When one first approaches story structure, they become introduced to the concept of a hero’s wants clashing with what he or she truly needs. As useful as this tool can be in analyzing a story after the fact, it is what lies beneath it that is truly of import to an Author.
No matter where you look, the idea of want vs. need lines up pretty much the same:
[Heroes] do greater and greater things to get what they want, take more and more extreme measures to achieve this goal, until, perhaps, they turn a corner, and we’re no longer rooting for them – we realize that [to] achieve this WANT, without servicing this NEED would be worse than never having what we wanted in the first place…the hero realizes it too
This particular explanation comes from Million Dollar Screenwriting instructor Chris Soth, but is exemplary of the thinking behind a hero’s internal struggle towards the end of a story. The hero wants something, strives for it, but then somewhere near the end of the 2nd act discovers that what he wants doesn’t necessarily match up with what he truly needs. He ditches his original motivation in place of this new one, and marches into the 3rd act with a new purpose.
This works great for Luke Skywalker, Neo, Phil Connors, Shrek, Simba and Will Hunting. But works less so for William Wallace, Robert Angier, Salieri, Clarice Starling and Ree Dolly. What exactly did Robert Angier need in The Prestige? He certainly wanted to be the greatest magician the world had ever known, even if it killed him. Need? If anything he needed the adulation of the crowd more than he actually wanted it. Contrary to the above understanding, his unconscious need syncs up perfectly with his conscious want. Same with William and his need/want of a free Scotland, Salieri and his need/want of being remembered way past his years, and Ree’s need/want of finding her missing father.
So what gives?
The Mechanism That Is Justification
The issue with this second group of heroes stems from the fact that they are all “teaching heroes” who don’t change. Instead of discovering some deep-seeded personal problem that they were previously unaware of, these characters find themselves driven to focus on solving the problems external to them. And because they are aware of what drives them, heroes will often fall back on it as a source of motivation to get them through their story. Act by act they build up a reason to justify their actions at the moment of crisis.
The other group of heroes, the so-called “learning heroes” already have that psychological justification in place. In these cases, each hero’s story becomes a process of revealing this justification to them. Luke was completely unaware that he had this huge chip on his shoulder that compelled him to continually test his mettle against everyone he met. Ben revealed this to him and gave him a reason to trust something outside of himself.
Interestingly enough, Will Hunting had the same exact chip on his shoulder. Anyone but his closest friends became instant fodder for his rigorous scrutinizing—a result of Will being abandoned by his parents at such a young age. Through his relationship with Sean (Robin Williams), Will became more aware of this problematic tendency, and like Luke, found peace through a willingness to trust others.
One group of heroes undergoes the process of justification, the other has their justifications revealed to them. Both are attacking a problem, but one happens to be looking in the wrong place.
Final Resolve and What It Means
In both cases, the heroes still have the same decision to make at the end of a story: continue doing things the way they always have or adopt a new approach. For the hero that changes, they are really solving the internal problem that has caused them so much grief for so long. That is why from the outside (the audience’s perspective), it looks as if they are fulfilling a greater need. Most heroes want to be free from their grief. It is only once it is revealed to them what they “need” to do that they finally find it.
For the hero that simply soldiers on, they were already motivated by this need in the first place. Revealing it to them will have little to no effect on them. Instead, when it comes to that crisis decision, they continue to focus their efforts where they always have—on working the problem.
Regardless of their final resolve or what they want or seem to need, all heroes exist to illustrate a particular approach to problem-solving.
Why Want vs. Need Doesn’t Work
Screenwriter John August on want vs. need:
I spent a few hours this week looking at the characters in my project through the want-vs-need lens, before finally concluding it is complete and utter bullshit. Trying to distinguish between characters’ wants and needs is generally frustrating and almost universally pointless. The fact that I can answer the question for Big Fish and Charlie after the fact doesn’t make it a meaningful planning tool.
The reason why want vs. need fails for creative writers is because it is an interpretation of meaning after the fact. Much like the dueling concepts of learning heroes and teaching heroes, these interpretations of a story’s events are made by the audience as the credits roll. The concept could perhaps be used after the first draft or two to look back and see what was communicated, but then, how is that helpful when staring at a blank page?
When first setting sail on a work of narrative fiction, if the drive or intent is there to actually say something meaningful with the story, then understanding the process of justification and how it works with the central character of a piece remains the best practice.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
While the focus of this article is on the Hero, the uselessness of want vs. need applies to all Main Characters. When people speak of a Main Character’s want, what they are really describing is the Main Character’s Response. Luke wants the waiting to End: the waiting to join the Academy, the waiting for his Jedi training to end, and so on. These apparent problems are really just symptoms of his real problem of Test. Likewise with Will you have a Main Character focused on the Cause for his genius as one of the reasons why he can’t get close to anyone. He looks at a piano and sees black and white keys and a box of wood—the same way “regular” people look at high-level math. Again, these are simply symptoms, the distancing Effect he fosters on others is really growing from his very real problem of Test.
When people speak of a Main Character’s need, what they are really describing is the Main Character’s Solution. When all is said and done, both Luke and Will need to start Trusting more. From the Audience’s perspective the only way the Main Character succeeds (and this is assuming a Judgment of Good) is when they do what they “need” to in order to overcome their own personal Problem. But this only works smoothly in Change Main Characters.
The reason “need” breaks down in Steadfast Main Characters is that very often their solution is never employed. Why? Because if they were to make that switch, they would lose all motivation to end the story. Their original drive (a Steadfast Main Character’s Problem) would lose its power. Furthermore, when used by the Steadfast Main Character it ends up completely breaking down the whole argument for want vs. need.
Warping The Prestige into the concept of want vs. need finds Robert Angier “needing” the Ability to perform the Transported Man. He achieves this, so then what? What does that mean? The fact is want vs. need doesn’t really say anything substantial about story, which is another reason why it fails. It’s far more meaningful to think of Angier’s Steadfast drive of Desire and how that ended up in a Personal Tragedy.
With the combination of Resolve, Outcome and Judgment an Author actually has the tools to craft meaning.