Karina M. Sokulski
Your Character's Wants Vs Needs: Genre Dive (Acceptance and Faith)
A character's wants versus needs are pivotal in the developmental stage of any hero's journey. Both elements are vital to understanding who the protagonist is and what the journey they're on is about. Take, for example; a protagonist religiously believes in a code that isolates them from others because of the freedom it provides. They're lonely however and struggle with an unexpected companion who becomes a love affair. The rest of the story is a struggle between maintaining their code (want) or abandoning it for a companion who truly makes them happy (need). The character's wants versus needs determine why your character may contradict their own beliefs when it comes to a great enough need. They highlight the flaws in your protagonist's status quo enough to spur the protagonist onto an adventure. They change over the course of the story as the character grows from experience. "I wanted this and thought I needed this, but now I realize I actually need this and also want that."
The protagonist’s need in a story can be any number of things. This post will be the first of a series that will explore a series of wants and needs I most commonly find in fiction. Below are the first two most common wants and needs I encounter:
Acceptance is a need constantly present in, but not limited to, western stories. Western stories customarily focus on a gunslinger struggling against the “dying west.” The protagonist will inevitably have to accept their circumstances, reality, or self in a changing world. The west is no longer wild because civilization has come and brought a new “law of the land” with it. In westerns, acceptance tends to unify the elements of circumstances, reality and self as one.
In Charles Portis' novel, True Grit, the novel thematically focuses on the 'true grit' authentic to the government-free wild west. As a result, protagonist and narrator Mattie Ross is the embodiment of true grit, in the body of a fourteen-year-old girl. Mattie's a go-getter who states several times throughout the book she prefers to do things herself rather than let things play out. It's a key character flaw that leads to the tragic end of her story. When Mattie catches up with Chaney, the man responsible for her father's death, she gets her revenge and loses more than just her arm. The real tragedy is how Portis' tale wove a journey for Mattie that wasn't necessary. Mattie didn't need to pursue her revenge to get justice for her father's death or be taken seriously by her adult peers. Both eventually would have been inevitable. Mostly the former then the latter. Fellow protagonists Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf were already in hot pursuit of the man for hanging. Mattie's want to properly honor her father outweighed her overall need to be taken seriously by her adult peers. The wild west is for adult, white men. Not fourteen-year-old, white, orphan girls.
Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men is a brilliant examination of a Vietnam War vet, a ruthless killer and an out of touch sherif. Our out of touch sherif, Ed Tom Bell, brings home one of the novel's most important themes: old age. Sure, it's implied in the title but the relevance travels further than that. The Mexican cartel prospers in this tale because Bell, who represents law enforcement in this story, can't keep up with violent drug trade. In the book's final chapter (and the very last scene of the movie if you watched it) Bell describes a dream about his father. The dream, in short, describes how he always looked to his father for guidance when he was unsure. The comfort this provided guided the very foundation of his career as a sherif. The horror Bell leaves the reader with is how his father's example is obsolete to this new world. Bell as a result is also obsolete. A ruthless killer is still out there and Bell has no hopes of stopping him. Bell's want to prove himself a good man is outweighed by his need to accept he's become obsolete in this new America.
Rockstar Game's epic western video game, Red Dead Redemption II (a prequel of its predecessor of the same name) follows a gang of ruthless outlaws in America, 1899. The west faces its dying years prior to World War I. After a bank robbery gone wrong, a gang is chased across the United States by an equally ruthless pair of Pinkerton agents. Internal divisions among the group deepen enough to threaten to tear the gang apart.Protagonist Arthur Morgan must make a choice between his own ideals and loyalty to the gang who raised him. Throughout the story, Pinkerton agents act as a personification of the government coming to tame the wild west. Rival gangs are picked off and the main cast are constantly on the run from what inevitably has to catch up to them. Arthur's want to remain loyal to the family he's always known is called into question by gang leader Dutch Van Der Linde's cracking under pressure. Ultimately, this leads to Arthur's need to protect his family from both the dangers within and without the gang.
Faith as a need appears in fiction in the following ways: faith in one's self, in others and in religious belief. This need appears across genres like historical fiction, sci-fi or slice of life. Faith as a need typically manifests in an unexpected way for the protagonist of a story. Usually, a protagonist doesn't know they're on a journey of faith until they experience the revelation. The want is what drives the protagonist through a story but is inevitably replaced by the need for renewed faith.
In Kate DiCamillo's novel, Because of Winn-Dixie, Opal isn't a true orphan but feels she lacks a family. Her mother left her at a young age, and her father spends his time preaching to cope with his own grief. Opal has a magnetic personality that attracts other lonely hearts like a magnet but she doesn't truly connect to anyone until she meets Winn-Dixie. Opal wants a family and adopts Winn-Dixie to get just that. DiCamillo's novel demonstrates a need of faith renewed in others. The dog's adoption into their family ends up changing the preacher's view regarding family, something Opal and her father missed for a long time. What Opal, and by extension her father, needed was to feel like they belonged. Hence the title of the book and the result that follows welcoming a new member to the family.
Jules Verne takes a different approach to faith as a need in his novel, Journey To The Center Of The Earth. Verne demonstrates the difference between faith and doubt by comparing the journeys between Axel and his uncle, Professor Lidenbrock. Professor Lidenbrock is chaotically faithful in his mission to reach the center of the earth while Axel remains religiously faithless in his own and their exploration's success. The journey depends on the professor and Axel's abilities to decipher a parchment which the professor obsesses over. The professor's obsession continually endangers their group which makes Axel want his uncle to abandon the expedition. Nevertheless, Axel is inspired by his uncle at a dire moment. His need to have faith in his own ability ultimately results in both his survival and the expedition's success. In the end, faith in one's self leads to the ultimate prize the characters sought.
An excellent example of religious faith presented as a need can be found in Elie Wiesel's novel, Night. Wiesel's book details his understanding of Judaism, its history, and significant to the devout. This exploration of Judaism is significant in Wiesel's recounting of his experiences during the Holocaust. Wiesel's faith in humanity and the world by extent, has been irreversibly shaken by the cruelty he witnesses. The horrendous cruelty in the concentration camps couldn't possibly reflect any form of divinity. Worse, Wiesel believes, the Holocaust exposes the selfishness within himself and the other prisoners who refuse to rise up against their captors for the sake of keeping themselves safe. Ugliness of the soul is capable in every person, so God must be as cruel and disgusting as well. In spite of this realization, Wiesel still grapples with his faith. He wants to make sense of the evil acts he experiences through his belief. Ultimately what he needs to reach enlightenment. That is to say, questioning is fundamental to the practice of faith in God. The Holocaust forces Wiesel to ask horrible questions regarding the nature of good, evil and the existence of God. The fact that he questions reflects his commitment and retainment of faith.
A character's want and need are often synonymous with your book's theme. Just as characters can have more than one want or need, a book can boast more than one lesson. When your character desires something so bad they go on a journey to get it, your audience will latch on. Themes and a protagonist headed out to inevitably learn something is what provides your reader an experience. Your readers want to feel like they've followed your protagonist somewhere important. To draw inspiration from a journey about something they might be able to relate to. Say like, fear and forgiveness, the topic of the next entry in the series.