Gerald Hanks Filmography

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Wants vs. Needs: How Screenwriters Approach Character Motivation

One of the biggest mistakes rookie screenwriters make is to confuse a character's needs with his goals. They think in terms of what the character “needs” to achieve instead of what he actually “wants” to accomplish. While the two components share a symbiotic relationship, you should focus on illustrating the character's needs by showing what he really wants.

Wants Are Concrete
In the earlier post where we discussed the “VOTE” method, the V stood for “Victory”. The Victory serves as the character's specific primary goal.

  • The baseball player wants to win the game.
  • The housewife wants to find her missing daughter.
  • The detective wants to catch his wife's killer.

The character's goal should be clearly visible to the audience, in that it clues them in to what the character truly wants and how his actions take him closer to it or further away from it.

Needs Are Abstract
The final component of the VOTE method is the “E for Energy”. The Energy represents the emotional need the character fills by accomplishing the Victory.

  • The baseball player needs to earn his father's respect.
  • The housewife needs the love of her family.
  • The detective needs revenge and closure. 

The character's need should be clear during your writing process, even if it remains hidden to the audience.

Wants Drive The Plot 
A strong understanding of a character's specific goals will also solve many problems writers encounter, including plot planning and “writer's block”. The character's desire to achieve his goals will drive him to make choices and take actions. These choices and actions will reveal the nature of the character to the audience and drive the story forward to its conclusion.

Needs Drive The Theme
Here are some common examples of themes:

  • “Love conquers all.”
  • “Money can't buy happiness.” 
  • “It's what's inside that counts.”

Too many beginning writers worry about how to depict the “theme” in their stories. While a strong script can carry a serious message, the primary intention of your story should be to entertain the audience. When you determine what your character needs, the methods you choose in how the character meets those needs will demonstrate your theme.

Wants Are Unique
If you're worried about how to make your story stand out, give your character a unique goal.

  • A washed-up boxer wants to fight the world heavyweight champion. (Rocky)
  • A World War II-era super-soldier wants to adjust to life in the 21st Century. (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
  • An alien female wants to kidnap and seduce hitchhikers. (Under the Skin)

Unique goals make for memorable characters and interesting stories.

Needs Are Universal
Regardless of genre, period or budget, each successful film portrays a character pursuing a universal need. The character's need can be as basic as day-to-day survival, as deep as true love, or as dark as attaining power at any cost. When you find your character's need, you have found the key to how the audience will relate to that character.

If you want a script that fulfills the wants and needs of producers and agents, contact us at StoryIntoScreenplayBlog [at] gmail [dot] com. We conduct face-to-face or online consultations with new and experienced screenwriters. You also check out out us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and check out our YouTube channel.

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