Q&A: Hero Needs and Wants
Q: I really enjoy your seminars and writings on story, but I’m still wrestling with this issue: Should the needs and wants of my protagonist arise from the circumstances of the story, or should they already be in place? My hero leads a mundane life but desperately wants to live somewhere else as the story begins. But when a serial killer starts stalking the streets of her locale, she focuses on survival. So is her original desire no longer relevant? Should a hero’s outer motivation appear only when the elements of the plot create one?
A: If a serial killer is stalking your hero’s neighborhood, only one outer motivation will define your story: to stop the serial killer. “Survival” simply isn’t sufficient – it’s too vague, and makes your hero too passive. You want your hero to be the proactive character who solves her own problem and saves the day. Any desires that exist prior to stopping the killer become irrelevant, unless they create conflict for your hero.
In the film The Gift (one of my favorite films this year, with an outstanding screenplay by Joel Edgerton), the heroes want to start a new life after moving to LA. But when an acquaintance from the husband’s past begins intruding on their lives, they must now discern his motives and stop him from terrorizing them – a much more immediate and important outer motivation than simply starting a new life in LA.
In your example, let’s say your hero longs to move away, but is afraid to take that action because she’s agoraphobic. Now her desire to stop the serial killer is far more difficult, and creates a much bigger inner conflict for your hero, because she’ll have to overcome that fear in order to succeed. The original desire you gave her now becomes important, because it helps establish character at the beginning of your story.
Youre an outstanding script guru ive ever found.. I’m from india and wanted to know that- Why dont we see in indie low budgets movies that protagonist has a CLEAR & VISIBLE GOAL? Why its, mostly, “CHARACTER DRIVEN”? Thus they dont become become blockbusters like other big budget productions. Offcourse there are examples like ‘full monty’ ‘buried”juno’ etc. Elaborate on how to make a low budget blockbuster. Thanks.
And michael, its my earnest request that you add me as a friend on facebook. Im following but it never shows adding option. Youve deepen my understanding on screenwriting.
I’m a proffessional screenwriter from Mumbai, india. It would be very much convenient to me.
DONE! And thanks –
I can’t speak to issues of the Indian or Bollywood film industries, since I have little experience with them. But I would suggest you stop worrying about writing a blockbuster, and concentrate on creating stories that excite YOU — screenplays for movies that will create an emotional experience for the mass audience. ALL stories, regardless of their budgets, are character driven — they are about the ways their heroes react to the events you (as the writer) force them to face. Whether this unexpected situation is getting stranded on Mars (THE MARTIAN), being trapped in a room for years (ROOM) or learning of the Catholic Church covering up widespread child abuse by its priests (SPOTLIGHT), the characters in these films face seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their attempts to deal with these situations. And this is how they “drive” their stories. Follow that approach, and your scripts will be headed toward success – no matter how much they cost to produce.
When wants and needs are in conflict – Treasure of the Sierra Madre. DOB wants to go home from Mexico. He needs money. He gets money but then gets greedy and NEEDS more and more, thus he dooms himself. His wants make him getting what he NEEDS impossible.
When I talk about “needs,” I don’t mean physical needs. I’m referring to something missing from a character’s life because of his own emotional fears, inner conflicts and protective identity. Charlie Babbitt in RAIN MAIN needs to connect with others and stop shutting down emotionally. Carl in UP needs to stop clinging to the past and isolating himself and risk living again – and going on a new adventure. These needs are never recognized or expressed by characters – but readers and audience members see them from the beginning of whatever story they’re experiencing.
Years ago in Vancouver, I attended a one day workshop sponsored by the Vancouver RWA group … and have been in your presence in other venues when you took the time to discuss a different manuscript with me. Your words are still perking, as I practice writing and learn. It is true that the teacher can only take the student to the door of his or her own understanding, and so I thank you so much for this post, because now I finally get it!
You’ve helped deepen my understanding of the “what” and “why” elements of creating character motivation. My hero was on the run because of a false accusation of murder, his enemies wanting to destroy him and his Scottish land & heritage. I knew it felt weak. I’ve played with the story for years but I love it and can’t let it go. Now I “think” I know what I have to do. I must do the work and make him go beyond survival, to show him fighting back to save not only his life, but all that he is in danger of losing. It will be complicated because I have him immigrating to North America, so I’ll have to take him back to Scotland. Thanks for your genius.
Thanks! Please let us know how your story progresses now as you add this new element. From what you say, it does sound like keeping your hero in Scotland to fight for what is his will raise the stakes and the conflict – which will make it all more emotionally involving. Good luck!
This is one of the best examples of a plot problem and solution that I have read. Just adding one character flaw (fear in this case) makes all the difference!
Congratulations on helping the writer!
I thought you would enjoy a compliment instead a question for a change.
As much as I like answering questions, I DO enjoy getting a compliment for a change! Thank you for your kindness and generosity.