Monday, May 24, 2021

Making Sense Out of Character Wants and Needs

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Plot and character arc. External and internal conflict. Intellectual and emotional. There are indeed two sides to every story.

Confusion between a character’s want and need has sent many a writer down the wrong plot path, and I’ve run into quite a few who found themselves puzzled over how to use wants and needs in their novels. Are they the same thing? Is one the plot and the other the subplot? No, and no.

A strong want/need pairing shows an emotional hole in the protagonist’s life, and how resolving the plot allows them to fill that hole.

The protagonist doesn’t always know what they need, but they usually know what they want. That conscious goal (the want) drives the plot. It’s the unconscious goal (the need) that gets realized over the course of the story as the protagonist resolves and experiences that plot. The protagonist “goes through some stuff” and is changed by it. It helps to think of wants as the plot and needs as the character arc.
Let’s dig deep into a movie where the wants versus needs issue was masterfully done—Shrek.

Shrek is great example of how to work with wants versus needs and build them into a strong character arc that fits perfectly with the narrative drive of the plot (and who doesn’t want an excuse to re-watch it?).

Shrek’s goal (his want) is clear. He wants to be left alone in his swamp. But that want is put into conflict when Lord Farquaad enacts a law and sends all the fairy tale creatures into his swamp. This is a classic inciting event. Shrek wants to be alone, and now he has all these annoying people invading his space.

So he acts to fix that problem, and tells Farquaad to get these people out of his swamp. From a scene standpoint, this could end in a yes or no, but it’s a delightful “yes, but” situation. Yes, Farquaad will remove the fairy tale creatures from the swamp, but Shrek has to go on a quest to get him what he wants first—the princess Fiona.

In a lovely act one problem/act two choice moment, Shrek agrees to do it and sets off on his quest.

(Here’s more with How to Write Scenes (and What Qualifies as a Scene))

This is the whole plot—Shrek needs to fetch Fiona to get Farquaad to give his swamp and solitude back. The conflict here is simple and clear, as is what has to be done to accomplish that task.

But that’s just the plot, not the character arc.

While Shrek frequently shouts about what he wants (reinforcing the story goal), what he needs is slipped into the background, because Shrek doesn’t fully realize being alone isn’t going to make him truly happy. Nor does he realize that what he wants is the opposite of what he needs—to be alone (want) versus to be accepted (need).

His need is woven through the plot of what Shrek does while trying to get his swamp back. He makes friends who accept him for who he is, not what he is.

The protagonist doesn’t always realize what they need, which is why needs don’t drive plots very well.

Sometimes, what a protagonist wants is wrong. They think getting that goal will fix their problem, because their need is something they don’t fully understand yet. Understanding that need is what happens during the story through the character arc. While trying to get what they want, they actually find what they need.

With Shrek, his need is to be liked for who he is. His want (as the movie opens) is to be left alone. If he’s alone, no one can reject him for being a big, scary ogre, which is how everyone sees him, but not who he really is. He acts as people expect him to act because he’s been told his whole life he’s a big, scary ogre. And that hurts him.

(Here’s more with Brainstorming Your Character's Emotional Wound)

He wants to be left alone in his swamp. But he needs to be accepted for who he is. He wishes someone would see him as more than just a big, scary ogre, and he even says this when he talks to Donkey about onions and layers.

Shrek’s character arc is to go from being a guy who thinks he’s nothing more than a big, scary ogre no one likes or wants around, to being a guy who has friends and love, and who is seen as more than a big, scary ogre. He goes from shunned to accepted.

But he had to go through the plot to get there, and the plot is what made Shrek interact with the people and things who will cause him to grow and change into that person. He didn’t start out with the goal of “making people accept who he is” or “changing his big, scary ogre ways so people would like him.” His goal was “fetch some gal from a tower so I can be alone again.”

But during that journey, he met people who accepted him and didn’t think he was a big, scary ogre, and he realized how much he liked that.

(Here’s more on The Inner Struggle: Guides for Using Internal Conflict That Make Sense)

For an animated comedy, Shrek is surprisingly deep. Let’s look a little closer:

Farquaad sends all the fairy tale creatures to Shrek’s swamp because he doesn’t view them as people, which mirrors Shrek’s view of himself. Unwanted and not “people.”

What Shrek wants (to be alone) is now in conflict. His swamp is full of people and he doesn’t want them there. Wanting to get rid of the fairy tale creatures also mirrors him wanting to get rid of that aspect of himself.

The only way he can get rid of them (and get back what he wants—to be alone), is to accept the quest for Farquaad and rescue Fiona. You could unpack a whole lot in this “rich guy sends someone he doesn’t deem a person to do something he doesn’t want to be bothered with for his own selfish reasons” setup.

By accepting the quest, and resolving the plot problem of rescuing Fiona, Shrek finds friends and love, and meets people who don’t see him as a big, scary ogre. Donkey is incapable of seeing him as anything but good, because Shrek saved him. Fiona has her secret, so she knows not to judge people based on what they look like. They both see past Shrek’s big, scary ogre image and see the real him—a good guy who helps people, even when he complains about it the whole time.

And that’s critical, because Shrek is a good guy worth knowing all along. It’s his fear of rejection due to him thinking he’s nothing more than a big, scary ogre that’s preventing him from being happy and getting what he needs. When he acts like himself, people do like him. When he acts like the big, scary ogre he thinks he should be, people don’t like him. Behaving based on the lie he grew up believing is what keeps him from what he needs.

This plot creates the environment that allows Shrek to grow and embrace his character arc.

It's only after solving the plot problems (rescue Fiona so he can get his swamp back) that Shrek grows as a person. His want changes, and now he wants to be with Fiona, who represents the need he’s had all along—to be accepted and loved for who he is (which is her need and want as well). His goal is finally based on what he needs, not what he thinks he needs.

The character arc and the plot arc come together, because the false want is gone, and the true want appears, because that want matches the need. Shrek’s want was in direct conflict with his need at the start of the movie. He had to undergo the plot of rescuing Fiona, and being forced to interact with Donkey, in order to realize that people could like him for him. It isn’t until his want and need align that he can be happy.

We see this need the entire time through his forced interaction (and growing friendship) with Donkey. Shrek has multiple chances to get rid of Donkey, yet he never does. Donkey is the first person who’s ever looked at him as more than what Shrek fears he really is—a big, scary ogre. Fiona is the second. So is it any wonder why he bonds with them and doesn’t want to lose either one?

But to get that, he has to defeat Farquaad and tell Fiona how he feels, because not facing his true need is his flaw. Even though he realizes he needs people, he won’t admit he wants people in his life. He sticks to the “I’m a big, scary ogre, leave me alone, get out of my swamp” attitude most of the movie.

(Here’s more with Broken, but Still Good: 3 Ways to Create Character Flaws)

The theme of acceptance is all over the movie.

Not liking who you are, and wanting to be liked for the real you, are layered in nearly every aspect of Shrek.

Donkey’s owner gets rid of him because he won’t stop talking, but Shrek and Fiona accept him anyway.

Fiona was locked away in a tower because she turns into an “ugly monster” every night, and all she wants is to rid herself of the curse—yet she also dreams of love and the handsome prince who will come rescue her, who turns out to be Shrek. Her want versus need just screams the theme, and mirrors Shrek’s. She wants to be beautiful, find love, and live happily ever after, and that doesn’t look like she thought it would.

Dragon is chained up in the tower as well, and stops being the “big, scary dragon” when Donkey shows her kindness and a little flattery. She accepts Donkey’s kind heart, and becomes an ally.

Farquaad keeps trying to make himself “better” (taller, more powerful) by outside means, and never tries to fix his self-confidence issues or be a better person. His flaw is that he’s a selfish, uncaring person, not that he’s short (a symbol and visual pun of his shortcomings). In many ways, he’s the real “big, scary monster” that everyone fears. As the antagonist, his refusal to accept himself is what gets him in the end. The other characters all accept who they are and get what they need. He doesn’t, and pays the price.

And in a huge thematic bop on the head, Fiona reveals she’s an ogre at night, showing her vulnerability and how much she trusts her friends, and they accept her for it. Not only that, Shrek tells her she’s beautiful. The guy who’s been saying he’s a big scary ogre all movie says an ogre is beautiful.

All throughout the movie, there are small steps like this that show Fiona and Donkey accepting Shrek, and Shrek accepting them.

(Here’s more with 5 Places to Find Your Novel’s Theme)

How to use wants and needs in your own novels:

1. Identify the want and the need of your protagonist.

Shrek wants to be left alone, but there are people in his swamp. He needs to be accepted, but he keeps driving people away.

2. Identify how pursuing the want puts the protagonist into situations that will cause the need to surface.

Shrek can get his swamp back if he goes on a quest to rescue Fiona, and during that journey he finds friends who accept and even love him for who he is (and he, them).

3. Identify the characters who represent and/or support the positive growth.

Donkey and Fiona accept people based on who they are, not what they look like. They’re accepted for who they are, as well, as they’re just as flawed as Shrek.

4. Identify the characters who represent and/or reflect the negative growth.

Farquaad embraces his flaws and loses what he wants. Even the Merry Men who try to “rescue” Fiona from Shrek represent that good looks doesn’t equal a good heart.

5. Identify the steps of the protagonist’s change and growth during the plot.

Shrek accepts Donkey instead of sending him away. He appreciates and admires Fiona for who she is. He sees beauty in an ogre. He feels lonely in his swamp now that he’s had friends. He tells Fiona how he feels.

It’s through the plot that Shrek realizes what he wants and grows as a character. The goals are clear, and they hold up even without the character arc.

The plot and character arc work together to give each side of the novel greater meaning.

Shrek could have done everything in the plot and been rewarded with his empty swamp and it still works. But the character arc shows how his journey changed him and made him—and his new friends—truly happy, and that’s what makes that plot have meaning. It’s also why the movie is so satisfying at the end. It’s more than just an ogre who rescued a princess and got his swamp back.

Shrek is a simple story with depth. It’s the same theme represented in multiple ways, and it all works together to make Shrek grow and realize what he truly needs. The plot isn’t complicated, the emotional arc is pretty straightforward, so it proves you don’t need a convoluted plot to achieved character growth. You need only a plot that lets your characters interact with the people and situations that will change them for the better.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes (or longer) and follow the five steps above. Identify how and where your plot and character arc support each other to bring about the change you want for the protagonist.

Does your plot serve your character arc and vice versa?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I sometimes ask myself, "How did this movie happen?" This movie is great storytelling and a reminder, as you skillfully point out, that often times it's best to keep it simple.

    1. My agent once told me, "Don't go wider, go deeper," and that applies here. The premise is simple, but the depth at every level takes it to new heights.

  2. I appreciate your deep analysis for a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed. Thanks!

    1. Most welcome! Made me want to go watch it again.

  3. Many people don't realize that the Shrek movie was based on a 32 page picture book by William Steig. I don't remember how many of the subplots are from this book.

    1. It was indeed, though I believe they added a lot for the movie.

  4. Thank you for this post. I'm approaching a second draft of my novel. Your post really helped me clarify my protag's wants and needs. My problem has been she wants a ton of things and needs several, so the first draft got confusing and ungainly. Pinning it down to one thing has been a mental challenge for me, but now that I've lived with these ideas for a bit, after reading your post, I can see that many of her wants are the result of a deeper need. As you said, go deeper, not broader. I feel like I've found a secret tunnel through the swamp, or more like a spot light on the path.

    1. Janice Hardy9/28/2023 8:39 AM

      You're most welcome, fellow Janis. I'm so glad this was helpful :) I'm still struggling not to over-complicate things, but I'm much better about it than I used to be. The simpler I can make the story the better the story tends to be, and the easier it is to write. I've also noticed I enjoy reading other "simple but deep" stories more than "complex but shallow" ones.