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I've seen many people say I should know what my character's goals and desires are. But I've also seen people say I should know what their needs and wants are. I looked at the definitions, and they are somewhat similar, but also a bit different, but I'm struggling to understand what that difference might be.

Are these things the same? Are wants goals and are needs desires? Or are they different? In that case, what is the difference?

And a follow-up question, how does motivation factor into these? Are wants/goals the motivation?

Thanks!

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    In the context of your Question, there are no significant differences among a character's goals or desires, needs and wants and yes, on that level any combination provides the character's motivation? Could you look at the definitions again and try to work with the similarities? Jan 28 at 1:44
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    You need to eat. You want to eat something tasty.
    – Polygnome
    Jan 28 at 10:36
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    With well-developed characters, there is not always just one "the motivation"
    – DSKekaha
    Jan 28 at 16:01
  • I desire cheesecake, but I don't need it. The majority of your question would be resolved by reading the definition of each term in a good dictionary. So your question really boils down to asking if you (the author) should have a good sense of who your character is – to which the abundantly obvious answer is yes. But not just goal/motivation/wants/desires: also personality, appearance, background, relationships, social status.... I recommend you refine your question to remove the issue of word meaning, and focus on what it is about character development you're unsure about. Feb 16 at 1:20
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These are all fairly similar concepts, and all of them will, to some extent, serve as motivation for a character's actions. As these all kinda bleed into each other and don't have well-defined exact meanings that set them apart from each other, I'll try to at least describe the way I see them.

A "goal" is, generally speaking, the one big thing a character is trying to acheive. If we're talking about the goal of the main character, then quite likely its resolution will come at the very end of the story, whether they acheive it or not. Their goal might be to save the world, solve a crime, things like that -- the main driving point of the story. Or, for secondary characters, the goal is the driving point of the individual story of that character.

A "want" or a "desire" could be said to be the same thing as a "goal" but on a smaller scale, something more intermediate. Desires can also be more abstract. A person might want to be loved, but that's too abstract to directly work towards. A character might want a burger. That is intermediate -- not a "goal", but something that will give you a short subplot to work with.

A "need" is, on the other hand, something your character simply can't do without, and would likely break down in some way if that was taken away from them. Of course, this includes food, drinks, a place and time to sleep -- assuming your character is human. But there are psychological needs as well. An anxious person might need a quick reply to their text message, or else they end up breaking down in a panic over being ignored. A character designated as a leader might need their group to listen to their commands, or else they would be unable to function in that role, and that would potentially hurt or anger them in some way.

Hope this helps at least somewhat.

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    Quite a nice categorization. One could perhaps add that a person doesn't have any control over their needs and often little control over their desires; but they are in perfect control of their goals. Goals are set consciously. (You say that already but maybe not as abstractly.) Some good stories draw from a tension between needs and desires on one hand and goals on the other. Many religions consider needs and desires as eviel that must be tamed. Jan 28 at 11:17
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Generally, wants, as we talk about them as writers, are more superficial, external, immediate, optional, and conscious. Needs are deeper, more internal, long-term, essential, and subconscious. Both are important for a three-dimensional character, and both serve as motivations.

A common "recipe" for a compelling story is to give your main character needs that conflict with her wants. For instance, she might want safety and security, but need adventure and excitement. Or vice versa. Then the progression of the story becomes about your character pursuing her wants on the (circuitous) route to achieving her needs.

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In a perfectly balanced world, my needs and wants would be the same. But we humans are masters of self deception. We want what we do not need (and perhaps should not have) and we need what we do not want. And, in those discrepancies, the stories frolic and flourish.

While the words are important, they are just tokens that we use to describe a rich and complicated reality. Let's examine the word need. I need air, water, and food to survive. That much is objective. Some would say that I need clean air, unpolluted water, and wholesome food. But buried in this second rendering is the notion of how we should live. But it is not just a single notion. Every member of your family will have a notion of how you should live your life. Add your boss, your banker, your religious leader, and the bully down the block and the list of notions explodes. Each of us lives in a sea of conflicting pressures to live up (or down) to some standard.

The question becomes, which of the many paths through this landscape is the path that we will (at least try to) follow? Who will I satisfy and who will I disappoint? Many a story has been told unraveling the complexities that such questions entail. But just as many stories have been told that largely ignore such navel-gazing.

So, I ask, what is your purpose in writing? What do you hope to give your readers? Plot twists? Interesting characters? Deep insights into the human condition? Elegant prose? A well-reasoned philosophy?

Perhaps the best advice is to construct a variety of situations, place your characters in those situations, and work though how they might react (and perhaps why). Not all of those situations need show up in the final story but they are your way of learning about the many dimensions of the players on your stage. Once you have that knowledge, your search for the words to describe what you now know should be easier.

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I forget which writer said it, but a "want" is something a character wants at the beginning of the story, while a "need" is what they discover later. In a dynamic arc, where the characters motivation changes, the need is discovered, and may be contradictory to, the want the character started with. What a character wants is normally something tangible and external, while what a character needs is some kind of internal truth (hence character development). The need is also something that they realize they need while on their journey, in the course of realizing their wants.

There's examples from well-written classics, such as Frodo wanting to destroy the One Ring but needing the recognize that he needs friends to do it, or Rocky wanting to win his boxing match and needing the support of those around him to do it.

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For Want and Need I like to refer to a youtube video by Just Write: The Last Jedi and the 7 Basic Questions of Narrative Drama. "[Wants] are primal," he says, "like power, money, status. [...] [These are] not the thing they actually need to solve their problems." While a need is "what the hero must fulfill within himself in order to have a better life".

In the Last Jedi --
Poe's want is to win the war. His need is to become a responsible leader.
Rey's want is external validation. "She wants to hear her parents are important, therefore so is she." Her need is to become emotionally independent.
Finn's want is to save Rey. His need is to become a rebel, "to become concerned not just with the safety of his friends but the galaxy as a whole".

For more on this I highly recommend that video. It's short for the value it packs.


This gets complex and confusing when we start thinking about a hierarchy of desires, and I think that's what your question is asking about.


Part of your question is about the language. Want/Desire/Goal is the same thing, but they are often used in different contexts. A want could mean a more immediate goal, I want to eat a steak. A desire could mean more of a longing or a deep yearning for something, I want to fall in love. And a goal could mean something more conscious, more planned out, I will become a manager by April 2021. (I wrote could mean because these aren't concrete and fixed, this is just how I typically hear them used.)

The second issue is explaining a hierarchy of goals. Characters, like humans, have multiple goals at once.

Here's an example of a character I'm working on --
Life Purpose: to bring people together who don't share a common language
Story Goal1: bring the tribal people together with the people of the city before a war breaks out
Story Goal2: transcribe a tribal language to communicate with them
Story Goal3: fix his fractured marriage

Each of these are layers that pull on him throughout the book.

Then in each scene he has a more specific goal that is a stepping stone to these higher goals. I want to convince my boss to send me on this trip to the tribe. And even in each moment, there's a more specific goal: I want to open a conversation with my boss.

All of that shows how overwhelming as complex it can be. The simplest way to reduce it is to ask, what does my character want? what is preventing them from getting it? And ask that in all different situations and on different scales such as scene-level and professional-level and life-level and on and on...

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The goal, the need, the truth, and the lie

I will interpret the character's needs as something they objectively need, if they understand it or not.

I will deal with wants and desires at the very end.

In most cases, the main character follows a positive change arc. This means they believe in the lie of the story and will, at the end of the story believe in the truth instead.

They have gone through an arc or a change.

The lie and the truth can be anything. Killing, stealing, cheating is justified. Or not. The law is right. The law is corrupt. Etc.

It usually ties into a theme that will create a packaging or grouping of lies and truths... and generate different variations of them for different constellations of characters and subplots etc. Most commonly for the hero and the villain.

E.g. a theme about killing, with a lie that killing in anger is ok, and a truth that killing in self-defense is ok.

Since the main character believes in a lie at the beginning of the story, they will have formulated a plan/have a goal, that is bad for them (that supports a lie).

If this goal is not present at the very beginning of the story, it will usually be triggered during or at the end of the first act.

If, for example, the lie is that money makes you happy and the truth is that people make you happy, the goal of your main character might be to earn money, while what they need is to nurture their relationships.

To make a story great, put the goal and the need diametrically opposite each other.

Your main character's goal to make money is so intense it pushes people away, even hurts them... and, even better, if that money-grabbing also hurts the main-character themselves as well.

He wants money (see the end of the answer for details). But he needs people.

Maybe he's at risk of failing as a parent if he pursues his goal of money-grabbing and he will neglect and alienate his children.

And he needs his children.

The motivation and the backstory

The motivation is usually rooted in some or several of backstory, emotional wounds, psychology, politics, religion, etc.

It answers the question of why the character has his goal.

Say for instance that your main character was really poor as a kid, maybe someone even died from malnutrition. This would be an emotional wound that would make the character feel an urgent need to, above all else, make money.

When confronted by his kids about being neglectful, this will be very hurtful. He is fighting like hell to save them from the horror of poverty, even from death and the spoiled brats are whining about a day at the zoo? WTF?

Notice how the motivation and the lie interact here? Is the lie still "Money makes you happy" or is it "without money you die"...? Which one is more dramatic? Which one does the father tell his children to protect them from his past?

Conflict

Now you have conflict... and a grand task of making that parent (he was supposed to follow a positive arc, right?) understand the perspective of his kids... or maybe they all need to understand one another...?

We don't really have a villain here, do we? If you let your readers know from the start all the motivations and all the backstory and everything else...

...which of course you don't. You should be cautious about backstory too early in the story—because your readers don't know your characters yet and don't care too much about their past... they want the action of now.

You should also be cautious about giving your readers, and your characters, total understanding of all motivations, and needs, and desires, etc. If you do there won't be much conflict, will there?

You'd better hide, conceal and fudge about the backstory and the wounds and all that for a while. Maybe the parent will not go all out about his horrible past until in the huge fight at the very climactic moment of the story. (I define the climactic moment as the very last scene of conflict—and pretty much one of the last scenes in the whole story—anything that comes after is mop-up, reconciliation, and perhaps a pinch of showing the new normal).

Your main character may not even understand that he is money-grabbing due to his past. He may not want to think about it, being poor and all, now that he's a prosperous member of society?

But of course, he loves his kids and of course, he cannot live without them, so... he and everyone else is in for a ride...

Wants and desires

In the context of story-building wants and desires are, in my opinion, more about the psychology of the character's decision-making.

They can, for instance, be used to set up the stakes or show the conflict between the character's goal and what the character needs.

In the beginning goals, wants and desires are all aimed at money.

But then the kids enter with their demands for a parent, and things shift. The main character might yell at the kids that they are spoiled and ungrateful, but he wants and desires to be a good parent, why else would he fight so hard to get money to protect them?

If he listens to the wants and desires for money he will alienate his kids, and if he listens to the wants and desires to be a good father he might risk having the kids starve to death...

Maybe it's time for a mentor to enter the stage and offer some help and incentive to change... some sober perspective of the risk of starvation and death?

Linguistics and Language

From a language perspective, it's fine to say that the main character wants, desires, or needs money, or that he wants, desires, or needs to be a good parent, or that he wants, desires, or needs to avoid being poor again.

The words could all be used for needs, goals, and motivations.

That's how language works. However, what I've described above are more "functions" in a story and a character that will help structure conflict and motivation.

It's perfectly fine to have the character thinking that he needs money. Then it's a measure of the strength of his desire. I think need is stronger than want or desire.

As long as the author knows that what he needs, rather than reaching his goal is to save his relationship with the kids.

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Wants and needs are totally different and often confused when procurement specifications are developed. A need is a lack of something that you do not have such as food or clothing, but could be something vital for life that you do have access to like air or water.

Wants are coveting something better than you already have, like replacing your fiat with a Rolls Royce while your need is only to have transportation.

This confusion occurs almost as much as people confuse loose with lose, which has to be one of the widest spread grammar errors that happens.

Goals and desires are similar but denote more of how much a person is focusing on actually achieving what they want.

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    You must stop creating, deleting, and recreating your account. It is a horrible practice that could get you into some hot water.
    – Nai45
    Jan 29 at 0:07
  • I never create nor delete an account. I merely answer questions when I can. Just what hot water could I get into?
    – pro writer
    Jan 29 at 0:08
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    I thought you were doing that to 'game' the system in a way, but it is only because you are unregistered. I believe that is fine.
    – Nai45
    Jan 29 at 0:11

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