Writers! It ain’t what your characters want. It’s what they NEED!


by Diana Black

In compelling narratives, there’s always the ‘good guy’ (protagonist) – usually a person, versus the ‘bad guy’ (antagonist) – person, corporation, object or whatever, sometimes even themselves, and it’s a given that a battle of wills is raging with ‘guns’ real or metaphorical, accompanied by a roller-coaster ride of triumph and tragedy. Don’t we just love putting our character/s through hell?

We do put them through hell, don’t we? In every scene the ongoing battle shows up blatantly in the scene or more subtly, informing the scene and driving the narrative forward. Let’s take a moment to think this through, wtf are they fighting over?

Wanting and needing are rarely if ever, the same thing…

The character/s (protagonist and antagonist) knows what he/she wants goddammit – hence the battle – it’s high stakes and both are determined to achieve their objective (want) – if they, along with the TV show don’t wish to be dismissed by the viewers in TV Land.

However, rarely does the character know or admit to a psychological need – why? Either it’s because they don’t realize that this ‘piece of the jigsaw puzzle’ is required to ‘complete them’ and/or, because needing whatever ‘it’ is, is a ghastly, repulsive thing to admit and they’re in denial.

It’s not only fictional characters that are dragged – kicking and screaming to fulfilling their personal psychological need/s. None of us want to go there! Why? Well, for one thing, fulfilling that need requires radical change and, for both character and real people alike, we’re lazy and we resist change… change is hard – but it does make for compelling drama.

Secondly, needing something is a ‘red flag’ signifying vulnerability. If we’re vulnerable we can be ‘got at’ by the puppeteer, whoever they are – and the protagonist can be bought, bullied, seduced, subjugated and worse – driven to making some really dumb choices. Puppeteers are manipulative sociopaths, and just like salespeople, they’re masters at detecting the ‘red flag’ of vulnerability.

So much for the ‘rationale’ – let’s move on to the ‘How to…’ – a simple two-step process BUT, it does require work
Firstly In-depth Character Profile. Think of all the aspects of a person’s personality, likes and dislikes, their choices, ‘world view’, their back-story, secrets and wound/s and then for each aspect, explain why – justify why this character is that way AND different from the others in the narrative.

For maximum drama and pain, the Protagonist’s ‘need’ must be in conflict with their ‘want’ – and with the other lead characters’ needs and wants – or, amp up the stakes even higher with opposing characters wanting and needing the same thing, but they revile the thought that they could be ‘on the same song sheet’.

Spare a thought for those characters that say little, next to fleeting screen-time; yet somehow they’re crucial to the plot and/or in some way, they exemplify the theme. The characters must clash like hell – via opposing moral opinions and psychological tendencies and weaknesses. Doing this before you start the outline of the Pilot will enable you to ditch superfluous or combine too-similar, characters.

Next – a Comprehensive Character Web. None of us are ‘islands’ – we’re affected by others – even a perfect stranger caught doing a random act of kindness, gives us pause. Ask the characters what they think about the other characters – promise to keep it secret and they’ll really open up.


Because you’re subconsciously starting to treat them as ‘real’ people (I’m seriously not mad… just a biologist who observes the weird beast a.k.a. human animal).

While every protagonist in TV Land has a need and a want, this dichotomy is best explored via a ‘character study’ and one of the best and current examples is the crime drama, Shades of Blue (NBC, 2016 –). As an added bonus, it’s a character study of not only the protagonist/antagonist but also of the ensemble of regulars.…

Harlee Santos (Jennifer Lopez) is a single mother who’s made some extremely ‘poor choices’ in the past and as we all know, no deed – good or bad, goes unpunished. Mothers – especially loving, selfless mothers, usually serve the ‘wants’ of their children before their own.

Harlee’s ‘want’ is to protect her daughter from an abusive father and support her emerging musical career; she wants Christina (Sarah Jeffrey) to be successful and empowered – aspects that will forever elude Harlee.

Empowerment (need) would mean extricating herself from the men currently pulling her strings – Lt. Wozniak – to whom she’s seriously indebted and the FBI who’ll see her behind bars if she doesn’t comply with their demands – and she can’t if she and Christina are to survive – thus she’s forced to walk a tightrope of deceit and disloyalty. The consequences of her choices – good or bad, will be dire for her.

And fascinating for her audience – just as the consequences to your characters should you choose this route will be for your viewers.

Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer currently taking Larry Brody’s Master Class.