We often hear “conflict is story.” What does that mean? If we walk it back, we see that conflict is driven by opposition. That opposition stands between the characters and something they want. Therefore, we could just as easily say “desire is story.” But that isn’t always simple to figure out either, particularly since story terminology includes many seemingly applicable terms, including the character’s want, desire, plot goal, and even moral intention.
On this site and in my books on writing, I often talk about the Thing the Character Wants and the Thing the Character Needs as driving factors in character arc, and thus plot structure. But desire and plot goal are also important frequently used terms. What’s the difference?
Last week’s post touched on the important nuances in terms used to describe your characters’ pain points (“Your Character’s Ghost vs. Wound vs. Lie vs. Weakness“). This week, I want to stay in that lane and explore some terms used to describe what the character wants.
Once again let me note there is often much variation and subtlety in how these terms are employed. For instance, some people may use the word “desire” to encompass all of the terms we’ll be talking about today. This points to the importance of not relying too much on specific terms and instead learning to understand the underlying principles, so you can quickly translate them into your own preferred verbiage. Today, I am sharing how I use these terms.
The Four Driving Forces of Plot and Personality
First, let’s just touch briefly on the generalities of what “want” is within a story. All variations of a character’s desire will function as driving forces of both that character’s personality and the plot. Some desires may be low-key and used only to dramatize certain aspects of the character’s nature and/or to drive goals and conflict on the scene level. But the Want/goal/desire/etc., creates the backbone of your story. This desire will be throughline of momentum for your plot, the fulcrum upon which the character’s arc turns, and an important factor within the revelation of your story’s theme.
This element of the story should never be chosen randomly. Even when you allow it to emerge organically from your own telling of the story, you must make certain it works with every other part of your plot, character arc, and theme to create a cohesively propulsive experience for readers.
What Is the Thing Your Character Wants?
The Thing Your Character Wants, or the Want, is the term I use throughout my teachings to reference the specific fulcrum upon which character arc turns. The Want is contrasted against a Need (see the last section in this post) to form the basis of the character’s inner conflict.
The Want is a desire arising from the limited perspective (based upon the Lie the Character Believes) with which the character begins the story. The Want informs the story’s specific desire and plot goal, but is not necessarily either. Rather, it is the deeper, more foundational longing that inspires the specificities of the story’s plot. The Want will be directly motivated by the character’s backstory Ghost.
By itself, the Want may or may not be as limited as is the Lie, but because it is motivated by the Lie, the character’s initial understanding of the Want or the means for obtaining it will at least start out from within these same limitations.
Therefore, the Want, although powerful, is not strictly an aligned desire for the character. Either it is the wrong thing to want or it is wanted for the wrong reasons. This misalignment will create fierce inner conflict between the character’s desire for this thing and his ultimate and even deeper need to come into wholeness. Whether he experiences a Positive Change Arc or a Negative Change Arc will decide whether or not he is able to harmonize this inner conflict and either give up the misaligned Want or bring it into alignment so that he may achieve it in a healthy way.
For Example: In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s Want is to amass great wealth. This Want arises from his personal backstory Ghost—an unloved and insecure childhood—and is motivated by his belief in the Lie—that personal worth and security can only be gained via material means. His Want is not his plot goal (as we shall see below), but it is the driving motivation of his life. His desire to cling to this mindset is what creates the plot conflict as he resists the attempts of the Christmas Spirits to show him a better way.
What Does Your Character Desire?
“Desire” is a term frequently used to broadly indicate what your character wants (note the small case “w” to differentiate from the thematic Want describe above). The desire refers to what your character wants within the context of the story.
The desire will be for something concrete, or at least something specific. Although the desire may be something etheric such as a state of mind (e.g., to feel good about one’s self), it should be refined to its most concrete point. For example, the character may desire something physical such as a new car, or she may desire a promotion, or she may simply want the boss to shake her hand. In the end, she may realize she simply wants to feel proud of herself.
The desire and the plot goal are, in many ways, one and the same. However, the nuance is that the desire creates the goal, while goal is a practical attempt to obtain the desire.
For Example: Within the confines of the story, Scrooge’s primary desire is to “wake up” from his nightmare of the Christmas Spirits and return to his routine life as a hard-hearted moneylender who doesn’t have to worry himself about the affairs of others. Note that this desire doesn’t come into play in the story until after the Inciting Event. In contrast, the Want pre-dates the story’s specific plot conflict and is therefore available to influence Scrooge’s choices and actions in the early chapters before the main conflict becomes explicit.
What Is Your Character’s Plot Goal?
The plot goal is the practical manifestation of the desire.
- If the character desires to get married, then the plot goal would be to win over the woman he loves.
- If she desires to overcome grief from a loved one’s death, then the plot goal might be Cheryl Strayed’s plan to walk the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild.
- If he desires to write a newspaper piece about a murder, then the plot goal would be discovering the murderer.
- If the character desires a luxurious Italian vacation, then the plot goal boils down to getting to Rome.
Often, the line between desire and goal is paper thin, and it’s not always beneficial to differentiate between the two in every story. What’s most important to grasp is that the plot goal will drive the plot. It is the practical manifestation of the desire and a means of helping the character achieve the deeper Want.
Every scene in the story will measure up against the plot goal in one way or another. Indeed, the plot goal will be broken down into many smaller goals which can be executed on the scene level, as the character works toward the ultimate goal. This goal may or may not be achieved in the story’s Climax. Whether the character succeeds in pursuit of the goal will depend on many things, including the type of story (e.g., comedy or tragedy) as well as whether or not the goal can ultimately be aligned with the character’s final thematic relationship to the story’s Truth.
For Example: Scrooge is a pretty reactive protagonist who doesn’t have much choice but to follow along with his ghostly abductors. However, we can extrapolate that his plot goal is to escape the Spirits and end his ordeal. At first, he tries to accomplish this by denying the Spirits’ existence, then by struggling against them, then by grudgingly going along with them, then finally by cooperating with them. How he goes about trying to accomplish this goal evolves over the course of the story as his own perspectives relative to the Lie and the thematic Truth also evolve. In short, the plot goal arcs with him.
What Is Your Character’s Moral Intention?
One final consideration is that of your character’s moral intention. Want, desire, and goal will all be influenced by what your character views as her moral reasons for pursuing the goal. This moral alignment will be entirely relative. Usually, the character will believe in the correctness of her own morality, regardless how society or objective reality may view it. Alternatively, it’s also possible, for example, that she may choose to act in a relatively noble or heroic way and yet view her own intentions as morally repulsive.
Regardless, what’s important is identifying how your character morally categorizes her relationship to her desires. What is her intention is trying to fulfill this desire for herself? She may believe she is doing it for the good of all, or she may believe she will be damned for pursuing it. Either perspective will lend nuance to why the character is seeking this goal and how she goes about approaching it. It will certainly color her inner conflict and perhaps become the central issue of her character arc.
In short, if the desire is the what and the plot goal is the how, then the moral intention is the why. (The Want is also a why, and can also be considered in light of when, due to its correlation to the backstory Ghost.)
For Example: Scrooge states his moral intention plainly in the beginning of the story when he repeatedly refuses to help those who cannot help themselves. His speech to the charity collectors about the poor belonging in jails and workhouses makes his perspective perfectly clear. This view of morality influences all of his early choices in the story and is the primary catalyst for the Spirits’ intervention. Only once Scrooge’s arc leads him to a more compassionate view of his own relationship with humankind is he set free to begin anew.
Bonus: What About Your Character’s “Need”?
As mentioned in the first section, about the Thing the Character Wants, the Need stands in opposition to the Want. If the Want is Lie-based—a desire arising from the character’s currently limited perspective of himself and the world—then the Need is Truth-based. Indeed, the simplest way to think of the Need is as the Truth. The character Needs the Truth.
The Truth is the antidote to the Lie. It is the next step up in the character’s understanding of life. It is not ultimate Truth, but rather a comparative Truth—a slightly more expansive viewpoint than that offered by the Lie. It is the viewpoint that is necessary to bring wholeness to the character’s inner self, to heal the pertinent wounds of the past, and to fulfill the true longings of the Want.
The Truth may or may not be able to grant the character the specific plot goal he has been pursuing throughout the story, but it is still likely to bring peace and contentment. If the character is following a Negative Change Arc and is unable to accept the Truth by the end of the story then even if he gains the plot goal or the Want, he is unlikely to find true satisfaction in them.
The Need may also be expressed more practically than simply a shift in mindset. It may be represented by something equally as explicit as the Want. For a really basic example consider, how you might Want a candy bar, but know you Need a salad.
For Example: As is the case with most characters, Scrooge’s Need is for the Truth. The Thing He Needs is to reframe his perspective about human worth and realize the true measure of wealth is not material goods one hoards but rather the ability to bless others with love—and be blessed in return.
Writers can find value and nuance by digging deeper into the functionality of all of these terms for characters’ desires. However, if you were to add just two to your writing toolbag, I recommend the Thing Your Character Wants and the Thing Your Character Needs. Even by themselves, these two create the all-important fulcrum of inner change, drive the plot, and add thematic depth. All of the other terms arise from them.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What does your character want in your latest story? Tell me in the comments!
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The post What Does Your Character Want? Desire vs. Plot Goal vs. Moral Intention vs. Need appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.
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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland