saying?
Ultimately, they have to replace the lie with the truth. Whatever it is that they had believed because of those wounds, because of the internal struggle, because of their past, they have to adopt the real truth. And when that happens, that is the character arc, then, and either they get to win what they wanted, or they get what they really needed and they realize they never actually needed what they wanted.
So, the real point of story, then, is not the want, even though everything in the story has to unfold according to the want. But the real purpose behind your story is the need. The need. And that's what we're hanging in for as an audience. We want to know if they get what they need. Look at your character's want versus their true need. And you're going to see how that creates major conflict inside the character. Their want will define the goals that they pursue, but their need is what is going to slowly push them to question their assumptions, question the goals themselves, question all their actions. Is this really what matters? And over time, the need will take center stage. It will determine how they overcome the plot of your story. So, it's a push and pull between your character's want and their need. And it's woven into the story. At each juncture, there should be opportunities to illuminate or challenge or examine the need in light of what they want. It just keeps coming up. It keeps coming up. It's something they can't escape from. It's like a haunting. The need is a haunting, and they're haunted by it.
And at the end of the day, they cannot succeed without addressing their need and accepting this new truth that they've come to see over the course of the story. That is the culmination of the entire story. It's about confronting their need, either right before or during the climax. So for example, you've seen stories where the good guy goes to fight, even knowing that he's going to die. But it doesn't matter. He's okay, now. He is at peace. That is what your character is trying to attain. Not happiness, but peace: that internal consistency that puts the dissonance at rest. And we are able to face our worst fears once we've come to terms with whatever it is that we've been grappling with, or wrestling with or rebelling against, or trying to ignore or stave off all of this time. And now I can go and face the bad guy even though I know it means my death. That's what matters more. I'm at peace, and it's okay.
So when these two are combined, the conflict between your character's want versus their need creates the character arc - a clear growth where your character evolves over the course of the story. The character begins with a deep inner struggle. And by the end of the story, they have grown. They have learned to accept whatever it is that they need. To acknowledge it. To surrender whatever it is they have to surrender. To adopt a new belief in place of it so that they can achieve peace, so that they can put the struggle to rest.
Now, of course, establishing the want versus the need is just one aspect of crafting believable characters, but it is the most fundamental aspect of the entire story. Without knowing this, you cannot have a compelling story. You won't know what's driving them, and you won't know what obstacles to put in their way to help them overcome whatever it is that they need to overcome. So this is why it is one of the five ways to break your story. It's one of the essential things that you need to identify. What does your character want? And what do they ultimately really need? What are they really fighting for? Two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. And together, they make up the arc that your character goes on over the course of the story. So hopefully that makes sense. And you'll be able to apply this somehow to your story.
OUTRO: And in the meantime, thank you for listening to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.