How to Identify Your Protagonist’s Want and Need (And Why Those Matter to Your Plot)


In this article, I’m going to give you a simple character development exercise that will enable you to craft a compelling arc for your protagonist and create a really satisfying climax and resolution of your novel.

This is an exercise I do every time I edit a book. When a writer sends me a manuscript and asks for my feedback, the two questions I’m going to share are at the top of my mind the whole time I’m reading the manuscript.

And this is an exercise I do with writers when I’m on a call and sharing my feedback with them. I’ll usually come with some notes I’ve taken on what I think based on reading their manuscript.

But before I share the ideas I came up with, I walk the writer through this exercise, through these two questions, to see what ideas they have in mind.

It’s a simple exercise—like I said, it’s just two questions. But you must know the answers to both questions in order to craft a really excellent character arc and deliver a satisfying climax and resolution.

2 Essential Character Development Questions

In fact, I’ll go ahead and tell you the questions now:

  • What does your character want?
  • What does your character need?

That’s it. Sounds simple, right?

But I’m telling you—the discussions I have with writers around these two questions are SO illuminating, and they can really clarify exactly what a writer is aiming to do with their book.

Breaking Down These Questions (With Slight Spoilers)

So in this article, I’m going to break these questions down.

I’m going to show you how I’d answer them for an example novel.

And then I’m going to give you some suggestions for how to find what your character wants and needs in your novel.

The novel I’ve chosen for this exercise is The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik.

I absolutely love this book! It’s the second book in Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy, which begins with A Deadly Education. I think all three books are fantastic YA fantasy novels, and Naomi Novik does so many things so well in them.

And one of the things she does well is establishing her protagonist’s wants and needs, which are incredibly clearly illustrated in The Last Graduate especially.

Why Character Development Enters Spoiler Territory

As always, I’m not aiming to share spoilers, but in order to explore wants and needs effectively, I might have to step into some spoiler-y territory.

And I’ll tell you why that is, because I actually think understanding this will go a long way towards illustrating how your character’s wants and needs impact the story.

Your Protagonist Has an External Goal

When your protagonist walks onto the first page of your story, they have a goal.

It’s a specific, external thing that they want to get or achieve. By external, I mean it’s a physical, literal thing in the real world, not something in their mind or way of thinking.

You can identify what they want, their external goal, pretty quickly.

Now, their exact goal might change in the first act, once the inciting incident happens.

I recently saw Avatar: The Way of Water, and in the very first minute of the movie, the protagonist, Jake Sully’s, goal is to live a peaceful life with his family in the forest of Pandora. Early in the movie, the human invaders return to Pandora, and his goal changes from “live peacefully in the forest with my family” to “fight the invaders to protect my family” and then it changes again to “flee from the forest and live with the sea people in order to protect my family.”

Now, I actually think Avatar: The Way of Water was a really terribly plotted movie, and I’m a little appalled that I’ve just used it as an example.

But it does illustrate how the external goal of the protagonist can be one thing at the opening of a story, and then change to something else when the inciting incident happens, which is the point I want to make here:

Your protagonist’s external goal will be very clear at the beginning of your book.

Your Protagonist Has an Internal Need

Your protagonist’s need, however, is a little different.

Their need is internal. It’s something that needs to shift in their way of thinking in order to be successful in your novel.

The thing is, we humans don’t want to shift the way we think. We don’t like to shift the way we think. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant.

No one walks onto the first page of a book thinking, “The things I believe about myself and the world are wrong, and I need to change them and believe something better in order to be successful.”

No. In fact, pressure to change feels like a threat. Your protagonist isn’t looking for it, and they may even think it’s a bad thing when they first encounter it!

So many times, the character’s need is a lot less obvious at the beginning of a story. It’s there, for sure.

But while your reader can name on page one, or can name within the first act, what it is that the character consciously wants, your reader might not be able to identify as clearly within the first act what internal need is getting in the way of your character’s success.

After all, your character probably can’t articulate it either. In the beginning of your story, your character believes they’re thinking the right things about the world! They’re not trying to change what they think—they’re just trying to get what they want.

Then, throughout the middle of the story, we see the character continually not achieve that external goal because something about their internal thinking just isn’t working.

Their internal need is getting in the way, but it may take them a long time to acknowledge that.

The place where we see the need most clearly is actually in the last third to last quarter of the story. That’s usually the point when the character actually has to actually make the change, to shift what they think and believe in order to be successful.

And because they do make that shift, because they finally meet that internal need, then they’re able to go into the climax and hopefully also achieve their external want.

And that’s why a discussion of wants and needs can kind of step into spoiler territory. Because the want is evident in the story very quickly.

But while the need is also an important part of the story from the very beginning, it’s a lot more subtle. And it’s actually connected to the solution of the whole book—it’s a critical part of the way the protagonist ultimately solves their problem in the climax of the book.

Example Novel: The Last Graduate

But you’re not reading this because you’re afraid of spoilers. You’re reading this to learn from other great novels and gain tools you can use to edit your own fantastic story.

So let’s dive into Naomi Novik’s novel The Last Graduate and see the wants and needs at play there. Let’s stop talking about a movie I don’t think is very good and go talk about a book that I think is fantastic instead.

First, a little context: The Scholomance trilogy is about teenagers who are students at a magical boarding school. But this boarding school is more like a prison: all magical teenagers are sent to this school because if they stay in the outside world, a bunch of nasty magical creatures called maleficaria will eat them. Inside, their survival rate through puberty goes up significantly, although they’re still in significant danger.

And the most dangerous point in their educational career is graduation. That’s when the senior class sprints across a hall that’s full of waiting maleficaria, and anyone who can make it to the doors and out of the school survives, and anyone who can’t gets eaten. So that’s a moment when the survival rate of the school goes down significantly.

The Last Graduate is about our protagonist, El, during her senior year at the Scholomance. She’s preparing for graduation.

And she’s survived the first three years of her high school career by following a sort of unspoken code around the Scholomance: she takes care of herself and no one else. She is always on alert, she’s always watching for something that can kill her, she doesn’t take unnecessary risks, and she doesn’t stick out her neck to help anyone else.

So that’s how she plans to survive graduation: she’ll make a strategic alliance with a couple of other similarly minded students, and then they’ll look out for each other and no one else.

That’s our starting point for the story.

What the Protagonist Wants and Needs in The Last Graduate

Which is a great time to talk about wants. What does El want?

She wants to survive graduation. A nice, straightforward external goal. Stay alive. Make it out of the school.

Now, what about her need?

In order to be successful in this book, in order to achieve her goal, El needs to acknowledge her interdependence.

This has two facets to it:

First, she must expand her investment beyond her own survival.

She has to learn to care for other people in the school—first her immediate allies and friends, and then the younger students who are right next to her, and then all the English-speaking students in the school, and then literally everyone.

She has to go from seeking her own survival to seeking everyone’s survival.

And the second part of interdependence is that she must ask for help. 

She has to offer help to other people, and she must acknowledge her own limitations to other people and ask them to help her, and trust them to do so.

There are a lot of layers here. But it all boils down to interdependence: she has to go from her fierce, determined independence to embracing her interdependence within a community.

That’s her need.

There is no guarantee that if she remained independent that she would be able to make it out of the school alive. If she remained independent, she definitely would never be able to keep more than a couple of other people safe.

But by addressing her need, by embracing her interdependence in some pretty radical ways, she is not only able to succeed at attaining her want, but to go far beyond it.

And that results in a brilliant climax that’s full of conflict with just sky-high stakes. By the end, we’re not just wondering, will El make it out of the school alive? We’re wondering, will every single student in the Scholomance make it out alive, can El get them out, and if she does, can she survive what it takes to do it?

I won’t tell you exactly how the story ends, because again, I’m not aiming to spoil it all for you. But I do think this book is a fantastic illustration of the intersection between character wants and needs. Plus, it’s a ton of fun. I highly recommend it!

5 Tips to Identify Your Protagonist’s Want and Need

Now, before we wrap up, I want to give you a few tips on how to identify your character’s wants and needs.

1. Answer these questions one at a time.

Tip #1: Answer these questions one at a time, and take a few minutes to ponder each question.

First, ask yourself what your protagonist wants. Can you identify their external goal?

What is their external goal on page one of your book? What is their external goal once the inciting incident happens?

Then, ask yourself what your protagonist needs. What are they getting wrong about the way they see the world? About the way they see themselves?

What’s holding them back from being completely successful throughout the middle of the story? What empowers them to be successful in the climax?

2. Brainstorm several wants and needs.

Tip #2: Brainstorm several ideas for each question.

When I’m answering these questions, I like to brainstorm a few ideas. I make a list of probably three to seven different wants that I see a character pursuing throughout a story. Then I make a list of three to seven different needs I see.

Usually, I’ll notice that several of those ideas circle the same general themes. So then that becomes a clue that maybe that theme is what’s really the want or the need.

Or when I notice a general theme, it’ll spark more ideas for what the wants or needs could be, and then I’ll land on the thing that really works for a story.

Ultimately, you’re looking for one want and one need, and together, those two things will drive the story.

But it can be really helpful to write down any possibilities you can think of, and then narrow things down from there to identify the one ultimate want and one ultimate need.

3. Consider your character’s arc of change.

Tip #3: Think about how your character changes over the course of your story.

This exercise of identifying your character’s wants and needs pairs really nicely with another character development exercise I shared a few weeks ago. That one was about crafting your character’s arc by identifying who they are at the beginning of your story and who they are at the end.

I actually ask the questions from this article and the questions from that article every time I edit a novel. And I recommend you do the same.

So after you finish this episode, go listen to “2 Essential Questions to Craft a Compelling Character Arc.”

And go ahead and grab the character arc worksheet I created for that episode. It will prompt you to describe your character at the beginning and the end of your story, and that’ll give you some clues to work with to identify their wants and needs.

You can grab that worksheet by entering your email below:

4. Think about what makes your protagonist unique.

Tip #4: Think about what makes your protagonist unique, and uniquely able to be successful in the climax of your story.

What is it that your character brings to the table that no one else can? Why are they able to succeed when everyone around them would fail?

This can be another clue about what your character’s strength is at the end of the book—which might be connected to what they need to grow in throughout the course of the book.

5. Use this exercise to plan your novel before you write.

And tip #5: As an editor, I always do this exercise in the editing process. But you can do this in your planning process before you write your book, too.

Take some time before you begin your first draft to ask yourself: what does your protagonist want? And what does your protagonist need?

And as you write your way through your first draft, you can always come back to your answers to these questions to help guide you as you discover the story.

Your Turn: What Does Your Protagonist Want and Need?

And there you have it: one of my favorite character development exercises, identifying your protagonist’s want and need.

Before we wrap up, I want to give you an assignment to do right now.

I want you to pull out a piece of paper and a pen, or a document on your computer, or the notes app on your phone. Whatever’s handy.

And then I want you to make two lists. The first one is called WANT and the second is called NEED.

And I want you to write under those two headings five ideas about your protagonist. Five things your protagonist wants, and then five things your protagonist needs.

Once you have that, can you narrow those two lists down to one thing each? One want and one need?

That is going to be absolutely key for creating narrative drive in your story—and paying off the whole thing with an incredible climax and resolution.

And while you’re in this character development exercise, don’t forget to download the Character Arc Worksheet for a second exercise that will help you craft your best character arc.

Enter your email below and I’ll send you the worksheet:

And that’s it for this exercise. I hope you have a lot of fun with this exercise—I always do! And I hope it sparks some great ideas for your character development and character arcs.

If You’re Loving Your Next Draft, Would You Mind Writing a Review?

One more thing before I go: if you’re enjoying Your Next Draft and you’re listening on Apple Podcasts, would you mind leaving a rating and review?

I read every review, and I love seeing what’s helpful to you and what you’re applying to your editing so I can create more episodes that are really useful to you.

Plus, reviews and ratings help more writers find the podcast, which means more writers learning how to edit their books well, which means more fantastic stories getting published into the world.

Here’s how you can leave a review in Apple Podcasts:

  • Open the Apple Podcasts app and search for “Your Next Draft” (or tap here to go straight to it!)
  • Tap “Your Next Draft” and scroll all the way down
  • Tap “Write a Review”
  • Tap the number of stars you’d like to give
  • Write a brief review and tap “Send”

Your review doesn’t have to be long—even one sentence means a lot!

And while we’re at it, I want to give a quick shout out to listener xkednis, who left this review this week:

“There are lots of podcasts for writers but not a lot about the revision process. Good news—Alice takes this on and—wait for it—loves revision! I especially appreciated the real time developmental editing session with Kim Kessler. It opened my eyes to how flexible I can be with a scene, brainstorming alternatives and making choices that best serve the story.”

Thank you so much for your kind words, xkednis!

And that’s one of my favorite parts of that episode, too, and my favorite parts of the editing process—when you identify what your story is really about, and then you can brainstorm all kinds of possibilities to adjust the story in tons of creative ways in order to communicate that ultimate idea and feeling. So I love that you heard that in the episode.

All right, I’ll wrap us up here so you can go complete this character development exercise.

You’ll find me here next week with a new episode of Your Next Draft. Until then, happy editing!

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