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Monday, February 15, 2021

Character's Want vs. Need (Explained 4 Different Ways)

Want vs. Need

In many stories, what the protagonist wants and what the protagonist needs will be two different things.

In Soul, Joe wants to return to his body and pursue his jazz career so his life won't be meaningless. What he needs is to appreciate that the act of living itself gives life meaning. 

In Zootopia, what Judy wants is to become a bunny cop to defy prejudice and make the world a better place. What she needs, is to confront the prejudice within herself to make the world a better place.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss is tempted by the want to win the Games by being a survivalist at any cost. What she needs is to hold onto the idea that you must be willing to sacrifice yourself--the only way to truly beat the Games, without being a piece in them.

Whether or not you realize it, your protagonist likely has a want vs. need struggle as well. This is because it's a key element of story. 

One problem, however, is that, like many writing concepts, the want vs. need concept can be difficult to "see" and grasp, at first.

This is in part because it can be explained from four different angles. 

Today, I have gathered the four different angles into one article. 

If you haven't fully nailed down the want vs. need concept, then I recommend you read through these approaches and find which one makes the most sense to you, and use that. 

If you fully understand the want vs. need concept, then reading through the other angles may deepen your comprehension of it. 

In any case, what I don't want is for you to get confused because you don't get all the angles. In reality, you only need to understand one angle to utilize this. It's okay to ignore the rest. 

Ghost vs. Ghostbuster

Many protagonists will have what's called a "ghost." The ghost is a past significant (often traumatic) event that shaped the protagonist’s worldview or lifestyle in a thematic way. For example, in Frozen, Elsa accidentally freezing Anna when they are children, is Elsa's ghost—it's what leads her to become closed off and isolated.

In the writing community, the ghost is also sometimes called a "wound." These are two different terms for the same concept. You can learn more about the ghost/wound in my article "Giving Your Protagonist a Ghost."

In short though, the ghost/wound leads the protagonist to adopt a flawed or inaccurate worldview, a misbelief. This creates the protagonist's "weakness." For example, Elsa hurts Anna, so Elsa comes to the conclusion that in order to keep that from happening again, she must be closed off. This becomes her flaw at the beginning of the story. 

The ghost creates the protagonist's want: Elsa wants to be isolated. 

The want creates a goal: Elsa runs away and makes an ice castle she hopes to live in alone. 

Through the story, it will be revealed that the protagonist has an inner need.

The need is the ghostbuster. 

The need is the salve to the wound. 

Elsa wants to be alone so she can be herself without hurting anyone. What she needs, is to realize that one must be open to be loved authentically and that some love is worth the hurt. 

This is the ghostbuster. It heals the haunting and allows the protagonist to become whole.

When Elsa realizes this, she's able to be open to love and melt the ice. She is able to heal her traumatic past. 

External Goal vs. Internal Realization (Without vs. Within)

Everyone wants something. The protagonist has a want, and while that want may seem big and abstract sometimes, it will manifest in specific, concrete goals

For example, in Zootopia, Judy wants to make the world a better place by fighting prejudice. This manifests in her specific goal to become the first bunny cop. 

This makes up the external plot. Judy goes through the academy and, in the city, focuses on proving she can be a great police officer. Externally, this is what Zootopia is about. 

As she pursues this, it becomes clear that she has an inner need that has to be addressed. She needs to realize that in her quest to make the world less prejudice, she has to confront the prejudice within herself. 

The want is often the external journey, and the need is the internal journey. 

In other words, the want is more closely linked to plot, and the need is more closely linked to character arc (and by extension, theme)

The protagonist was trying to fulfill the want outwardly--Judy wants to make the world better by changing the prejudice in others. The protagonist must fulfill the need internally--Judy can make the world better by uprooting the prejudice within herself. 

The protagonist has a realization that allows him to address the need. 

(One might argue that all wants and needs are both internal and external, but let's not muddy the water right now.)

Flawed Worldview vs. Accurate Worldview (Flaw vs. Remedy)

The protagonist has a flawed worldview. This manifests in a want. 

In The Greatest Showman, P. T. Barnum thinks he needs to be loved and accepted by everyone, so he tries to climb the social ladder via the entertainment industry. First he makes the circus, and then he tours with Jenny Lind. 

But this is a flawed worldview, as it creates more problems. It strains his relationships with his employees, his family, and clouds his relationship with himself. 

In order to be successful, he actually needs to shift his worldview to an accurate one. 

He needs to realize that he only needs to be accepted by those closest to him, who are (either literally or figuratively) family. 

This is basically the same idea as the protagonist having a flaw in the beginning, and overcoming it at the end. 


Anti-theme vs. Theme

Every story has a thematic statement, which is the truth about life the story is arguing. 

But every argument has an opposing argument.

Every truth has a lie.

This is the anti-thematic statement

In Frozen, the thematic statement is that we must be open to be loved authentically (that might mean we get hurt, but some love is worth the hurt).

The anti-thematic statement is the opposite: We must be closed off and isolated from others to be authentic and safe, otherwise there is hurt, including hurting loved ones.

Often the want taps into the anti-thematic statement and the need taps into the thematic statement. 

Elsa wants to be closed off (anti-theme). 

But she needs to be open (theme).

In The Greatest Showman, the thematic statement is, you don't need to be accepted and loved by the world, only by a few people who become your family.

The anti-thematic statement is the opposite: You must be accepted and loved by everyone. 

P. T. Barnum wants the anti-thematic statement.

What Elsa and P. T. both need, is the thematic statement.


Comprehensive Explanation (All 4)

There are variations to all this (and I'll get to some later), but all these explanations say, more or less, the same thing, from different angles. Here is how everything usually fits together. 

In the protagonist's backstory, a significant event took place that shifted his or her worldview--the ghost. The character tried to cope with or address the ghost by adopting a flawed worldview. This leads to the character's "weakness."

For example, Elsa is traumatized by what she did to Anna. She responds by deciding she needs to be closed off to be herself and keep people safe. This is a flawed perspective, which leads to Elsa's weakness. She's distant and isolated. 

The flawed worldview usually taps into the anti-thematic statement.

Elsa believes she must be closed off to be authentic and safe. 

The flawed worldview creates a want. The want may be abstract, but it will manifest in concrete goals.

Elsa wants to be alone to be herself, so she runs away and creates an ice castle. Her goal is to live there alone. 

The flawed worldview often creates the want, because the need isn't being addressed. 

The reason Elsa wants to be alone, is because she didn't know how to properly cope with and address her ghost. This leaves a "hole" or, as some say, a "void." She tries to fill this the only way she knows how--by being distant. Because she can't properly fill the hole, she continues to want to be distant. 

The protagonist pursues the want in external ways, which helps make up the plot. 

Anna tries to convince Elsa to leave her castle, but because Elsa wants to be distant (which isn't actually what she needs), it worsens the situation, by making her magic go out of control, and she accidentally freezes Anna (her worst fear). 

Elsa's grip on her goal, leads others to come and try to retrieve or even attack her.

Usually about halfway through the story, the protagonist will get a glimpse of his need, but won't fully grasp it.

In Frozen, this happens as Anna tries to convince Elsa she doesn't need to be alone. 

As the protagonist pursues the goal, obstacles will reveal that their current lifestyle, isn't enough for them to be successful. They are lacking something.

The harder Elsa tries to be distant, the more damage she causes--both to Anna and her whole kingdom. 

The protagonist has been trying to address the problems without, but what she needs, is to address the problems within. 

This eventually leads to a realization. The realization is the true thematic statement. It is the salve to the wound. It is the ghostbuster for the ghost. The realization is that the protagonist has been coping and addressing the problems in flawed ways--from a flawed worldview. The realization is the need.

The protagonist needs to shift to a new worldview, overcoming his flaws, and properly filling his void. 

The need allows the protagonist to become a whole, human being--a changed human being--and fix his problems. 

After Anna is willing to hurt herself to save Elsa, because she loves Elsa, Elsa realizes that being closed off from love to avoid hurt isn't the point. The point is that loving authentically is worth the hurt. 

All these years she has been tormented that she hurt Anna, but here, Anna willingly hurts herself because she loves her.

This enables Elsa to complete her character arc and save the kingdom, because she realizes being open to love is what melts the ice. 

This in turn, proves the thematic statement true: We must be open to be loved authentically (that might mean we get hurt, but some love is worth the hurt).


Want OR Need

Sometimes the want and the need will be diametrically opposed. 

Elsa can’t be isolated and have authentic (true) love in her life. She has to give up her want to obtain her need (which will actually heal the root of her want anyway).

Similarly, in The Sixth Sense, Malcolm Crowe wants to help Cole so that he can mend his marriage with his wife. As he pursues this want, we see that his marriage has disintegrated so much, that his wife doesn't even really speak to him. 

Through the obstacles of the story, it is revealed that Malcolm has a need. He needs to realize he's already dead and, rather than mend his marriage, bring closure to it.

He can't both be in the marriage and move on. He has to accept reality, to become whole.

Only by accepting reality, is he able to rest in peace.  

Need AND Want

Often once the protagonist addresses the need, he gets what he wants. 

In The Hunger Games, Katniss is driven to survive at (nearly) all costs (and usually through self-reliance). But in order to truly win, she must be willing to risk sacrificing herself; she needs to hold true to the theme. When she stages the act with the poisonous berries--unnecessarily risking her life (she could have just killed Peeta)--she defeats the Gamemakers at their own game and also gets what she wants, survival. 

And a better version of it--because if she had chosen to kill Peeta instead, she would have been tormented by that (especially since he saved her life years ago, as part of her ghost).

In a situation like this, the protagonist must at least be willing to sacrifice the want to get the need. 

This is because the want, however well-meaning, usually comes from an incomplete or flawed worldview. This means it holds the protagonist back from his true potential. The protagonist must be willing to let go of that, in order to transform into a complete, whole human being.

Want BEFORE Need

In some stories, the protagonist will actually get the want before the need. When this happens, it creates a hollow victory. Externally, the success is there, but internally, it doesn't feel like success. 

In Zootopia, Judy wants to be a renowned bunny cop, but when she’s finally recognized as one, it feels hollow because she hasn’t yet addressed her need. Inside, she knows she’s not a good cop, because her investigation actually made the world worse by increasing prejudice, not remedying it. But when she confronts the prejudice within herself (her need), it goes a long way in making the world better—only then can she truly be a great cop, from the inside out. 

In Marley & Me, John wants to be a highly successful reporter, but the natural challenges of being a spouse and parent keep getting in the way. He is forced to write columns instead to pay the bills. What John needs is to embrace and appreciate the adventures of domestic life (and owning Marley essentially personifies this).

When John finally gets what he wants--to be a reporter--he finds the work unfulfilling. It's only fact-based and lacks the color and expression that writing columns about his ordinary life had.

He realizes that true success comes from meeting the surprises that come from family. Everything he once thought was a problem or pain, has turned out to be a blessing--from having children, struggling through marriage, to even owning a dog. This is exemplified in John admitting to Marely at the end, that he's not the world's worst dog, he's the world's best dog.

Often even in cases where the want comes first, the protagonist still has to be willing to sacrifice it before the climax. In Zootopia, Judy says she's undeserving of the praise and returns home. In Marley & Me, John gives up reporting and asks his boss if he can write columns again.

I Want What I Want

Negative character arcs happen because the protagonist is not willing to give up what he wants for what he needs. Or in some cases, simply gain what he needs. Instead, the protagonist refuses the need.

For example, what Anakin wants is to save those he loves, but what he needs is to let go of anything he's afraid to lose. 

Because he is never willing to integrate the need, which is the true thematic statement, he can never become a whole human being. Instead, he embraces a flawed worldview, the anti-theme. In trying to save those he loves, he falls to the Dark Side. This leads to him becoming Darth Vader.

Whether you are writing a negative change protagonist or a negative steadfast protagonist, she will ultimately be negative because she doesn't address what she needs. She does not embrace the truth.

I Want the Need (. . . and Maybe the Want)

For the positive steadfast protagonist (a character who stays--more or less--the same and understands the true thematic statement from the beginning), the want and the need will be more closely aligned. For example, if I know I need to exercise to be healthy, then I probably also want to do that. However, this doesn’t necessarily make it easy. It also doesn’t mean I know everything about the process—because I may not have full experience with it. 

In Disney's live-action Cinderella, Ella both wants and needs to be kind to survive her trials (which is the thematic statement). But that doesn’t make her life easy. Being kind when others are repeatedly cruel is hard. It still has a great cost.

This also doesn’t mean the character doesn’t grow at all. It’s more likely that the protagonist will grow by degree. This is because when we know the truth and stick to it in the face of trials, we gain experience, which means we may also gain wisdom. 

For example, while Ella sticks to being kind, in the process she learns that one mustn’t allow her kindness to be taken advantage of. In order to get away from her stepmother’s control, she must ultimately stand up for herself and refuse to let her stepmother use the prince. 

In order to be kind to herself and the prince, she must not always bend to her stepmother’s will.

So although Ella’s worldview was more or less right from the beginning, she still gains a greater understanding of how kindness works, through the experience of her trials. She grows, by degree. She grows by wisdom.

Other times the positive steadfast protagonist may want the need but also want another want. Say I want to go exercise to be healthy, but I also want to sit here and binge-watch Netflix. Now I have competing wants.

In Sam Raimi’s Spider-man 2, Peter Parker both wants what is needed (to be a self-sacrificing hero) and wants another want (to live an ordinary life with Mary Jane Watson). This creates internal turmoil. Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus both wants what is needed (to complete the atonement) and wants another want (He asks that this "cup" be removed from him). 

I Lost the Need
Sometimes the positive steadfast protagonist starts out with the need, but loses it through the middle

In M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass, David Dunn, a positive steadfast protagonist, loses faith in his extraordinariness through the tests of the middle. Forced into a new situation, David has his beliefs challenged again and again until they are squashed out of him. In order to become whole once more, he must regain his faith by the climax.

Some Things to Keep in Mind

The want isn't inherently bad or necessarily completely wrong (though it can be). It's just not the full picture. It's a flawed way of thinking

For example, in Zootopia, it’s not necessarily wrong for Judy to want to be a great cop; it’s just that Judy’s understanding of it needs some work. And that can really only come from experiencing the trials of the plot—because that journey reveals what the character is lacking.

In Soul, Joe wants to be a professional jazz musician. In Marley & Me, John wants to be a reporter. In The Sixth Sense, Malcolm wants to repair his marriage. None of these things are "bad."

Similarly, the need may not always be sunshine and puppies. Sometimes the need is a sad truth, such as needing to accept that corruption will always be part of society. Or needing to accept you ruined a relationship. Just as the theme doesn't always need to be happy, the need doesn't always need to be uplifting. It just needs to be true. 

Worth noting is that often the Influence Character embodies or voices the need to the protagonist:

- In Soul, 22's experience with life brings about Joe's need. 

- Nick reveals Judy's prejudice.

- Anna begs Elsa to let her in (and later sacrifices herself out of love).

- Charity tells P.T. he doesn't need the world to love him. 

- Marley embodies the chaos, surprises, and enjoyment of domestic life for John.

If you are writing a positive steadfast protagonist, this will usually be reversed:

- Ella's example shows the prince the power of kindness and bravery.

Don't panic if want vs. need is difficult to grasp at first. This article is meant to help, not hinder. But hopefully you've found at least one angle that helps you understand the concept better. 

And on a last note, more characters than the protagonist can have a want vs. need struggle. I often view Elsa as a dual protagonist (though one may say that technically Anna is the real protagonist), and same goes for Malcom. Nonetheless, you will find that both Anna and Cole also have want and need journeys. Often the two primary characters (the protagonist and Influence Character) will.

Love this info? Check out my online writing course, The Triarchy Method, to see how Want vs. Need relates to and overlaps with other story pieces. Learn more or register here.

If you want to learn more about want vs. need, here are a couple of great resources that helped me:

Creating Your Character’s Inner Conflict: Want vs. Need by K. M. Weiland


  1. Brilliant article! Thank you very much for the coprehensive analysis of WANT & NEED.

  2. Enormous gratitude for this brilliant article! I'm a new writer and this information is so valuable.
    Thank you. √Član Lambert

    1. I'm so glad it was helpful! Thanks for taking the time to let me know.


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