Tuesday, November 2, 2021

What Does Your Character Want?

by PeggySue Wells @PeggySueWells

Three essentials are common to every compelling story.
  1. An interesting character the audience cares about 
  2. The character’s great need
  3. An insurmountable obstacle between the character and the great need the character must achieve
Having created a winsome character, what is the character’s great need?

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, humans require: 
  • food and clothing 
  • safety 
  • love and belonging 
  • esteem
  • self-actualization 
An absence or scarcity in these areas automatically creates a powerful need for our character.

For instance, in Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian, the main character is stranded alone on the planet Mars where he quickly realizes he needs the life-sustaining elements of oxygen, warmth, food, and shelter. These needs are compounded by the additional requirements for safety and relationship. 

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the young orphan learns how to get the basics of food, clothing, and shelter. Spurred by his upbringing, he longs for love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. While many wish to avoid war, Hamilton sees the Revolutionary War as his opportunity to prove himself and make a name.

To create a great need for your character we care about:
  • Threaten your character’s basic needs, the ones that support existence.
  • Complicate their physical needs with longings of the heart including acceptance, belonging, connection, relationship, and love.
  • Limit the character’s amount of time to achieve their big need.
To broaden the scope, set up the character’s big need to impact not only the character, but others of importance to the character.
  • How are others impacted when the character achieves his big need?
  • Who is harmed if the character achieves their big need?
  • Who is hurt if the character fails?
  • What choice does the character make when his deepest desire is at odds with the greater good?
For instance, will Captain America choose true love with Peggy or save New York City from nuclear destruction? What does Peggy want him to do? If he chooses love, could that love be enjoyed–or even survive, in the wake of the destruction of so many people? If he saves New York, will that cost his life? Does Captain America truly have a choice in this setting?

Keep your reader turning pages to follow a memorable character striving to grasp a great need. 
  • Multiply tension by setting Grand Canyon-sized obstacles between the character and the character’s deep need. 
  • Give your reader reason to believe reaching their desired goal will exact a huge cost. 
  • Provide reason for the reader to suspect the character will not achieve their great need at all. 
  • Alert your reader that what the character thinks he needs may not be what he really needs.
In the creation of your story, introduce the character, and quickly establish the character’s vital need. How can you complicate the need, fill the path with obstacles on the way to achieve the need, and what will be the result of accomplishing the goal? 


Tropical island votary and history buff, PeggySue Wells parasails, skydives, snorkels, scuba dives, and has taken (but not passed) pilot training. Writing from the 100-Acre wood in Indiana, Wells is the bestselling author of twenty-eight books including The Slave Across the Street, Slavery in the Land of the Free, Bonding With Your Child Through Boundaries, Homeless for the Holidays, and Chasing Sunrise. Optimistic dream-driver, PeggySue is named for the Buddy Holly song with the great drumbeat. At school author visits, she teaches students the secrets to writing, and speaks at events and conferences. Connect with her at www.PeggySueWells.com, on Facebook at PeggySue Wells, and Twitter @PeggySueWells.


  1. Thank you, Ingmar, for stopping by to check out the post. All the best with your writing!

  2. You've presented this information so well, PeggySue. Thanks! I'm printing this out and filing it for future use.