on Fiction University:
Plot and character arc. External and internal conflict. Intellectual and emotional. There are indeed two sides to every story.
Confusion between a character’s want and need has sent many a writer down the wrong plot path, and I’ve run into quite a few who found themselves puzzled over how to use wants and needs in their novels. Are they the same thing? Is one the plot and the other the subplot? No, and no.
A strong want/need pairing shows an emotional hole in the protagonist’s life, and how resolving the plot allows them to fill that hole.
The protagonist doesn’t always know what they need, but they usually know what they want. That conscious goal (the want) drives the plot. It’s the unconscious goal (the need) that gets realized over the course of the story as the protagonist resolves and experiences that plot. The protagonist “goes through some stuff” and is changed by it. It helps to think of wants as the plot and needs as the character arc.
Let’s dig deep into a movie where the wants versus needs issue was masterfully done—Shrek.