Understanding Need Vs Want in FICTION WRITING

At some point through our schooling, we would have been introduced to the concept of Need vs Want. Perhaps in Economics class, maybe in some other subject – we would have been familiarised with the difference.

The interesting thing is that the world that exists between Want & Need is where a great story resides. See, stories aren’t about places, or setting, or events. They are about people. And people are flawed, conflicted, grey-shaded individuals who are grappling with issues that exist inside of them. It is these internal pushes and pulls, this inner tug-of-war, this churn, that leads to conflict. And stories are about peoples’ conflicts, about them overcoming, or not overcoming them.

There is a simple way of defining Need & Want in terms of Fiction Writing. Want is something a character is convinced, he or she ‘needs’, in order to be happy. A very blatant example of this could be an alcoholic who has persuaded himself/herself that the one absolutely essential means to happiness is alcohol. Need, on the other hand, is what that character or person Actually/Factually needs to do, in order to be happy. Following from the same example, it may well be that the alcoholic really just needs to find a life-partner and put an end to his or her loneliness (the actual problem of his life).

Characters in stories, like people in real life, are often completely unaware of their ‘need’. And thus they blindly pursue their ‘want’, mistaking it for their ‘need’. These two facets of their lives need to be reconciled, and it often needs an event, in cases, a series of events, that journeys the character from aimlessly chasing his ‘want’ to realizing his ‘need’. If the story is to be a triumph, the protagonist realizes and accepts his ‘need’. If it is to be a tragedy, the character continues to deny himself his ‘need’. Irrespective of the outcome, it is this journey between the two, and the resultant conflict, that makes for real, compelling, engaging characters and stories.

My advice to writing students always stresses on the vital importance of this need vs want in their characters. One must work hard to identify characters with conflict. Because once this is done, the rest will naturally follow. Once the character has been properly fleshed out, he or she will tell the writer where, how, when, and what to do with them. In which circumstances they are to be placed. What events they should go through. Often we fall into the trap of being overawed by a scenario, a setting, a situation and an event, into which we try and retrofit our characters. I believe it would make for much more believable, organic, human characters if the story were to be conceived the other way round. Character first, rest later. And if we can understand and figure out the Need vs Want of our characters, we’d be extremely well placed in the service of our own stories.

A Legacy Of Learning

When I was a student at boarding school, now over two decades ago, my teachers told me that there wasn’t a single day that they didn’t learn something new. These were masters we idolised, worshipped, poked fun of, at the same time, revered. To have them confess that they did not know it all, was a revelation.

Of course, this confession was long forgotten. Relegated to a deep recess of my memory, until recently, when I, the accidental teacher, stumbled upon the very same realization. And from that crevice of my mind’s labyrinth, these words from my own teachers, revealed themselves.

Teaching has been a cathartic rebirth for me. For someone who was firmly set in a media career, doing well, then became disenchanted and decided to shift tracks, unsure of what the alternative would be; I’d go so far as to say that teaching has fulfilled me, completed me, in a way that perhaps not even music could (my first love that never quite materialised). My fortuitous foray into the world of teaching has reacquainted me with myself. It has given me purpose, pride, and ignited a passion that probably always existed, only it was dormant.

That I have no formal education that qualifies me to teach, a fact sometimes held against me, I feel is my biggest advantage. It does not colour my approach to my work. In fact, I hardly perceive it as work in the first place. No training, no career-long teaching experience, are facts that have, in fact, granted me a great sense of freedom and liberty. My interaction with my students is spontaneous, freewheeling, spirited. In turn, their’s with me is uninhibited, uncensored, unfiltered. The way I plan, and un-plan my workshops and lessons benefits from a similarly open and experimental ethos. There is a destination but how my students and I reach it is random, interactive and, on occasion, emancipating!

I have come to realize that to be an effective teacher and an inspiring mentor, the person can not feel or act ‘above’. That there MUST be a genuine openness to learn with each encounter, each interaction. That students in fact, in many cases, teach the teacher more, than the teacher does, them. Teaching then, is a legacy of continued learning. A process that is infinite. A pursuit that endless. A calling.

STUDENTS, Create A Profile!

In an era of intense competition, students find it difficult to stand out, to stand apart. Its like each individual is lost in a maze of ‘sameness’, as if just another, among a bunch of red apples! The irony is that we are all unique, peculiar, wonderful individuals, despite which, we seem alike. So what can young people do, to communicate their ‘uncommonness’?

I always encourage people from middle school right up to college graduates to undertake a Profile Writing exercise. This is a simple little 250 to 300 word document where one talks about certain basic information about oneself – Name, School/College, Grade/Year. This is followed by stating 3 Areas of Interest/Passion. And then, really expanding on these 3 areas of interest by devoting the following 3 paragraphs of the profile to these interest-areas. One paragraph each for one interest, with details about Where, When, How, and Why that Interest first began. Any Achievements in that area. And any Learnings/Lessons/Realizations (about oneself or otherwise) during the course of experiencing/pursuing that particular passion. A concluding paragraph that talks about any Current Pursuit that the reader might find interesting, followed by a final sentence on Future Plans, which could be firm, or approximate.

While there may not be any immediate practical use/requirement for this kind of a write-up in a student’s curriculum; young people should view this more as an opportunity to Introspect and get to know themselves well. Undertaking the Profile Writing Exercise compels a student to dig deep, question oneself, and ultimately, know oneself better. It brings about clarity of thought, of purpose, and of a direction for the future. At a time when young students scarcely have time to breathe; this exercise forces them to pause, reflect and discover themselves – likes and dislikes, their learnings, and can provide a significant guidance in planning ahead.

Now to the matter I began this piece with – that it helps communicate a differentiated personality. When one is applying for colleges, or jobs post college, even though you may not be asked for a write-up such as this; supplying the reader/organization/college/company with a Profile of yourself will, in most scenarios, be appreciated. First, it will ‘humanize’ the student and provide a glimpse into the candidate as an actual person (rather than just another on-paper CV or Resume). Second, it will give genuine insight into the candidate as a unique individual. Both vital to communicating a winsome personality.

I strongly urge students to undertake this little exercise. And for this, I leave you with a SAMPLE Profile to get you started. All the best 🙂


I am Karan Malhotra and I currently study in grade 6 at the Asian World School. I would say that my three main interest areas are Swimming, Science, and Music.

When I was just seven years old, I told my father I wanted to learn to swim. He would complete the entire length of the swimming pool at Jaipur Club in no time, and that always amazed me. That summer my parents enrolled me in swimming classes and I learned how to swim. I learned an important lesson through swimming. I realized that to do well in anything in life, one has to work hard and be disciplined.

Science has always fascinated me. Like swimming, my passion for science developed at a very early age. When I was just five my parents got me this Doctor-Set game which I used to love playing. As I grew older, I watched many videos on channels like National Geographic and Discovery which made me even more curious about science. At school, I always take part in the science-related activities and enjoy doing experiments and building things. It is one subject I think I will want to study for a long time to come.

My parents and my grandparents love music. I too developed a keen interest in music and my parents got me a great guitar instructor with whom I soon learned many melodies. This talent was appreciated by my music teachers at school as well and I am a proud member of the school orchestra. Listening and playing music makes me feel calm an inspired.

These days, I am really working on a Solar Powered Rocket for a Science Exhibition. I hope to become a Scientist working in Aeronautics in the future, while still continuing my swimming & music as hobbies.