Character: Want, Need, Flaw, Symptoms

This week’s tool pulls together what we’ve learned from other tools (concept and theme) and teases out how those tools apply to, and build, a character.  Julie Gray calls it Want, Need, Flaw, Symptoms, and I think that’s catchy, if not entirely illuminative, so there you have it.


In terms of understanding its purpose, a better name for this might be Motivation, Internal Motive, Emotional Goal, General Emotional Goal.

So what’s a Want?

“General Wants refer to a feeling your character would like to have,” says Ms. Gray.

A Want or “Motivation always springs from an emotional need, whether it’s the need for love, revenge, power, desire, fame, respect, survival, or recognition,” says Rachel Ballon.  “A motive is a need or desire that makes a person take action. Motives may be conscious or unconscious, and each character may respond to the same motive, such as hunger, in different ways.”

For Dwight Swain, a Want is “an indefinable inner hunger, a gnawing sense that something is missing from his life.”  Character “attempts to fill the void with ego-inflating exploits in the world outside him.”  (Which leads us to the characters Goal, next.)

And Michael Hauge says, “Inner motivation is the path the character thinks will allow him to feel better about himself.”

What qualifies as a Want?

Lots of things.  Here are some examples from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

  • Physical:  air, food, water, shelter, clothes, sex, sleep…
  • Safety:  Stability, freedom from threats. Security of body, of employment, of resources, of health, of property…
  • Love: Family, friends, connection, inclusion, acceptance, belonging, trust, affection…
  • Esteem:  Achievement, status, recognition, duty, reputation, power, prestige, individualism, uniqueness, respect, popularity…
  • Knowledge:  Knowledge, truth, understanding, meaning, awareness, curiosity, exploration, mastery…
  • Aesthetics:  Beauty, creativity, balance, form, order…
  • Self Actualization: Personal growth, self-fulfillment, creativity, autonomy, contribution, purpose, giving back, fulfillment of purpose, fulfillment of potential, freedom…
  • Transcendence: Spiritual fulfillment

How do you figure out what the character’s Want is?

“Ask your character how obtaining their goal will make them feel,” says Ms. Gray.

“The answer,” says Mr. Hauge, “is always related to gaining greater feelings of self-worth.”

“In trying to identify your character’s key want, begin with what he believes it to be:  romantic love, family, vengeance, wealth, fame, power, respect,” says David Corbett. “He may want all these things, something deeper that they all represent or something else altogether, but for the sake of dramatic clarity choose one and write from there, at least until you have a clearer sense of where your story is headed.”

Some things to note about Wants:

Take the time to uncover it.  “If you don’t provide your protagonist with a driving deep-seated need [internal Want] that he believes his quest [external Goal] will fulfill, the things that happen will feel random; they won’t add up to anything,” says Lisa Cron.

However, don’t be militant about it.  “Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more he diminishes the character in the audience’s mind,” says Mr. Corbett (quoting Robert McKee). “Explaining your character kills her.  Whatever she does, the reader or audience needs to feel her actions arise not from this or that identifiable source, but from the whole of her personality, her wants and contradictions and secrets and wounds… As important as a character’s core desire is, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor can it be teased out and separated from everything else about her.”

“Characters are often unwise in choosing their inner motivations,” says Mr. Hauge. “They frequently take the wrong path to achieving self-worth.”

However, “It really is inconsequential whether Individual is aware that he feels the way he does,” says Dwight Swain. “The crucial issue is that the feeling exists to the point that it’s strong enough to move him.”


We already touched on goal when we sussed out how to create our one-line synopses.  Other names the masters use include external motive, purpose, outer motivation, external goal, and physical story goal.

What is a Goal?

“Specific Goals are generally attainable things: the house, the girl, the job, revenge for something specific against a specific person, etc,” says Ms. Gray.  “The goal should be something tangible and valuable that your character has in mind, in the very earliest pages of your [story].”

Goal or “Outer motivation is the answer to the question ‘What does this character want to accomplish by the end of the [story].'” says Mr. Hauge.  “It is the hero’s outer motivation that drives the plot of the story and determines the basic story concept.”

For Mr. Swain, “A goal is a symbol of fulfillment,” of the character’s Want.  It’s “something you can take action to accomplish.”

How do you come up with your goal?

“A goal exists only in terms of an existing situation,” says Mr. Swain. “There’s some aspect of your situation that you’d like to see changed…. So you make it your goal to change this sad condition.”

Need some Goal criteria?

Mr. Hauge provides some (calling Goal a ‘desire’):

  • The desire must be visible.
  • The desire must have a clearly implied endpoint.
  • Your hero’s outer motivation must seem impossible to accomplish.
  • Your hero must pursue his outer motivation until the end of the story.
  • Your hero must desperately want to achieve the desire.
  • Your hero must actively pursue the desire.
  • It must be within your hero’s power to achieve the desire.
  • Your hero must put everything on the line to achieve his desire.

Some things to note about Goals:

“We choose the exterior goal to provide dramatic urgency, to create movement, and to offer clarity,” says Mr. Corbett, “even though that outer goal often only incompletely represents what the character truly wants.”

“It doesn’t matter whether this something is major or minor, cataclysmic or trivial or any level in between,” says Mr. Swain. “What matters is that [the character] cares about it.”


In terms of understanding its purpose, Need may be better stated as True Emotional Need, Emotional Wound, or Backstory Atoned For.  Masters call it Inner Need, Lack, Inadequacy, Wound, Vulnerability, and Inner Obstacle.

What is a Need?

A character thinks his Want, achieved by way of his Goal, will bring him fulfillment, but “Actually, it may be that what’s missing is in the person himself,” says Mr. Swain, something “rooted in the sense of inadequacy born of childhood helplessness.”

It is “usually in the form of longstanding emotional and psychological barriers–that are forever holding her back,” says Ms. Cron.

“A character’s inner need is often born of a deep fear or psychic injury that affects the character’s day-to-day choices and decisions.  And this is something that your main character won’t easily admit to,” says Ms. Gray.  “In fact, your character either isn’t aware of this need, or has pushed it down into such a tiny ball that they’d deny it to the ends of the earth.”

As I understand it (and since I didn’t find much from the masters on Need), the character’s emotional Need is something only the character can give himself, something only the character can allow himself to feel, regardless of his external circumstances.

There is often an event in his past that has brought him to, and that is keeping him in, this unyielding and unserving emotional place of denying himself permission to feel the way he wants to feel.  And it is the journey of the story that gives him a new perspective with which to view this past hurt or wrong or mistake… and let it go… allowing him to fulfill his true emotional need.

When done well, this renders the accomplishment of his external goal irrelevant, because the external goal, the plot, is merely a vehicle for unsticking this long-standing emotional blockage and achieving emotional fulfillment.

That said, your character doesn’t have to have an emotional Need to make for a good story.  James Bond doesn’t have one. Robert Langdon doesn’t have one.  Still, that said, critics often rip on characters who don’t have one, and characters born of an archetype that doesn’t usually have one (detectives come to mind), but who actually do have one, make for quite compelling reading.  In my humble opinion.

How do you find the Character’s Need?

For Ms. Gray, “Inner need requires you to be nosey and ask your character why he needs to feel” the way she thinks achieving her Goal will make her feel; that is, why she wants her emotional Want.

“The best place to start … is by pinpointing the moment long before [page 1], when she first fell prey to the inner issue that’s been skewing her worldview ever since,” says Ms. Cron. “Ask yourself:  Why is the protagonist scared?  What, specifically, is she scared of that keeps her from achieving her goal?”

“The vulnerability in the present of the story [often] echoes back to a past wound or … past failures to respond well to frustration of some fundamental want or ambition,” says Mr. Corbett.

In other words, find the past wound or mistake, and you’ll probably find the emotional Need.

Some things to note about Needs

“Any feeling of inadequacy, it should be obvious, is an individual matter,” says Mr. Swain.  “The stimulus or situation that creates a sense of lack in one man may leave another utterly untouched.”

And Dara Marks says, “Ultimately…it is the attainment of one’s internal goal [true emotional need] that allows a character to achieve the external goal.”


“Just as there always comes a season when a snake must shed its skin in order to grow,” says Ms. Marks, “our best stories likewise reveal that we too must shed and leave behind any part of ourselves that is obsolete and no longer benefiting our development.”  That obsolete part is a Flaw.

Other names for the Flaw include Internal Problem, Internal Obstacle, Attitude, Compensation.

What’s a Flaw?

“Flaws are traits that damage or minimize relationships and do not take into account the well-being of other,” says Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi.  “They also tend to be self-focused rather than other-focused.”

“Flaws are coping mechanisms for needs not yet understood, acknowledged or met by your character,” says Ms. Gray. “Think of flaws as naughty children acting out.  FINE! You don’t love me, I DON’T NEED LOVE ANYWAY!!”

The flaw or “Compensation,” as Mr. Swain calls it, “is what your character substitutes for what he hasn’t got . . , the behavior with which he attempts to ease the sting engendered by feelings of inadequacy.”

“The key point is that when confronted with stress, we feel anxiety–the echoes of abandonment, ridicule, rejection, violence–based on the details of our lives,” says Mr. Corbett. “And given that unique personal history, each of us has developed an organic response, often unconscious, and often less than optimal.”

“The Fatal Flaw is a struggle within a character to maintain a survival system long after it has outlived its usefulness,” says Ms. Marks. “A survival system that has outlived its usefulness will begin to diminish, not enhance, a person’s true value, and it will carry the person only so far before it collapses under its own weight,” which is what happens in the story.

“[T]he term flaw refers to the character’s weakness,” “the deep-rooted center of a character that makes him vulnerable to emotional attacks and the story’s forces of antagonism,” says Jim Mercurio. “If its severity will destroy the character, then it is considered a tragic flaw.” “A flaw or weakness that does not rise to the level of tragic will challenge a character, but she will ultimately overcome it . . . by what is called a character arc.”

How do you identify a character’s Flaw?

“To define the fatal flaw organically…it must be drawn from the theme,” says Ms. Marks. “Because the fatal flaw reveals an aspect of character that can potentially destroy the opportunity for growth, it is always created around a value that opposes the theme [that is, the positive half of the thematic statement] and the internal goal [Need] for the protagonist.”

“When you think about flaws, thing about the Big Idea of your whole [story],” says Ms. Gray. “What is the worst flaw your character could have in that situation?  Create a relationship between the flaw and the adventure.”

Ask, “How does the character react when her desires are thwarted?” says Mr. Corbett.  “What sort of response does conflict engender?”

Need some inspiration?  Check out The Negative Trait Thesaurus–or do a google search.

Some things to note about Flaws

“Flaws are what make stories interesting,” says Ms. Gray. “So make sure your character has an active, interesting naughty acting-out flaw that CREATES more drama, problems, and ultimately, entertainment.”

How do you make sure your flaw is active?  Ms. Gray suggests that you ask yourself: How does someone with this flaw (example: vain, doormat, arrogant, shy, etc.) behave…

  • at a dinner party?
  • in a very long line at the post office?
  • playing tennis?
  • when it’s time to clean the house?”

“Your character generates or adds to the problems in the situation because of their flaw. They can’t help it,” says Ms. Gray. “And when they straighten out their flaw–then and only then will things get better for them.”

Mr. Hauge agrees:  “Inner conflict is whatever stands in the way of the character achieving real self-worth as she pursues her inner motivation. Until the character can overcome her inner conflict, she will never be able to achieve the feelings of self-worth that are her objective.”

Last, Jordan Rosenfeld says, “Keep in mind that a character’s ‘flaw’ doesn’t always mean there’s something wrong with them; it’s a piece of their past or personality, an unresolved secret or a bad habit that keeps them from being whole and happy, but it’s not always their fault.”

Symptoms of the Flaw

These are also known as Defense Mechanisms.

What are Flaw Symptoms?

Flaw symptoms, or what Ms. Ballon calls “Defense mechanisms are unconscious attempts of a person to protect himself against threats to the integrity of the ego and to relieve tension and anxiety resulting from unresolved frustrations and conflicts.”

“Like the pressure along a fault line, the tension between the Want and the Need creates little earthquakes that we experience as the character’s flaw and more importantly–symptoms of that flaw.”

In other words, we’re getting into how the character behaves.  The character’s Flaw dictates his problematic behavior.

How do you determine your character’s Flaw Symptoms?

“Begin to define [the character] by simply interpreting what it means to [have the identified Flaw],” says Ms. Marks. “A good place to start designing a character is to put together a list of words that are evoked by the concept of [the flaw].”  Then imagine how those traits might play out in terms of behavior.

Ask yourself:

  • What does having that flaw look like?
  • How does having that flaw influence how the character acts and speaks?
  • How might this flaw-driven action and speech create trouble for the character?

A way to succinctly articulate this

This is how I do it:

  • Character: (I usually write this in terms of (i) who he is at the beginning of the story and (ii) the inciting incident (we’ll get to this next month))
  • General Emotional Want:  (love, money, power)
  • Specific External Goal:  (marry a man, rob a bank, overthrow the king)
  • Internal Emotional Need:  (What denied emotional need the Want and Flaw are compensating for)
  • Supporting Backstory: (the event in which the character was wronged or hurt or made a horrible mistake and that is keeping the character from allowing himself to feel his Need)
  • Active Flaw:  (the way the frustration of not getting that he Wants shows up, especially when it threatens to touch or expose his emotional Need: self-righteousness, arrogance, stubbornness)
  • Flaw Symptoms:  (what the flaw actually looks like in a variety of ways)

However, Mr. Mercurio says, “In great stories, even in the most complex dramas, the essence of a character’s nature simply boils down to one single, albeit difficult choice. This is a dilemma. A dilemma is a decision in which both outcomes are unacceptable because they are equally good (and you have to forgo one) or equally bad (you must choose one in a lose-lose situation). The effort to condense the inner turmoil of your character to a succinct dilemma pays off in many ways.” It “defines the character arc, creates the climax, embodies theme, and clarifies supporting characters.” It also points to settings, defines the conflict of your plot, of your scenes, of your microtension . . .

Top Books on Want, Need, Flaw, Symptom

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Well, that’s it for me

What about you?  Got any insights for us about character want, need, flaw, symptoms?  Tell us in the comments!

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Up Next, on Wednesday

We’ll look at how the characters in the stories we’ve read lately either have or don’t have want, need, flaw, symptoms, and whether that was effective or not.  See you then!

2 thoughts on “Character: Want, Need, Flaw, Symptoms

  1. Wow, wow, wow. This was such a great post and exactly what I was looking for to clarify some of the details I’m learning in a workshop run by Shannon Donnelly. Thanks so much for this, it was a big help.


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