Writerly Wednesdays: Needs Vs. Goals in Character Development

on October 28, 2015

The difference between a character's need and a character's goal.

Other writers and teachers may differ, but this how I explain it. A need is an internal, emotional driving force for a character, inherent to who they are. A goal is a short term, outward objective that drives the action, and in best of stories, is linked tightly to the character’s inner need.

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A character “need” is something that is part of who the character is in life – the thing that defines their purpose. Even when I study my family and friends, I can see how all their decisions are driven by that need, and through that filter. It’s not necessarily the only filter, but as an individual, there is usually a very strong one for each of us.

In my last blog when I talked about characters, I touched on this. Some people have a driving need to see justice, or to be respected, to give value, to inspire, to serve, etc. How we all do these things is unique to our interests and talents. One person may serve as a teacher, another as a doctor, another as a police officer. Or, one person might want justice and so teaches those who don’t have easy access to education, or they become a doctor without borders, or a police officer. Another person who needs justice could become a vigilante or an avenging killer. Our needs don’t necessarily make us a hero or villain.

For all your characters, think about what their emotional need is. For my main character in Glimmer, Jocelyn’s need is to belong. She’s lost her family and tries over and over again to make one up from the people around her. When she learns her brother and sister are alive, that primal need is intensified by the thought of really having her family back, and reaching them becomes a main goal in the story.

A goal, on the other hand, is a specific, urgent, objective that if not achieved will have consequences. (If not, it’s just every day life, and might not make a good story.) Jocelyn wants to be with her family, but needs to escape a high-tech military facility first. If she doesn’t escape soon, she will be subject to very unpleasant science experiments, and by the way, she doesn’t have long to live. Now her goal is urgent and important, and there are dire circumstances if she doesn’t achieve it!

Think about what your driving need is and how it has manifested in the work your do or the thing that you study. It might surprise you. But when you are taking that need to a story, wrap it up in impossible-to-achieve goals that must be achieved, or else! The “or else” is about raising the stakes, and that’s for another Writerly Wednesday.

Until then, keep writing!


The writer has left the building.

The writer has left the building.