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Rethinking Needs vs Wants

The deep internal drivers of our character’s actions.

I’ve often been bullish against the difference between want, need, and desire in storytelling.

Will Storr says in The Science of Storytelling:

It’s not uncommon for a character to want something on the conscious level and yet subconsciously need something entirely different... Although these complex protagonists are unaware of their subconscious need, the audience senses it, perceiving in them an inner contradiction. The conscious and unconscious desires of a multidimensional protagonist contradict each other. What he believes he wants is the antithesis of what he actually but unwittingly needs.

Meanwhile, John Truby says:

The need is what the hero must fulfill within himself in order to have a better life. It usually involves overcoming his weaknesses and changing, or growing, in some way.


Desire is what your hero wants in the story, his particular goal... Desire is the driving force in the story, the line from which everything else hangs.

In the past, I’ve never wanted to overcomplicate the terms. Yet, after reading The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier, I have changed that opinion.

In it, he distinguishes wants and needs:

Want: I’d like to have this.
Need: I must have this.

He discusses Marshall Rosenberg, the creator of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a model that “helps people to exchange the information necessary to resolve conflicts and differences peacefully.”

In Rosenberg’s model, wants are the surface requests, the tactical outcomes we’d like from a situation... 

Needs go deeper, and identifying them helps you pull back the curtain to understand the more human driver who might be behind the want.

Based on the work of economist Manfred Max-Neef, Rosenberg originally stated nine categories of needs:

  1. affection/love
  2. creation
  3. recreation/celebration
  4. freedom/autonomy
  5. identity/purpose/meaning
  6. understanding/competence
  7. participation/belonging
  8. protection/security/peace
  9. subsistence/basic survival

And when those needs aren’t met, a whole host of emotional responses occur, which lead to deep-seated problems for people: fear, anger, confusion, disconnectedness, aversion, sadness, yearning, being guarded, and so on.

Storytelling is about the human experience. About characters wanting something and taking actions to get it. Many stories are about characters confronting these challenges and, hopefully, being made whole again.

So thanks to Stanier’s book, I’ve come to accept the significant difference between needs and wants—especially when I recognize them as the deep internal drivers of our character’s actions throughout the story.