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.