Wants and Needs in Writing

Sleepless in Seattle - Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan - wants and needs in writingA few weeks ago I wrote about my GOATS method for writing fiction and screenplays.

Anna Mönnich wrote in response from Germany. Her email brings up an issue that often throws writers when they begin to delve into their stories and characters.


Dear Charles,

[Your article on GOATS raises] a question: how do you integrate want and need in GOATS? Sometimes I get confused by the interesting complexity of mind.


Hi Anna

Thank you very much. Good question.

A great many screenwriting books talk about the central character’s wants and needs.

In most stories, the protagonist’s want equates more or less to the G in GOATS – their Goal – the thing that your protagonist thinks they want to achieve in the outer world – such as finding a dead body, being the best salesman, etc.

By contrast, their need relates the protagonist’s primary flaw. This relates to the T in GOATS – their missing Tactics  – the new expanded person that they need to be – such as to become more mature, learn that money isn’t everything, etc.

Wants and needs – exceptions

This will work in most cases but not always.

Sometimes the want itself might form part of the character’s tactics. This happens usually when what the character wants most is something abstract – such as to be comfortable, to continue grieving for a lost partner, and so forth.

In such cases, this would normally arise from the flaw in their psychology – in other words, this abstract want is part of the inner problem that they have to resolve if they are to progress.

But without a clear outer goal, there can be no story. So this inner want soon has to transform into an outer goal so that the story can move on.

For instance

For example, in Sleepless in Seattle, directed and co-written by Nora Ephron, the Tom Hanks character doesn’t want to let go of his dead wife. His “want” is to remain single and grieving.

However, this needs to be rapidly translated into an outer goal or goals of some kind – such as to be left alone. From here it develops into his desire to let go of the past, to start dating again, to deal with the new situation that his son has got him into, etc.

I hope this helps. Very best wishes,


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