Character Wants vs Needs: What’s the Difference?

Everybody is driven by something, even characters in fiction. You may be aware of character motivations and how important these are for defining the way they act, think, and behave, there are other elements to their story that direct their journey throughout the narrative.

To help you create well-developed characters, it’s also important to consider what they want vs what they need. A character’s wants and needs are vital aspects of their character arc and should be decided on as part of your planning process.

In this article, I’ll explain the difference between character wants and needs, give examples, and explain how to write them into your own story.

What your character wants

We all desire something. These could be broad ideas, such as money, love, happiness, or success, or they could be more specific, such as wanting to visit a particular city or meet a certain celebrity.

In your novel, the protagonist should also have their main want established in the introduction. This is related to their motivation – it’s what they will believe will give them satisfaction and it determines their actions throughout the story.

Wants can be superficial, and they can be straightforward desires, so characters are rarely fulfilled if they ever do achieve their wants.

Neon lights show six words of different colours, including need and desire.

What your character needs

Something separate to a want is a character’s need. This is generally much more internal and not something character’s are always aware of. A character need, however, is what will actually make their life feel complete.

A need is not immediately obvious to the protagonist, or even the reader. Usually, as part of their character arc they will come to realise what they truely need, so that they can take action to achieve it.

Needs are often very fundamental to the human experience, and something that most people share and relate to. Characters could have a need to feel loved, to find a purpose in the world, or become the best possible version of themselves.

The difference between character needs and wants

The thing your character wants is usually external, or physical, whereas their need is usually internal. A want is what they believe will make their life feel fulfilled, but the need is what will actually bring them that satisfaction.

Typically, at the beginning of their character arc they will be motivated by their want and not be aware of their need. Only later will they come to realise the importance of the need.

Character wants and needs examples

Scrooge in A Christmas CarolTo earn moneyTo realise that love and kindness towards others is more important than money
Bilbo in The HobbitTo stay at home in the Shire and live peacefullyTo adventure and have new experiences
Lightning Mcqueen in CarsTo become the greatest and most famous race carTo let others into his life and be more selfless

Tips on writing character wants and needs

Character wants and needs are important elements to take into account when writing a novel or any other piece of fiction. Here are some top tips to bear in mind for your own story:

Decide on the needs and wants while you’re planning

Choosing the needs and wants of your main protagonist should be something that you consider in the early stages of your planning process. By defining these aspects from the beginning, it will help you to outline their overall character arc as well as the direction of the plot.

Interlink the wants and needs

Usually, a character’s wants will be related to their needs, in one way or another. They shouldn’t feel like completely disparate ideas, but rather two sides of the same coin.

As part of an engaging character arc, the need should be hinted at from the very beginning, so that by the time your protagonist realises what they need it will feel like a natural part of their transformation.

Try out a few different ideas

Even if you’re clear on your plot, there may still be the possibility of applying different types of wants and needs to your story. You can consider a few different options and envisage how they might work within other elements of your narrative, such as the wider themes.

To help, you could create a list of character wants and needs. It may be that one could be applicable to your protagonist and others could be relevant to some side characters. 

For inspiration with creating character wants, you could use a character motivation generator.

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Character wants and needs FAQs

Should every character have a need and want?

The want for your main protagonist should be established early in a story. However, this isn’t necessary for every single side character, especially those in only one or two scenes. 

Needs are even less important for minor side characters as this is more of a tool to help shape character arcs and write complex characters.

That said, to bring more life to the world you create, you should remember that every character should feel like a unique individual. You don’t have to signpost their wants to the reader, but it can be productive to consider them and keep them in your mind when you’re writing, as it may be define how they act in the scenes that they feature.

How are character needs and wants related?

Wants are what motivate character from the beginning of a story, but at some point they have to experience a change of revelation that makes them aware that the need is more important. The need therefore supplants the want.

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