Hello creatives! I’m digging into a topic today that’s so important to the success of your project because it creates the inner conflict we love to see in our characters. I’m talking about want (desire) and need -- the external and internal drivers of character choice.
To help me explore this concept using a fresh perspective, I’m going to draw on my experience getting on the starting line as a runner and obstacle course racer. Looking at a race is a great place to study what motivates people to go on an adventure. It has a tangible end result (a medal, swag, and some rehydration fluid of sorts -- my favorite is the Hot Chocolate Race, for obvious reasons). It calls you out of the comfort zone of your ordinary life -- you literally cross a threshold into the world of the race and return back to your ordinary world at the end.
And there are obstacles aplenty along the way -- from the weather to the course to the running shoes you wish you’d broken in better to your training. And then there are the internal obstacles: fear, doubt, anxiety. If you’re running an obstacle course race, there are literally obstacles: flipping huge tires, climbing over walls, crawling under barbed wire, wading through waist-deep muddy water. In many ways, the Story World is the antagonist, though you might be racing competitively against other runners for placement or to achieve a record.
There are mentors and coaches and running buddies and the random smiling people at the aid stations who give you a cup of water and tell you you’re gonna make it. It’s an all-around great metaphor for the Hero’s Journey -- because it’s a great metaphor for life.
So how can this experience illuminate the spine of a story: the character’s motivation? Let’s find out!
A character’s want or desire is the external goal that drives their choices through the story. In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby defines desire as “the story track the audience ‘rides along.’ Everyone gets on the ‘train’ with the hero, and they all go after the goal together. Desire is the driving force in the story, the line from which everything else hangs”.
In my race analogy, the character steps up to the starting line and we (the audience) come with her. She’s set on achieving that banana and t-shirt and medal at the end of the race. We’re rooting for her. We want her to succeed -- and we’re interested to see how she’s going to do it. We know it’s important to her, so it’s important to us too. We’re invested in her journey because we want to see her achieve her objective.
When I told my kids I was running my first 15K race, they were all rooting for me. They celebrated with me when I got home from training runs. They cheered when I brought home the medal. My husband drove me there and was waiting for me at the finish line. They were invested in my journey because they wanted me to succeed.
The other important characteristic of desire that’s illuminated by the race analogy is its specificity. I wanted to finish that particular race. There’s a medal that belongs to this race that will hang around my neck at the end: the tangible representation of having completed the goal.
You’ve heard about SMART goals, right? A SMART goal is one that’s Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and anchored within a Time Frame.
That’s pretty much what we’re talking about here. Sounds simple enough. But our characters aren’t really simple -- and neither are we. That’s where Need comes in.
In my story, my desire was straightforward: I wanted to run a 15K and finish that particular race. In Brittany Runs a Marathon, she wants to run the NYC Marathon. But what I needed from that race -- and what Brittany needed -- wasn’t the medal.
Underneath that goal, there’s an insecurity. There’s a weakness and a deep-seated need that must be addressed. The goal -- and the adventure that throws obstacles in the way of achieving that goal -- is the vehicle of self-discovery.
Here’s John Truby again: “Need has to do with overcoming a weakness within the character”. Something else is going on underneath the push to achieve the goal. There’s a recognition that something has to change, but at least at first, it’s connected entirely to the external goal. “If I can just finish this race, I’m good! I’ll have fixed the thing that’s wrong!”
But the thing that’s wrong isn’t really the external problem. It’s deeper than that.
In my case, I needed to learn to trust myself and to have the courage to show up fully in my own life. (It’s not an accident, by the way, that my decision to go all in on my dream of becoming a screenwriter coincided with the year I signed up for my first Spartan Race and ran my very first 5K). In Brittany Runs a Marathon, what she needed was to realize that she had to take ownership of her life -- that no one could do it for her.
In Creating Character Arcs, K.M. Weiland says, “The Thing Your Character Needs is usually going to be nothing more than a realization”. And that realization may not change the external circumstances -- but it will transform the character so that she can better cope with those circumstances.
If we return to John Truby’s definition of Need, we understand that we must identify our character’s weaknesses in order to set a goal for their transformation.
Both types of need involve a realization, which is then demonstrated in the character’s choices and actions. My realization led me to invest more fully in my own life and my relationships, and Brittany’s realization leads her to finally take ownership of her life.
As you’re working on building out the architecture of your story, you might wonder which of these two aspects of character should come first -- Desire (the goal) or the Need. In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby argues that establishing Weakness and Need is the most critical step of the process, and that it comes first. Even though the character may not realize what these are yet (that revelation comes much later, remember), we can see that the character has a problem.
The first 20 minutes of Brittany Runs a Marathon establish the character’s Problem. The problem is connected to the character’s need. Truby says, “It should be an outside manifestation of the hero’s weakness.” Brittany gets corrected at work and she gets a scary health diagnosis. She refuses the Call to Adventure by numbing with food and alcohol and a really bad hook-up at a bar. We can see that she’s struggling, and we want her to figure it out.
The scene where she finally steps into the Story World of running almost made me cry. Her goal? Run one block. And she’s terrified. She’s insecure. I remember that feeling. I remember when I laced up my running shoes for my very first run on New Year’s Day 2015. I battled a panic attack the entire way. But I did it. I was on my way to achieving my goal: run my first 5K.
I’ve run more than 1000 miles since that first step out the door. 1000 miles. As Coach Bennet, the Nike Running Club Global Head Coach, likes to say in his Guided Runs, “This is about running...and it’s not about running.” It’s about life. The same theme comes out in Brittany Runs a Marathon. As Demetrius says later in the film, “This was never about the weight. It was about you taking ownership of your life.”
K.M. Weiland notes that the character’s Want (Desire) is where Plot and Character intersect. The character’s Goal is what drives the story forward -- but the story doesn’t really matter unless that goal is connected to the character’s deeper problem (her Need). She says, “To intertwine with the character arc, this goal needs to be an extension or reflection of something that matters to the character on a deeper level”.
So, both Weiland and Truby begin by identifying the character’s Weakness: the Lie (Weiland) or the Lack (Truby) that’s holding the character back and ruining her life. But without the external goal, the character has no push to uncover what they truly need. The adventure must happen because the status quo is no longer sustainable.
The character has to make a choice: she has to choose to step into the Story World of the adventure and be transformed. Along the way, she’ll have to battle her weakness, her lie, the ghosts of her past, and the habits that have kept her stuck all this time. But by the end of the story, she’ll realize what she needed -- and it will push her across the finish line.
As John Truby says in The Anatomy of Story, “the dramatic code expresses the idea that human beings can become a better version of themselves, psychologically and morally. And that’s why people love it” .
The truth is, we want to be inspired. We want to believe that it’s possible to change. As Catherine says to Brittany in the opening minutes of Brittany Runs a Marathon, “Change is possible.”
But if that change comes too easily, we don’t believe it. We all have demons we’re battling. We all know you can’t just snap your fingers and make them disappear. We need to see the obstacles, to see the hero fight his way to the goal. And we especially want to see the inner conflict as the character battles the Lie that has kept her stuck, the Weakness that holds her back.
We go on this journey with your character because it’s teaching us about ourselves. As John Truby says, “The code of growth is what the audience ultimately takes from a good story”.
We’re about to head into NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month. It’s the perfect time to recommit to a project (or start something new) before the end of the year! If you’re ready to take that first step (or the next step), check out my brand new writing marathon training plan here.
I’ll see you on the starting line!
Shannon (S.K.) Valenzuela is a novelist, ghostwriter, and award-winning screenwriter. Her curiosity about pretty much everything means she loves writing research-based stories: grounded sci-fi and historical fiction are her particular playgrounds of choice at the moment, though she also loves a good science fantasy adventure.
When she’s not penning her own stories, she loves her work as a story coach and creative entrepreneur at The Story Scene. She specializes in helping new and emerging screenwriters and novelists, and she’s coached dozens of writers through their first drafts and rewrites.
She’s also the host of the Subject Matter Expert podcast, which is designed to inspire and inform sci-fi writers through interviews with scientists, thought leaders, and writers working in the genre.
In real life, she’s a university professor with a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature, so you’ll also find her in the classroom exploring the poetry of Homer and Dante. She loves teaching stories almost as much as she loves writing them.
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