Management: Vague character-arc spoilers for a few shows here – FLCL, Eva, Tatami Galaxy, Cowboy Bebop, Hyouka. Hyouka’s the only one I get particularly specific on.
Gonna share something a little different today! Recently I’ve been thinking about characters, which is probably because I am always thinking about characters. While a lot of my personal views on character writing have obviously come from reading and watching a whole lot of stories, a fair amount of my understanding has also come from writing characters. As a fiction writer, knowing how to write a fleshed-out human being is rarely optional – but even just as someone who just wants to poke more deeply at the things they consume, I think analyzing characters from a character-creation standpoint can be very enlightening. Characters are kind of like trees – though the individual branches of their actions may look strange and circuitous, generally everything winds its way back to the central trunk of their base nature and desires. And looking at characters trunk-first can do a whole lot of work to make sense of their wildly winding limbs.
So let’s get down to that trunk, to the absolute base nature of a character. There are a few ways to approach this, but personally I think the easiest way to consider character writing is to start with two key variables. The two often-conflicting desires that tend to define their choices, their conflicts, and their ultimate resolution: what they want and what they need.
What a character wants is simple. It’s their goal – it’s the thing that consciously drives them forward. It’s whatever they think would make them happy. Naota from FLCL wants everyone to respect him like they respected his older brother, and so he tries to act like how he assumes adults act. Shinji from Evangelion wants to avoid being hurt, and so he takes the path of least resistance and avoids dangerous contact with others. Watashi from The Tatami Galaxy wants to experience the mystical rose-colored campus life, and so he joins a wide variety of clubs and continuously reinvents himself.
What a character wants is basically what they, from their very biased and unenlightened early position in the narrative, believe will “solve” their personal journey. Their actions are aimed at fulfilling it, and their character “performs” a self in a way designed to acquire it. If you asked them what they wanted, it is what they would tell you. It often sets the plot in motion, but it is almost always ultimately a lie.
Characters, like people, often have a hard time understanding themselves. In a narrative, this is most fundamentally expressed through the ways they either don’t understand or can’t accept what they actually need. What a characters “needs” is what will actually resolve their core issue – it is the hard lesson or truth that their conscience “want” is normally just attacking the symptoms of. Naota doesn’t actually need to become an adult – he needs to learn that it’s okay to be a kid, to be earnest, to be wrong, to grow. Only then will he able to escape the shadow of his brother, and actually move towards acquiring what he initially desired. Shinji needs to accept the pain of human connection – though he moves away from it because it is easier, in order to escape his unhappiness, he must embrace the pain of contact and move forward. And Watashi needs to learn that there is no such thing as a rose-colored life, and in doing so see the beautiful colors that have been around him all along.
What a character needs often stands in direct contrast to what they want, and the two are almost always reflective of each other. The “want” is often either a symptom or consequence of escaping the “need” – it is either a way of avoiding taking the harder path, or the result of whatever makes the hard path impossible in the first place. Spike from Cowboy Bebop exemplifies this contrast – he “wants” to either live in or ignore his past, but he “needs” to acknowledge it and move on. Because he is unable to transition from his want to his need, the story has an unhappy ending. “Need” tends to represent the person a protagonist either fundamentally is or has to become, and “want” tends to represent the way they are running from it, or the thing they think could make them happy even if they avoid acknowledging their “need.”
Want and need are one of the fundamental building blocks of internal conflict, but they also express themselves in more overt, personality-based ways. What a character “wants” often informs their conscious self-image – it is reflected in who they think they are, and thus how they tend to interact with others. In contrast, what they “need” tends to be reflective of who they really are, and thus the actions they take when the chips are down. Shinji demonstrates this very well – he overtly pushes others away all the time, but ultimately will take actions designed to make others care about him. You could even apply this to the classic “tsundere” character type (I hate you! But secretly I love you) – their overt actions and their underlying desires are continuously at war, because they are unable to embrace their own internal self. So yes, if it takes mapping “want” and “need” to “tsun” and “dere” for this to make sense as two halves of a person, then go with it. “I want that jerk to leave me alone… because I can’t admit to myself that I am a vulnerable person who deeply desires their affection.”
The nice thing about want and need is that they kind of form a dramatic circle all by themselves. “Want” is comforting, because it is an easy goal to strive for that doesn’t require self-reflection, whereas “need” is painful, because it generally requires reflection and personal growth. Meaning that a person can pursue their “want” for a while, come to see a piece of their “need,” acknowledge it, become hurt, and retreat to their “want” again. “I can’t go back on the field – they’ll kill me out there!”, “How can I learn to love again?”, etc – pursuing “need” inherently implies risk, and when you’re actually punished for it, that naturally leads drama back around to a “want” that protects the character from future harm. “Want” promotes narrative, which can lead people to revelations that reveal their “need,” which can lead to pain, which returns characters to a safer “want.” When I say “conflict should emerge naturally from characters,” this is a large part of what I am getting at – when a story’s conflicts come about because a character is doing what comes naturally to them, it becomes much more personal than if it were simply arbitrary, external conflict impeding their progress. And when conflict is designed in this way, the resolution of that conflict directly lends itself to character growth – the character development is both natural and a fundamental reflection of the show’s conflicts.
Not every character will have a want and need, of course. These desires are generally the foundation of an emotional arc, so if your character simply plays a bit part in the story, they likely won’t have one. The thing about introducing these elements is that fully articulating them generally means you need to actually pursue them, and not every character can or should change as a person. And some stories simply aren’t about character growth (gasp!), or require characters to actually remain static to make their points (like Cowboy Bebop), in which case the gap between want and need will never be closed by the narrative. That said, minor characters are still people, and their actions should still be reflective of human beings with conflicting needs and desires even if the trunk underlying their actions is never made overt by the narrative.
As Cowboy Bebop demonstrates, there isn’t always a clear progression from pursuing an overt want to acknowledging and embracing a fundamental need. They’re just two elements that make up a character, and though the traditional character growth arc tends to follow that formula, you can actually play with these variables in a variety of interesting ways to promote specific effects. Hyouka’s a great example of this – there, Oreki’s overt “want” is to pass through life without expending energy, whereas his underlying “need” is to find a passion that actually makes use of the inquisitive mind that separates him from others. Oreki actually does follow the traditional character-growth arc throughout Hyouka, but this is complicated by the fact that his romantic arc with Chitanda works against this personal arc.
As Oreki becomes more and more of a full human being with an interest in pursuing his talents, he actually becomes less and less of a person who could be satisfied sharing the peaceful life Chitanda has waiting for her. This tension, the conflict between Oreki embracing his underlying need and the resolution of the series’ romantic narrative, is what makes Hyouka’s ending so unique and so powerful. (Incidentally, this is also a great example of “earned” tragedy – Chitanda’s positive influence on Oreki directly resulting in him becoming a person unable to return her affections is about as natural and poetic a tragedy as you could ask for). Additionally, in contrast to Oreki embracing his need, his friend Fukube’s personal arc is left unresolved entirely, and that’s intentional. Like music, stories are built on tension and release, and sometimes leaving a story with tension unresolved actually creates a more powerful or real-seeming effect. This tension doesn’t come from specific word choices or dramatic setpieces (though those too have their own rhythm) – it comes from the slow-building dramatic inevitability of a story’s fundamental variables. And a firm understanding of the distance between a character’s overt desires and underlying needs is one of the most powerful tools available for marshaling this tension towards a specific audience impression of desire, lingering questions, or catharsis.
That’s all I’ve got for today! Hope you enjoyed this craft-ramble, and I’ll try to come up with another related topic soon. And let me know in the comments if there’s any part of storytelling you’d be particularly interested in hearing about. I have no shortage of opinions!