An Omniway Of Want and Need

December 13, 2021 - 6 min read

Wants, in this case, are mostly external and based on simple principles: everyone wants, and I want; I should keep up or I will be left behind; I want to be successful and achieve everything; I want to be cooler than that guy over there; my parents said that I should do this; I saw an ad on Twitter a hundred of times and now I want to buy this; money, I want money; and others, their name is legion, for they are many.

But today I don't want to talk about how and why we want things (there are great books about it), I just want to outline the difference between need and want how I see it, ponder on how this relates to storytelling and give some examples.

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I must mention upfront that The Lifeboat never offers you life or writing advice. Your common sense is at risk. If you see somebody on the internet is offering you these types of advice, it's likely scam. Verify your sources of information.

Example №1, from real life.

Felix [1] (a completely and unconditionally random character, random enough that he may or may not exist at all, or both at the same time depending on how you look at it; nevertheless, all coincidences with real persons you know are coincidental) wants many followers on Twitter, but there are none. They don't come, they don't want to. What to do?

Felix decides to sell his soul to the devil. He obtains a secret grimoire with words, assembled into meaningless but effective spells, and begins to tweet them. Now, Felix is dead behind the eyes but followers seem to come. Somehow, not enough. Felix wants more.

Felix's problem is that wanting to achieve something isn't enough. Quite obviously so, ha-ha. He needs something else to accomplish the goal, something he's not aware of what he needs. That’s the problem. It's not even about the goal per se, but about the means and methods, or maybe about Felix himself (maybe all of those together). Felix's goal is unattainable until he understands what his weakness is. And Felix's weakness is that he is no writer, no artist, or, God forbid, c*ntent creator. Felix wants followers because he saw some succesful comrade's Twitter account with a huge audience and decided he wants it too. But he didn't realise that the comrade’s followers are not the cause of his success, but rather a consequence. There are exceptions of course, but these are quite degenerate cases and if I may, I will not consider them. So, Felix wants followers but to gain them, he needs to write well and do it a lot. That's what Felix should want, that's what he truly needs. And maybe one day, Felix will get that.

Our desires are often external and conscious, but at the same time, our innermost self subconsciously needs something else, something entirely different. Often these two phenomena are linked, sometimes they are not. Unfortunately, it is easier to understand it in hindsight. At one moment, you may realise that you are exactly where you need to be, even though you did not intend to get there and did not want to be there. Paradox, isn't it? The inexplicable secret of the universe.

Example number two, from literature.

In Neil Gaiman's novel Neverwhere, Richard Mayhew, a perfectly ordinary office plankton with a perfectly stable job, an unstable relationship, and all those things people tend to have, finds himself in a new world, a parallel magical London, quite by accident. His real-life is shattered. He no longer exists in his true reality, and now he has no choice but to help his new friends in their magical world. So, together they get into different adventures, go through serious challenges, and all the while our hero wants to get out of this world, to return to his old boring life, boring but familiar, devoid of dangers. At the end of the piece, he gets that opportunity, but after getting what he has wanted for so long, he understands that what he really needed all the time was an adventure, and he decides to stay in the magical world. (Please forgive me if I've twisted the details of the book, I read it quite a while ago.)

This kind of internal conflict is a big topic in storytelling, especially in Hollywood. The main characters often have a desire and needs, clearly understandable for the audience but not for the character.

For example, Chinatown, Jake, like the other detectives, wants to solve the case, but to do so he has to learn to trust people and stop using them.

Or Verdict (1982). Frank, once a successful, now a drunken advocate, as in all courtroom dramas, wants to win the case. What he really needs to do that is regain his self-respect first.

Or Star Wars, Luke wants to defeat Darth Vader, his father (sorry for the spoilers), but to do so he needs to get over his fear and anger or he will slide to the dark side.

And on and on and on and on, blablabla

See, need and desire are often linked, and need is often responsible for the main weakness of a hero. Without overcoming this weakness, achieving the goal is impossible.

This is by no means advice on how plots should be constructed but rather an observation that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. It doesn't make films and books better or worse. No. It just is.

It works, however, because this conflict is familiar to every one of us. We experience this kind of torment multiple times throughout our lives. We want to write the best novel of the 21st century, but we need to write regularly, write a lot of bad stuff and maybe write some better stuff in the end. We want a good career but need family and support. We want to comprehend universal wisdom, but need to sign up for my newsletter using this beaconing button below. We want a new laptop or app, hoping to become more productive, but in fact, we need skills and discipline. We want to build muscle, but we need regular exercise and diet. We want attention to our personas, trying on different masks, while we just need to be ourselves. We want to want, but first, we need to figure out what to want (yes). Which, of course, is not that easy to do as to say.

There's nothing wrong with wanting money, a career, followers, or whatever. No, the problem is always what that goal is built upon, and whether this foundation has a crack, the very one that needs our attention in the first place.


  1. A separate question to ponder on... How pretentious is self-referential writing? Does referencing your other works mean claiming them being good enough to reference? Can it be purely ironic? But anyway, if you WANT to know more about Felix, you NEED to read this. ↩︎

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