Mark Dark illuminates the difference between ‘want’ and ‘need’

Posted: December 9, 2011 in Friday Guest

Writing a film or any story with a plot we hear a lot about ‘character arc’. But what is it exactly? How a character changes, you say. OK, sure, but how do we show that change?

Take my short story Man or Mouse. The main character, a young male, sees Big Jim – a violent ‘old boy’ gangster – as a hero, comparing him to The Krays, Scarface and Al Capone. We see the young character’s need as being for a father’s love, a positive role model and affirmation of his masculinity.

So, let’s say a character’s need is his inner, unconscious desire. But it’s not until the climax that this need becomes conscious, and in Man or Mouse you see the character make the split second decision, just in time, to rescue himself from the role of the weak to the role of the  powerful. Actually, in this short story, the boy’s need is to realize that the man he sees as a father figure, Big Jim, is not going to affirm his masculinity or give him the love he needs, but rather destroy him.

So how does ‘need’ differ from ‘want’? Well, ‘want’ is  a conscious desire, an outward goal, physically achievable. But we don’t state our character’s want openly at the outset of a story (unless perhaps we’re writing for children). We show want through action.

‘Need’ is a different beast, however. Maybe we don’t realize the character’s need until they do, at the climax, when the unconscious is made conscious. This is the character’s self-revelation and in a well-crafted story ‘need’ becoming conscious helps a character achieve his ‘want’ his outward goal. In Man or Mouse the boy’s want or outward goal is to prove he is tough to the big old gangster, to prove himself a ‘man’. But when his need is made conscious – that this is not the right man to be his father – he achieves his outward goal and his character growth (or ‘arc’) is complete. The reason people find the twist in Man or Mouse so shocking is that the way his outward goal is achieved is not how they expect it. His realization of his need drives him to achieve his want. The climax is not only a literal physical battle between the boy and the man, but a fierce emotional battle between the inner child and the inner man – between his need and his want.

If we have our main character’s need and want clear in our mind as we begin our story and if we know the self-revelation that will cause them to learn something new about themselves (and maybe teach us something new about ourselves) we’re on the right track for a powerful story.

To read about this on a deeper level I recommend Anatomy of Story by John Truby and Chris Soth’s brilliant podcasts Million-Dollar Screenwriting.

Read Man or Mouse here or download the story to your iphone or kindle 

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Comments
  1. Just what I needed to read right now at the stage I’m at with work in progress. Makes a lot of sense.

  2. Great. Try to read Truby’s book too. It’ll change the way you think about the purpose of story.

  3. Interesting piece, Mark. Thank you. I think that the problem we often face as wrtiers is that during the early drafts we may not even be aware of our characters’s needs ourselves; this unpicking and realisation often comes during the rewrites and it is here that we need (ahem!) to make it as transparent as possible for our readers without falling into obvious traps, like overstatement or telling. Thanks again, and have a good weekend.

  4. Interesting piece, Mark. Thank you. I think that the problem we often face as writers is that during the early drafts we may not even be aware of our characters’s needs ourselves; this unpicking and realisation often comes during the rewrites and it is here that we need (ahem!) to make it as transparent as possible for our readers without falling into obvious traps, like overstatement or telling. Thanks again, and have a good weekend.

  5. Sorry about double posting and typos – Sat morning fingers!

  6. Hi Laura. yep, sure…I absolutely agree…same for me….however, imagine if we thought about our character and the moral / psychological theme of the tale we want to tell so thoroughly in the planning stages that we knew the ‘want’ and ‘need’ from the outset…we could save ourselves a lot of rewrites!

    • Hi again Mark,

      Agree totally. I guess it all comes down to writing methods… I’m a pantser, and am fully aware that as a result I probably have to do more rewrites than those authors who plan! An advantage, for me at least, is that I can get first drafts down pretty quickly and I love the fact that characters can take me by surprise. Not to say that those who plan can’t be surprised by the twists and turns their characters take. All about a balance…plan, but leave room for organic growth too? Best wishes, Laura

  7. Characters can still take us by surprise in the planning stage i.e in synopsis or outline. I’ve changed from being a free-flowing writer to a planner, just so I can work out the story problems and characters’ needs and desires before I’m into the screenplay / novel. That way I don’t have to rewrite everything but just change the synopsis or outline. The character arc of my own life as a writer has seen me change from being a cowboy builder that lays paving slabs haphazard with no real pattern to an architect and careful planner.

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