When you plow through books and manuals on screenwriting, the good advice is often hard to spot in between all the bad advice. One of the most confusing topics is on Character. Who are the people in your story? Who’s the protagonist? What does the hero want, and what does she really need?

Stop right there. Is it really true that all good protagonists have something they want at the beginning of the story, but needs to realize that they need something else?

No, wrote John August in this excellent post from 2008. He argues that using this template is often a pointless excercise, and doesn’t really help your story. His main point is that want vs. need is sometimes useful, but just as often it can be artificial and cause frustration.

August suggests asking another question instead:

Why is the character doing what he’s doing?

This question can be asked in each scene, as well as the story as a whole. It implies visible action, where the want vs. need can often be too internal or passive. Thirdly, it ties the physical action nicely to the psychological.

Of course, you have to work to find the really interesting answers to your questions. Beacuse, as August points out in this other post on character motivation, the writer is in control of the plot, not the characters.