A beginning writer once asked me, “How do you find out what motivates your characters?” I suggested it could be done with something as simple as an interview. I said to consider interviewing your character as if you were a newspaper reporter asking probing questions about their life, quest, current situation, and other topics that could yield the answers. Come up with all the questions first. Then conduct the interview. It sounds simplistic, but it works.
As authors, we know how vital it is that all our characters have a goal. They must want something, and that something is what drives them forward in the story. But it’s more than just a want. They must also have a need. If we don’t know what our characters wants and needs are, neither will our readers. With nothing to root for, the reader will lose interest. And in the end, they won’t care about the outcome.
So what is the difference between want and a need?
The want is what our character consciously pursues in the story (Dorothy wants to get home after being transported to the Land of Oz by a tornado). The need can be a quality she must gain in order to get what she wants (courage, selflessness, maturity, etc.) or the need can be in direct conflict with what she wants. In Dorothy’s case, she needs to find the Wizard of Oz who supposedly can help her return home. Of course, we find that her real need is a lesson learned while interacting with all the good and evil characters along the Yellow Brick Road—a need to appreciate what she already has.
So the quality she needs to obtain is an appreciation of the love her family and friends have for her. If we work backwards, we already know that at the beginning of the story, she should show a lack of appreciation (or apparent lack) of those around her. Around the farm she lives on, they give her little attention and constantly tell her to stay out of the way. Knowing this need, we have now given Dorothy room to grow.
Now we can start forming Dorothy’s character in our head. We know that the story should force Dorothy into progressively greater conflicts so she sees how much her friends care for her, how much they stand by her and come to her aid. These conflicts should build until the final crisis (the Wizard leaves without her and she is trapped in Oz) where she is made aware of the deep love her family and friends feel toward her.
Every character must have a want and a need. The most critical are the ones for our protagonists and antagonists. But I think that even the smallest, one-time, walk-ons must be motivated. If we determine the goals of every character, we will have an easier time writing them, and the reader will have a more distinct picture of the character in their minds.
In planning our stories, it’s important that we determine our main character’s wants and needs first. In doing so, we’ll always have a goal to focus on as we write. Ask ourselves, what are our main character’s wants and needs? Can we express them in one sentence? Dorothy wants to return home and needs to find the Wizard of Oz to help her. Give it a try. If you get lost, just click your heels together and repeat, “There’s no place like home.”