Perfecting Your Character: How to Balance Your Protagonist’s Needs and Wants

Oh, February, you nasty little month. Returning again with unpredictable weather patterns, fewer days that seem longer than they really are, and a reminder to institute major behavioral changes lest New Year’s promises crumble earlier than last year’s did. I’m in no mood to divulge my resolution failures now, if only because I’ve got one eye on my keyboard and the other laser-focused upon the green and purple boxes stacked high up on my kitchen counters. February also brings an absurd amount of Girl Scout cookies to my house and it’s all I can do not to rip open the flimsy cardboard and suck down multiple sleeves of coconut, caramel, and mint. Cash payments from friends in exchange for those over-priced sugar bombs hold my taste buds in check. I wish it was my commitment to clean-eating. Or, my desire to raise money for youth organizations.

I really want to eat one of those cookies.

But, I need to hand over the desserts to their rightful owners.

I also need to fit into my pants this spring. The good pants.

And, so it goes for me all February long until the temptations are shipped off and removed from my living areas. And, so it goes for our characters, too, throughout the entirety of our novels, their own complicated tangos between wants and needs, steps that go on until, god willing, our dear creations stumble upon a realization towards the very end of our books: what they think they want isn’t what they need at all.

How frustrating to get to the end of a draft and not know what a character wants or needs, to not understand who a character really, truly is. I speak from experience. My first incubator submission provided a ton of action but little to no connection between my protagonist’s surface desires and her deeper, more essential needs. I’ll spare you the read but trust I was stuck in a big way. Developing a character with inter-related wants and needs is a delicate process, one that takes a great deal of thought, revision, and logic. Some authors can tease out this element of the character arc ahead of time, crystallizing that layer of the journey way before pen hits paper. Others make discoveries and find connections when revising, one draft at a time. Both types of authors know their characters need depth and agency in order to propel a story forward, and to do that, serious tension must exist between their wants and needs. In order to have that friction, the wants and needs must be inherently connected. To manipulate that connection, you must know your character inside and out.

In an effort to nail down my character, I invoked advice a career counselor once gave me when I was job hunting. To find a job I’d love, she said, I must be clear about who I was. To ensure clarity, she directed me to create a chart and write down a very long list of all (seriously, all) of my interests in one column, my values in another, and my skills in the last. Once those longer lists (80+ items in each) were made, it was my job to identify the top five items in each area I deemed most essential and defining for me, things, she said, I would “fight for” in a job. At the end of this process, I had a combined final list of fifteen interests, values, and skills to further direct me in the career exploration process.

For my character, I completed the same exercise and nailed down fifteen solid clues to help me know who she was presently and who she was moving towards becoming. Playing with different combinations of these traits helped me solidify the relationship between her wants and needs. This simple exercise is one I revisit for a jump start if I feel things stalling out again.

Right now, my protagonist is engaged in an almighty internal battle. She doesn’t totally realize yet she’s going after the wrong thing. This is good because it’s not time for her to reflect. That will come at the end, the piece I’m working on right now. I’ll need your luck in this. And, with the damn cookies, too.

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