Wants, Needs, Fears and Misbeliefs

Wants, Needs, Fears and MisbeliefsFour essentials of character will inform the character’s arc or transformation: wants, needs, fears and misbeliefs. More than the simple mechanics of plot, these four things drive the character‘s change from the beginning to the end of the story.

Moreover, those four essentials will drive any kind of story, from Hero’s Journey or Romance to World View or Coming of Age. They also drive the tragic ‘fall from grace’ or the redemption arc of the villain.

Pick a Card

I ran this exercise at our writer’s group. Choose a protagonist; yours or one from a novel you’ve read. Consider:

  • What do they want?
  • What do they NEED?


  • What’s their fear? What holds them back?
  • What’s their misbelief? What false obstacle keeps them from the true path?

In story terms, then:

  • Their want is usually superficial or entirely false. This is a thread of external plot.
  • Their need is their true goal they have to embrace. This is the vital internal plot, the ‘why-we-should-care’ thread. Without this there is no story, there’s just a bunch of stuff that happens.

For the character arc of transformation:

  • Abandoning the want sets them on the road to change.
  • Actively pursuing their need acknowledges the transformation they have to go through.

That leads us to fears and misbeliefs.

  • Overcoming their fear shows courage and growth.
  • Overturning their misbelief is the revelation of the new path.

Previous posts have covered misbeliefs and the arc of change. So what do we find when we look at each of these four character elements?

From literature

Lizzie Bennett (Pride and Prejudice). Yes, collect a sticker. Let’s look at her wants, needs, fears and misbeliefs.

Want – to save the family from the Longbourne covenant (no male heirs).
Need – to find a life partner worthy of her.

Fear – she’ll be doomed to a loveless transactional marriage of convenience.
Misbelief – that wealth and privilege makes everyone a jackass, including Darcy.

Half way through the story, she abandons her want; she rejects Mr Collins’ proposal. In doing so she faces her fear. Cloistered at Longbourne she doesn’t expect her need to be fulfilled. From the earliest moment her prejudice reinforces her misbelief in the arrogance and selfishness of the wealthy. Lucky for her, Darcy returns to propose as she abandons that misbelief.

Pip (Great Expectations) is a country boy from the marshes who has wealth and favour land in his lap.

Want – money and status.
Need – to discover true self-worth.

Fear – to live small life without love.
Misbelief – that status only exists in money and social rank.
The assumed patronage of Miss Havisham is a mystery red-herring; it’s an external plot point not the internal plot of values.

Side Note: the Problem with Pip

Just because I can identify the wants, needs, fears and misbeliefs it doesn’t mean the character arc works. Pip is shallow, snobby, suggestible, selfish, arrogant and entitled. Social science would call him a  class traitor and worse. Pip’s redemption comes way too late. It’s a redemption arc of self-actualisation. He doesn’t get the money or the status or the girl at the end, but he does get an understanding of who he is.

My characters

Do my characters work with these four essentials?

Want – to find the Gray Rider, her helpmate for the mission ahead (external plot).
Need – to find her own agency and find her own path (internal plot).

Fear – that she’ll turn into her brute of a father
Misbelief – that her future is fixed and unalterable. It turns out she can defy her second sight and choose her own path.


Want – to find the Sixth Messenger and complete her life-long mission.
Need – to end her self-imposed isolation and find family through community

Fear One (External) – failure. She’s had hard task-masters who set impossible standards.
Fear Two (Internal) – attachment. Aeryn has layers and layers of abandonment issues. She fears new attachments because every one ends with the pain of loss.
Misbelief – that she’s alone and has to stay that way.

Both their story types are Coming-of-Age, wrapped in the fantasyadventure genre.

Without addressing these four essentials, I might be able to make something of flat-arc adventurers in the protagonist role. Flat-arc characters present a whole other set of challenges.

5 thoughts on “Wants, Needs, Fears and Misbeliefs”

    1. It’s all in the execution.You identify these to drive character motivation to do or not do something. If someone writes “Jeff didn’t actually want a promotion, he needed a new career, but he was afraid of rejection,” then that’s pretty poor on-the-nose writing. That’s the delivery I don’t like.

    2. Its a standard a formula for relatability, conflict, self-discovery, and growth. That’s why everyone uses it.

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