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.