How Do You Come Up With Character Wants and Needs?

If you’re writing a novel, a short story, a play, or a screenplay you should consider giving your character what they need, and not what they want. So what does this actually mean?

In most stories your character will be pursuing a central objective. See this article about how to write central objectives.

Your character will have a long list of wishes and dreams. These are the things they think that they desperately need. 

In fact, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self expression, and many of the other things we think we need most, are the things we need least. 

Check out the wiki page on Maslow’s theories here:

We can see that according to this theory, the most important things that humans actually need are called ‘physiological needs’, and this list includes water, food, warmth, and rest. The next group is called ‘safety needs’, and pretty much just includes safety. Then we have ‘belongingness’, which includes love and friendships. Then ‘esteem’ which includes prestige and feelings of accomplishment. Then there is ‘self actualisation’, which includes striving to be the best version of ourselves, including creative desires. 

It’s probably true that many artists get into trouble because they have a slightly warped version of this pyramid of needs, and value creative expression beyond the most basic needs.

Characters in stories can also get a bit confused about what is most important to them, and this can open up an ironic gap between what the character thinks they want, and what the audience can clearly see they need. This ironic gap can be felt as humour, or tragedy.

Take Ricky Baker in Taika Waititi’s film Hunt for the Wilderpeople, for instance. In that film the child Ricky reports that his greatest ambitions in life are to make rap music and to deal drugs for a living. 

Ricky is living in the foster care system, and has been identified as a troubled child who commits low level crimes like setting things on fire. 

Ricky has no stable home, and no money, so the items at the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are in jeopardy.

What Ricky desperately needs is a stable home, to provide him him with food and water, safety, and companionship and belongingness. These are the things we as the audience can see that Ricky needs, and desperately want him to achieve.

Much of the emotional impact of the film is delivered in the final moments when, spoiler, Ricky finds a nice new foster home, and makes friends with Hector, another character who has trouble connecting with people.

We see in the final minutes of the film, and it is very emotionally impactful, that Ricky has not received ‘what he wants’ (to make rap albums and deal drugs in the city) but rather has achieved what he needs (a home, safety, love, and friendship).

Can you think of further examples from your favourite stories in which the author has given the central character what they need and not what they want?

Is figuring out what we need most the central journey that we go on in life? As we figure this out do we move towards maturity? 

On the wall of the Ancient Greek temple of the Delphic Oracle was inscribed, ‘Know Thyself.’