April 18th, 2012


Want vs. Need

In previous writing posts, I've been talking about wishes and goals. A character who has a wish or a dream at the start of the story is more engaging to readers, but you don't get a story until the character takes action and turns the wish into a goal. However, the character probably shouldn't get what he's wishing for. In fact, if a character gets exactly what he's wishing for at the start of the story, it's probably a tragedy and an object lesson in being careful what you wish for. Mind you, I'm not talking about the story goal. The character probably will achieve that in some way. This is the personal longing or desire that the character has before the story even begins, and usually the character is wrong in some way about what he's wishing for. The story will teach him that what he wants or what he thinks he needs is very different from what he really needs. Take The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy dreams of going somewhere over the rainbow -- getting away from her family's farm and the people who don't seem to understand her. Then she gets blown to Oz -- getting what she wished for, kind of -- and her story goal is established: She wants to get home and has to go through the steps to do so (get to the wizard, get the witch's broom, get back to the wizard, etc.). Through her adventures, she learns that what she really needs is to be at home, surrounded by the people who love her.

This want vs. need difference is probably most apparent in romantic comedies, where most of them seem to involve the main character wanting one person only to find out that a different person is who they really need. This goes all the way back to Jane Austen and Sense and Sensibility, in which Marianne wants the dashing, fun-loving Willoughby but learns that what she really needs is the caring, steady Colonel Brandon. Then there's The Philadelphia Story, in which the heroine thinks that she wants the upright self-made man, but what she really needs is to reconcile with her ex-husband. Moving forward in time, there's While You Were Sleeping, where the main character wants the handsome, mysterious man she sees at the train station, but what she needs is his down-to-earth brother. Or sometimes the character doesn't want love at all: Jane Austen's Emma wants to remain single and independent, but realizes she needs to be with the guy next door who's her best friend. Harry in When Harry Met Sally doesn't want to mix love and friendship, but he needs to be with his best friend. Hugh Grant's character in Four Weddings and a Funeral wants to avoid commitment, but he needs to be with the woman he loves.

Sometimes, the wish/want/dream is too small and the character has to broaden her horizons or fine-tune that wish. Cinderella wants to go to the ball because she doesn't want to be left out and she wants a break from her miserable existence, but what she needs is to be taken away from that existence for good. Our old buddy Luke Skywalker wants to get away from the farm and have adventures in space, but what he needs is to learn about and embrace his heritage so he can help overthrow the Empire. It's more his motivation that changes instead of his wish. And there are times when the character does a 180. Rose in Titanic initially thinks she needs to be a dutiful daughter and marry someone who will provide her and her mother with financial security, but she later decides she needs to make her life count and to break away from those constraints.

The trick is to make the shift in desires seem organic. You can't just have the character decide, "Oh, now I want this." Usually, the events of the story drive the change so that it seems inevitable. No one who's gone through these events would want the same thing anymore. Back to Rose -- if you survived the Titanic sinking, obviously that would be life-changing. When Luke sees what the Empire is capable of doing, he wants something more than just adventures. He has a purpose. In all those romantic comedies, the heroine usually finds that the qualities she's looking for in a love are in the other person, not the person she thought she wanted. It all involves events and action, not just thinking. We need to see the character go through something and be affected by it, and it may be multiple events that teach the lesson. In The Philadelphia Story, the heroine's marriage broke up because she couldn't accept her husband's human frailty. She holds herself as above all that, and the next man she chooses seems to be as upright as she is, plus he expects the same perfection in her. It seems like a perfect match. But then through a series of events she meets someone who treats her like a human being, not a goddess, and who sees her as fire, not marble. That shakes her up. She makes some big mistakes, herself, and her would-be husband rejects her for them the way she rejected her ex. Then she realizes that she judged her ex too harshly. That paves the way to a reconciliation.

There really can be only one big shift for a character per story. There may be some wavering along the way, since it's difficult to give up what you think you want, but you don't want the character ping-ponging all over the place and continuously reversing -- no "I want this. No, now I want this. No, wait, this is what I really want." The general pattern is that you establish the character's wish even while hinting at what the real need is, then use events to show how the wish isn't the right thing while the need is. The character may be pushed and pulled between the wish and the need, with the need gradually taking precedence, then the character may make one last fall back to the wish before ultimately committing to the need. It helps to keep the character consistent even through the change. Some traits may change as the character learns and grows, but other core traits will remain the same even while things change. The control freak may learn that what she really needs is to relax and trust someone else occasionally, but she's probably not going to go from neat-freak to total slob or start talking a different way.

Any questions about writing, the writing life or the publishing business? I'm open to suggestions for these posts.