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What’s the Difference Between What Characters Want and Need?

One approach to character development is to identify the difference between what characters want and what they need. Sometimes students get the two mixed up. Which is more important? Do plays always identify both for a character? Make sure you get the downloadable PDF with the discussion questions, activity list, and exit slip.

What is a need?

A need is something that a person must have in order to thrive. Without it, that person will suffer either physically or mentally.

Ask students:

What do you need in your life to thrive?

What do you need to be happy?

What do you need to be physically healthy?

What do you need to be mentally healthy?

If any of these things were missing, what would happen to you?

Some examples of needs are:

Physical needs: air, water, food, warmth, rest, health

Safety needs: shelter, security

Self needs: confidence, independence, respect, education, control over one’s choices

Relationship needs: friends, family, love, community

Purpose needs: personal growth, mental growth, spiritual growth, place in the world

What is a want?

A want is a choice. A desire which a person may or may not be able to get. Life will continue if a person doesn’t get what they want.

Wants are also individual. Every human being may have some of the same needs, but every human being will not have the same wants. Wants depend on a person’s environment, upbringing, background, and viewpoint.

For example, we all need to eat. We need to eat in order to live. But the choice of what to eat leans toward want. We can want pizza for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We can want to eat only fruits and veggies. We can want to eat caviar and expensive steak. Life will go on though, if we don’t get that.

Another example would be to look at relationships. We need caring relationships in order to thrive. We may want a certain type of personality or physique in a partner. But if we don’t get the 6ft body builder, life will go on.

Ask students:

What is one thing you want right now?

What is one thing you want this year?

What will happen to you if you don’t get these things?

Want vs Need in a Theatrical Context

We almost always ask students to identify a character’s want. What does your character want? How do they strive to get what they want? What tactics do they use? Conflict is often described as the obstacle that impedes a character from getting what they want.

Another way to analyze a character is to examine want vs need. Generally, a want is something that a character expresses at the beginning of a story. It’s the catalyst. They think that what they want is the only goal. In fact, it’s when the character understands their need that they realize what will bring health, happiness, or well being.

At the beginning of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wants out of Kansas. She wants to be in a more exciting place. By the end, she realizes that she needs to be surrounded by her family and friends.

At the beginning of Star Wars Episode IV, Luke wants adventure and something external. By the end, he realizes that what he needs is trust (in himself, others, and the force), which is something internal.

This change between want and need gives characters their journey. There is a difference between where they start and where they end. This change also gives an actor a rich palate to play with in terms of character development.


  • Take a fairy tale and identify the main character’s want and need.

  • Look at the first and last appearances of a main character in a play.

    • What are they doing in the first scene? Can you determine the character’s want?
    • What are they doing in the last scene? Has the character changed? Have they identified their need? If so, what do they need? If not, why not?
  • Have students write their own scenes that explore want vs need. This will help them solidify the difference between the two. One suggestion is to explore relationships as that’s a good place to start. For example:

    • A teen wants the approval of her mother. She needs to realize that mom is selfish and doesn’t have her daughter’s best interest at heart.
    • A teen wants the approval of a group. She needs to find self-confidence.
    • A girl wants a boy to like her. She needs to realize that the boy is using her because she has a car and he doesn’t.
    • A boy wants on the basketball team because his brother was on the basketball team. He needs to find his own path and not follow in his brother’s footsteps.
  • Divide students into groups and have each group brainstorm character wants/needs from a variety of source material. Look at movies they’ve seen, stories, plays they are studying in class, etc.

  • Take a character with a defined want at the beginning of a story and a defined need at the end. Have students tableaux the want and the need. How do these two elements look visually? What changes?

  • Can you identify a character who misuses the word need? Is there a character who is in denial about what they need? Think of a story in which a character is unable to recognize what they need, and thus, the story ends tragically.

Click here for a downloadable PDF of the discussion questions, activity list, and exit slip.
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