Needs and Wants Add Depth to Characters

I’m finishing up my NaNo Prep and psyching myself up for November 1 when I attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month.

I got some writing advice from my son who graduated in Literature from UC Santa Barbara’s College of Creative Studies

He told me to add depth to my characters I should explore their “needs and wants.”

baby crawling and peeking out behind door.
My son a few years ago peeking out from his bedroom.

When my kids were in Catholic elementary school, a teacher explained the difference between needs and wants. I remember being impressed with how the teacher brought this lesson down to their age level. It was something that I hadn’t thought about explaining to my kids. Yet, it’s such a crucial life lesson. When you’re raising kids, they often have a lot of things they “need.” They want to fit in with their peers and when one friend gets the latest whatever, they feel they need it, too.

When my kids told me they “needed” a colorful iPod mini or a deck of Pokemon cards, I answered smugly, “Is this something you need—or something you want?”

I pretty much think they always believed it was something they needed.

Here’s how my son ended up giving me advice on needs and wants in fiction writing:

Several years ago, I was telling him how I was struggling with a rewrite of a mid-grade novel but was beginning to have a break-through. I hired an editor to review my manuscript and the main thread of advice was to add depth to my main characters. I have a “good” protagonist and an “evil” antagonist. It’s a book about friendships and growth in character, yet my characters are pretty shallow and flimsy Definitely one dimensional. My son suggested I look at their “needs and wants.”

Seriously? The child who “needed” so many material things is now lecturing me on “needs and wants?” Yes, and in literature, he explained, needs and wants takes on a subtle but different meaning. I found a good article “What your character wants versus what they need” from the Novel Factory. Here’s an excerpt:

What your character wants
We all want something. Some of us crave power, others long for heaps of cash, others want five minutes of fame. Some of us dream of having a baby, or a picture perfect wedding. Then of course there are more specific goals, like to win Countdown, to meet David Attenborough or to bake the perfect flan.

At the outset of your novel, you need to establish what it is your character wants – what it is that they are pursuing? What do they believe will give them a feeling of satisfaction?

What your character needs
However, there is something else under the surface, and that is what your character needs.

There are very few things human beings actually need, in order to be happy, and most of the things we fixate on wanting only obscure the really important things.

The things we need can usually be distilled to one thing: love.

This bit of advice from my son was eye-opening. I truly love my kids. They both continue to amaze me with their wisdom and good advice.

mom and toddler son sitting on the beach
Back when needs and wants were simple.

Have you explained to your kids about needs and wants? Have you used needs and wants to develop your characters in writing? What are your needs and wants in blogging?

20 thoughts on “Needs and Wants Add Depth to Characters

  1. With a big family and limited budget, we taught our kids the difference between needs and wants from the beginning! I think it helped to develop their character… so I can definitely see how that would add depth to fictional characters. Great wisdom your son had! Also, I learned to use it as a sales technique. If you can identify what someone needs and wants and show them how a product fits their lives in those categories, they will buy. Knowing our own needs and wants then, will help us understand our impulse buys and our spending issues. :). It’s really is a “deep” topic – depth of personal and fictional character. Would you mind if I use this prompt for a post from the sales angle? I could link back to this one…?

  2. If you want to explore another layer, have you thought of looking at the characters’ attachment styles (4 types based on their relationship with their families growing up)? Your son gives wise advice :).

  3. But I NEED my wants! There comes a point in life (usually as defined by age) where the line between needs and wants gets blurred. You are no longer saving for a rainy day, or a child’s college education, or a house down payment…..nope. Now it is time to get the wants. You already have the needs. So if you want to go to a restaurant that doesn’t require you to stand at a counter (with an actual menu, and you do not look at the prices first), or avoid the “clearance” aisle when buying a new outfit, you do it. Your Golden years are more about fulfilling the wants, and not always just the needs.

  4. Just had a conversation with my almost 25-year-old about that very thing. She was looking at a new phone or something and I said “You don’t need a new ____, you want a new ______.” and she looked at me and said, “Yeah, you’re right.” She didn’t get whatever it was. Good point about using the principle for characters in a book.

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