How to Develop Meaningful Characters that Drive Your Story by Identifying the Wants, Needs, and Purpose of your Antagonist, Protagonist, and Supporting Cast
Identifying the wants, needs, and purpose of your antagonist, protagonist and supporting cast—preferably in that order—is the most important thing writers can do before outlining or writing a story. The best way to do this is to select the Internal and External Genres driving that story.
Meaningful characters give a story purpose. Genre expectations pave the road to a story that works.
A second to clarify the definition of meaningful.
When I say to writers, “create a meaningful character,” I don’t mean a character who contributes a lot of meaning to the message and/or plot of this story. If the story is interesting in any way, we already know that your characters are significant to your story’s structure and ultimate success. Your readers’ reactions confirm this.
A MEANINGFUL character, on the other hand, becomes timeless—they inspire and impact readers long after the text ends. This is my definition of a meaningful character:
A meaningful character is authentic in their biological, emotional, and spiritual makeup as part of the human condition, and this authenticity impacts how the character internally influences the text andexternally changes a reader because he/she fearlessly and generously shares his/her passions—and how he/she struggles to attain these—on purpose.
Stop for a second. Read that again, slowly. Digest it. Let the words sink in.
Now, reflect on who this definition made you think about. Was it a person from your life? A beloved character from a book or movie? A pet?
How did that person/character make you feel?
Why do you think they made you feel this way?
Ideas are great. Tremendously well-structured stories are solid and will entertain readers to a point where they will recommend that story to a friend or family member (or on social media). But nothing makes a timeless story work like a meaningful cast of characters.
To design a cast of meaningful characters, writers need to ask questions that go beyond the surface level. (Questions that dig deeper than external details like what they look like, what they do, what their favorite food is, what their birthday is, what, what, what…)
To go beyond the surface of character bio questions, answer these three simple questions that unveil your character’s passion and purpose:
- What does my character want?
- What does my character need?
- Why does you character want and need this?
When you’re stuck, look to your Internal Genre’s and External Genre’s value spectrums to discover your character’s global want and need—Shawn Coyne refers to these wants and needs as a character’s Objects of Desire in the Story Grid Universe.
Understanding Your Characters from Within
The key to developing a meaningful character aligns with the same steps it takes to host an engaging interview: Ask the best questions. Talk less. Listen up.
In other words, lay the foundation that creates a conversation.
Consider the psychology of this. People love listening to podcasts and hate filling in common questionnaires required for government forms and other paperwork. Why? Because it’s tedious and monotonous, and while such information like your name and height and living address tells us something about you on the surface level, it doesn’t show us anything about what really matters: your passions and purpose.
Remember that old editing term “show don’t tell?” Here’s a tip. It’s not about showing instead of telling, it’s about knowing when to show and when to tell and how to do both. You can’t do this properly if you, as the writer, don’t know anything that matters to your characters. It’s faulty to expect your characters to organically behave and talk when you start writing out scenes if you don’t understand why they would do this—you need to know what motivates them.
Feel ready to learn more?
OBJECTS OF DESIRE
Objects of Desire is a fancy way of saying the global value your character wants and needs, which you can determine more easily by studying the expectations of your story’s Internal and External Genres.
As a quick reminder to writers who read my post on loglines, the global value shift is the movement in the protagonist’s life value, which is determined by the story’s genre. This movement is portrayed as a shift between the positive and negative values of a global spectrum. Furthermore, this shift represents how the protagonist changed and grew from start to finish. (Learn more about Value Shifts in This Podcast and This Post.)
Looking at character wants, needs, and purpose in assimilation with Internal and External Genre expectations (preferably genres categorized by Story Grid) will make identifying your character’s objects of desire far easier than trying to reinvent the wheel.
I’m not saying that if you’re writing a Worldview-Maturation Internal Genre with an Action External Genre that your character MUST need to learn how to be sophisticated in order to self-actualize and want to survive, but I’d wager a (very) large bet that a character’s global want and need falls somewhere in the vacinity of these global value spectrums.
Knowing what your genres are—Internal and External—is crucial to a story’s success. If you haven’t had the chance to understand your story’s genre expectations yet, re-read my post on loglines or learn more about genres in the Story Grid archive.
KNOW WHAT YOUR CHARACTER WANTS – The External Genre
Alfred Hitchcock famously quoted the key to killing your darlings with this line: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”
What he meant by this was a story is only as interesting as the complications thrown at the characters—in both internal and external ways. You don’t need to write the next James Bond movie to create a meaningful story. You need conflict.
In a Story Grid post, editor Shawn Coyne expands on conflict and how it is the beating heart of structure. A meaningful character is the blood. Something must happen in the beginning of a story in order for us to understand a character’s motivations—and without an understanding of these motivations, we won’t care about the character or story’s progress.
An event must be thrown at the protagonist’s life with a force that knocks him/her out of balance. This is where the relatability of a character factors into a reader’s or viewer’s own identity: humans feel safe in a state of homeostasis, and when unexpected factors knock our lives out of balance, we do everything we can to return to that state of normality and security. How we respond to this conflict will be different, but the internal desire needed to accomplish this is more often the same.
An external event can be a random coincidence like a hurricane (the musical Hamilton) or an occurrence caused by someone (Rose is put on Titanic by her fiancé in Titanic). Regardless, a positive or negative change in a character’s everyday life activates the structure of the story, and this event is what gives rise to a protagonist’s object of desire.
Whether or not the protagonist actually achieves their conscious object of desire is irrelevant, what’s important is that the protagonist desperately believes that only by achieving this want can they return to their state of homeostasis—i.e. ordinary world, safety, security, etc.
In universal story language, this conscious want is known as the A Story.
Shawn Coyne likes to call Storyline A: “the external story to achieve the conscious object of desire.”
And while the A Story provides physical evidence of a character’s forward motion based on his/her decisions in response to conflict, the want alone is not enough to make a meaningful character—at least not a story containing memorable essence capable of standing the test of time.
Readers (and writers) must know the character’s need to do that.
WHAT DOES YOUR CHARACTER NEED? – The Internal Genre
Anyone who has studied Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Beat Sheet might recall the first beat in Act II: The B-Story.
When I was teaching screenwriting and creative writing to my high school students, I had tons of kids get stumped by this beat. What’s the B-Story? As described in Snyder’s book, it’s when the “love” story comes on screen—i.e. this could be the moment that the protagonist meets their love interest.
And if I left the explanation at that, I would get 95% of my students submitting beat sheets with B-Story moments showing an introduction to a love interest—even if their story had nothing to do with courtships, marital plots, or something of the love-story kind.
I needed to rephrase.
The B-Story beat, the first major beat in Act II, can be when a protagonist meets their love interest—but more importantly this beat is when the character is introduced to a supporting cast member who is going to challenge the protagonist internal state and growth. This character becomes an antagonist of their own sorts—someone who calls the protagonist to explore their internal story (or B-Story) so that they can become a more fulfilled version of him or herself at the end. This supporting character pushes the protagonist to transform into someone better (or worse if you’re writing a cautionary tale) than they are at the beginning of the story.
In Story Grid language, editor Shawn Coyne defines this drive for internal change as the subconscious object of desire:
“Storyline B is the Internal Story to achieve the subconscious object of desire.” – Shawn Coyne
To explain, every protagonist (and antagonist) has an external want—a conscious object of desire—that motivates the story’s global action. To reiterate, this “want” is what forces the protagonist to move forward (and the story to happen) because an unexpected event in the beginning of the story throws the protagonist’s life out of balance.
However, the character’s need is what must change internally (beneath their surface) in order to get what they want. Until a character changes from within (think of it as their mindset), a character cannot accomplish their external goal.
In Snyder and James Scott Bell terms, this need—or subconscious object of desire (Story Grid)—is accomplished at the ultimate moment of a story’s climax: when a protagonist digs down deep by acknowledging their need to internally change and then willingly and consciously accepts and undergoes that change in order to take out the villain/antagonist of the story.
This is when:
- Luke trusts the force and uses it to take out the Death Star
- Katniss chooses to eat the berries instead of kill Peeta—she understands she can’t win either way
- Frodo accepts that he needs to journey to Mordor alone (with Sam as the exception) and leaves the fellowship
- Scout sees Boo Radley as her savior instead of the scary and murderous stranger
- Harry sets aside his desire to bring back his parents and acquires the Sorcerer’s Stone because he does not want to use it for himself
And while triggered by external factors, all of these moments indicate the internal change and growth.
The internal change is what makes a story timeless because all readers struggle with relatable internal needs in his or her own life, even if they are not challenged by the same external forces (in the story) that motivate the characters to rise up.
Nail your subconscious object of desire and you will have a story that readers not only recommend but read again and again. And again.
To get an idea of character wants AND needs tethered to genre, you can study the Story Grid’s Gas Gauge of Needs; it uses Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for understanding and inspiration. This image from Story Grid editor Anne Hawley’s post “Discover Your Story’s Core” identifies the character needs on the left and the genre on the right.
Editor’s tip: Remember that Status, Worldview, and Morality stories are Internal Genres. Everything else is an External Genre.
WHY DOES YOUR CHARACTER WANT AND NEED THIS – The Purpose
My good friend and Story Grid Editor, Savannah Gilbo, talks about this brilliantly in her post on Compelling Characters.
In it, she explains how knowing why your protagonist has a particular want/goal and need determines your command over your story.
Think about this. Why is it that our mothers and spouses are often the people who know how to talk us through our problems best? Because they’ve taken the time to know us as people—individuals with specific goals, personalities, and behaviors. We aren’t cartoons in the real world and in order for your readers/viewers to identify with (and want to root for) your characters, you can’t make them behave and talk like cartoon characters. They need substance. (Unless, of course, you’re writing a cartoon–but that’s a whole different kind of discussion.)
Determining WHY your character wants or does anything will flatten the likelihood of writing two-dimensional characters. Knowing why a character wants something tells us what motivates that character—it identifies what they are willing to fight and fall for. On the other end, knowing why a character needssomething will show us how a character’s change in mindset (a deep change from within) will give them what they need to acquire their external wants.
Characters who want and need something also LACK something in their external and internal states, and just like real people, they desperately need to learn how to change their perspectives on life in order to become a wiser, fuller version of themselves–the kind of person who can get what they externally want because they understand their life’s purpose.
Savannah shares how: “More than likely, your protagonist is pursuing their external goal because he or she is incomplete in some way on the inside. They are convinced that by achieving this external goal, they will finally be happy or fulfilled, or that everything will be right in the world.”
Asking WHY your character wants and needs something will resolve that feeling of emptiness when reading through your story. Just like knowing WHY a friend or family member says or behaves a certain way helps us respond to their behavior better, knowing why your character wants or does anything gives us awareness of the underlying physical and emotional responses driving your story.
Awareness and understanding drive your plot with meaningful characters.
Objects of Desire: The Big-Takeaway
Shawn Coyne believes that “focusing on the struggle to get objects of desire will make up for almost every other kind of Story misstep. But wishy-washy choices for the objects of desire will destroy the most stunning secondary subplots.”
Readers are drawn to specific stories and genres because they are striving to get similar wants and needs in their own lives. When this truth is accepted, it’s much easier to see the kind of target audience you want as a writer because your future readers will enjoy investing themselves in your characters.
But how can you decide on a character’s wants and needs? Where to start?
I’m happy to share that if you’ve selected your global genre—which my post on loglines can help you do if you haven’t already—then choosing your character’s objects of desire is not difficult to select.
The strategy lies in cross-referencing your genre’s global value shift, particularly your story’s INTERNAL global value shift (more on this to come).
Editor’s Tip. In her post “5 Questions To Help You Create Compelling Characters,” Story Grid Editor Savannah Gilbo reminds writers, “Not every story requires both an internal and an external genre. If you’re writing an Action story where the protagonist doesn’t change internally, his need will match his want–to survive the external events of the plot.”
And while there is absolutely an audience for an external-only story, I’d like to add that characters who don’t change internally can tread the dangerous line of cartoon-ish. James Bond is James Bond and will always be James Bond; there’s an audience for this—these Action fans simply want to enjoy the exciting yet arguably predictable adventure of Bond surviving against all odds with cool skills and gadgets. It’s fun!
But for those writers who are looking to write stories driven by characters instead of plot, you need an Internal and an External Global genre. When you do this, one of the two will be the dominate genre for your story—your global genre—and this global genre will determine how you design structure essentials like conventions and obligatory scenes (more on this in a future post), but the global value shift for the Internal Genre is what you need to know today. This knowledge will navigate your character’s needs; the External Genre will determine your character’s wants.
Knowing this will open the window for you to ask your character what their passion is—which will clarify the story’s purpose.
Why is your cast of characters a meaningful cast?
You tell me. What do they want? What do they need? Why do they want and need this?
If you need help, use my Character-to-Genre Objects of Desire Chart for insight below, and happy outlining!
Editor’s Tip: While lots of writers begin developing a cast of characters with their protagonist, starting with your antagonist can more often unveil your protagonist’s wants, needs, and purpose in ways you might not have otherwise expected or discovered.
I encourage writers to create their antagonist first, since a protagonist has no reason to become the protagonist if the antagonist doesn’t call the protagonist to ACT.
As the writer, you have the freedom to decide who you develop first, but if you haven’t tried drafting your antagonist first, give it a whirl! Maybe you’ll discover all the flat-flaws currently restricting your Protagonist and plot.
Interested in learning more about character development, editing, and the craft of writing? Sign up for my email list or connect with me–I’d love to hear about and support your story!