Goals vs. Needs – What Defines Characters…And WritersApril 15th, 2017
By Danny Manus
What’s your goal?
It’s one of the most important questions a writer can ask. Not just of their protagonist, antagonist and every single one of their supporting characters…but of themselves.
A character without a defined goal has nothing to fight for, no aim and no meaning in the plot, no connection to the hook. They are stagnant and passive in a story happening around them. A writer who doesn’t know what they want to achieve, what their next steps are to reaching that goal, and what they want their script to accomplish for them, is no different.
But the question of goals is often informed, motivated, compromised, or superseded by an equally vital question –
What is your deeper need?
What this second question asks is, what is the deeper emotional want that is driving your character…and you? The difference between goals and needs is the difference between one’s brain and one’s heart.
Goals are created by situations and circumstances, and a character can have multiple goals throughout a story. They are usually achieved by recognizing or analyzing a situation, making plans and executing them. They’re created by the brain. They’re the external.
If your character is sent on a mission to colonize Mars, then their goal is to complete their mission; If your character is a cop trailing a serial killer, then their goal is to find the killer and solve the crime; If your protagonist is in love with their best friend who is about to get married, then their goal is to stop the wedding and tell them the truth. And as each of those characters journeys through each of their stories, smaller more acute goals will present themselves as obstacles arise.
Your personal goal may be to become a working paid screenwriter. But your deeper emotional need could be to live a life doing something creative that you’re passionate about. And perhaps your motivation, which can sometimes be a bridge between them, is to prove everyone who made fun of you in high school wrong. Ya know…just as a random example.
The deeper needs and wants of your character, however, are about examining the character’s fatal flaw or backstory or wishes or dreams or insecurities, etc. It’s about recognizing or analyzing WHY their goal is so important to that character. They’re created by the heart. The internal. And you need both to make your characters compelling, three-dimensional and castable.
It’s not enough that your character wants to save the world. It’s also about why. What saving the world represents to them or how that could lead to them achieving their deeper need or want. And one’s deeper need can be achieved because of, or in spite of, their goals.
Liam Neeson’s character in the first two Taken films has a very specific goal – to rescue his family from bad guys. But his deeper need and emotional want is to prove he can be a good father after all these years and put his family back together. In Wild, Reese Witherspoon’s goal is to survive hiking that trail. But her deeper need and want is to overcome the loss of her mother, forgive herself for cheating on her husband, and reinvigorate and reinvent herself after being an addict who was lost in life. In Whiplash, the goal of Miles Teller’s character is to prove he is the best and win the approval of his teacher. But his deeper need and want is to prove to the world that he is special and has something different to offer at all costs.
Sometimes, a deeper need can present itself as obsession. In fact, obsession may be the one running theme in every single Oscar nominated film this year. Every lead character had this deeper need or want that they become obsessed by (or obsessed with) which drives them even after their immediate goals are accomplished. Theory of Everything, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, Imitation Game, Whiplash, Birdman, American Sniper, Selma. Even Patricia Arquette’s character in Boyhood, though to a lesser degree, is obsessed with providing the best life for her children that she can.
In Foxcatcher, John Du Pont has a goal of creating an Olympic winning wrestling team and getting closer to Mark, his star wrestler. But his twisted, hidden, deeper need is to win the respect of his peers and his disapproving mother and feel needed and important at all costs. And it is when that deeper need is threatened – not his goal – that John’s character changes and tragedy strikes. In fact, John is willing to sacrifice the goals set up to ensure his deeper need is met.
Sometimes a character may not even recognize the deeper need, and they almost never state it. This is where subtext, context and backstory can pay off for the audience and reader, as sometimes the deeper emotional need is something WE recognize in a character before they do.
The goal and the deeper emotional need can often work together, but they can also be at odds. And when that happens, a strong dilemma is often created for the character. Do they service their brain – or their heart? Foxcatcher is one such example. I don’t want to ruin the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but Gone Girl (especially the third act) is another great example of this.
An even better example, however, may come from looking in the mirror. As a writer, you’re going to have constant goals. From finishing a first draft, to winning contests, to getting representation, to getting sold, to doing it all over again. But you need to recognize if your deeper need and want is strong enough to keep you dedicated even when rejection makes you feel like your goals may never be achieved.
Very honestly, if you’re new to screenwriting and your deeper need and want is to make enough money to provide a great life for your kids and put them through college and buy a house, then your goal of becoming a working screenwriter – which can take many years to make happen, if ever – may not be the best goal to strive for to achieve that deeper need. I’m not trying to dissuade you from trying. Not at all. Every character (and writer) should attempt to accomplish their overarching goal. But goals can seem hollow and empty if they don’t connect to something deeper and more emotional. Same goes for characters. And same goes for screenwriters.Life in Hollywood, Screenwriting Tips antagonist, Characters, Deeper Needs, Foxcatcher, Goals, protagonist, Reese Witherspoon, Screenwriting, Taken