Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Wants versus Needs

WARNING: Inception Spoiler

Today in class I was talking about Needs versus Wants in characters and their character arcs, and about how ironic it is when a character achieves what they think they want, only to discover it isn't what they want at all.

In the Lord of the Rings movie, Frodo actually says that he wants an adventure like Bilbo. He is first presented sitting in a field reading a book, daydreaming about adventure.

By the end of the movie he has had his adventure and 'saved the world' and returned home, but he can't remain in the Shire because of what's happened to him (the wound he took on Weathertop still hurts). He has to leave the Shire and ends up going into the West with the Elves.

So he gets his adventure like Bilbo and, like Bilbo, he has to leave Middle Earth, when he would really rather live a normal life. He sails off into legend, into the dream that he longed for, only now he no longer wants it.

I was also thinking about how characters lie to themselves, or don't really know themselves and how this influences what they do. In the movie Inception, when you first see Cobb speak to his children, it is after he spins the top and it falls over. (The top is the totem, if it falls over it means this isn't a dream). So int he real world, he can't be with his children, but it is the thing he wants above all else. At the end of the movie, he spins the top, but doesn't wait to see if it stops spinning, and goes out to be with his children. By the end of the movie, it is more important to him, for him to be with his children, than to be sure this is not a dream. If you accept that the final reality is another dream then his need for his children over-rode his need for reality.

You have to ask yourself, would you have waited to see if the top stopped spinning?

I like irony in character arcs. I enjoy going on a journey with a character and discovering things about them, as they discover things about themselves. The more a character suffers, the more interesting they become for me. And I can forgive them a lot of they are motivated by pure (if misguided) sentiment.

Is the journey that the character takes important for you? Are there certain authors who deliver, whose characters linger in your mind after you've finished the book?


C Kelsey said...

The journey the character takes is of utmost importance. It ties right in with the idea that a character must change and grow throughout the story. If that doesn't happen, then the story didn't happen IMO.

Now that you mention it, the character that comes to mind who really meets the needs versus wants discovery is Tinker from Wen Spencer's aptly named book, "Tinker".

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

C Kelsey,

Why does Tinker stay in your mind?

MataPam said...

For better or worse, I just finally watched "Avatar."

All fancy special effects, and while the expected swap of loyalties happened on cue, you didn't actually see any character, let alone character changes. In a book, with Jake's internal thoughts exposed, this might have been a decent story. As it was, it was as flat as most of the characters.

You've got to see the change. Or from the other side, figure out how best to show it.

C Kelsey said...


Tinker is a misfit who just wants to be left alone. Through the book Tinker is continually discovering things. She discovers the Wolf who Rules owes her for his life (she thought it was the other way around). She doesn't really want anything to do with elves at all, but by the end of the book, she *is* an elf. She really finds her wants and needs while simultaneously finding out a lot about herself. Darned good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I love this, especially the insight about Inception.

Just a note - I did see it and I think a lot of people did, but maybe you want to note at the top of this post that there's a spoiler about it! I usually appreciate a warning unless it's an oldie like LOTR :)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam, Avatar was very flat.

I got bored during the dragon riding sequences.

All very pretty, but no development, as you say.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

C Kelsey,

Sounds interesting. I love it when the things you think are so, are not so. This really turns your world view on its head.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Anonymous, is that you Linda?

You made a good point. I'll fix it now.

Stephen Simmons said...

The journey is the reason for the story in the first place ... otherwise it's just a showcase for "gee whiz". One of my favorite books of all time is the original "Dream Park" novel by Niven and Barnes. (old enough, I think, that spoiler alerts shouldn't be necessary ...) While the book has multiple truly stupendous "gee whiz" aspects, what puts it over the top and into the realm of greatness is the journeys taken by several prominent characters. Griffin, the man who has spent a career working for Dream Park, rising to Chief of Security, but has never permitted himself to *see* the dream -- until it becomes necessary in order to do his job, after which he is forever changed. The legendary Lore Master, leading his party in an effort to "avenge" his humiliating defeat at the hands of *this* rising-star young Game Master the last time the faced each other. Lots of others ... but I don't want to sound *too* rabid.

There's also the journey the characters *don't* take. Samwise Gamgee is one of my absolute favorite characters in any work of fiction, because he is the ultimate expression of duty and honor (traits a career Sailor tends to appreciate). He is able to resist the incredible power of the Ring because he is only carrying it to help Frodo, not for himself. And after their whole amazing journey is done, he's still Sam. Leaner, tougher, more competent ... but still Sam, and still Rosie's sweetheart. The journey he *doesn't* take is what makes him so endearing.

Jim McCoy said...

IMO, the single most memorable character in all of SF/F is Raistlin Majere. Here is a character that suffered his whole life.

(MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT. The really bad news is that I can't remember which book some of these stories came from. I guess I've reread this stuff too much.)

Raistlin Majere goes from the kid who gets beaten up by every bully in the village to the kid who nearly fails out of magic school. He basically sells his soul to gain the power, swearing to worship the gods of magic that no one believes in amymore.

He then follows this with a Test which requires him to kill his own brother (or at least he thinks so) for stealing his magic then having his mind partially possessed by Fistandantilus, an evil mage from the past. In the process of taking the Test, his health is ruined and he is cursed.

The suffering continues unabated even as he gains more power. He eventually sells out his goddess and then tries to kill her to take her power. In possibly the most ironic move in the history of literature, he then stops just short of his goal because he is made aware of the consequences of his success and turns himself over to the same goddess he has betrayed and willingly subjects himself to her punishment. The man who has sought power his whole life thus renders himself powerless. It's powerful stuff.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Sam's 'journey' is exactly what I was telling the kids in class yesterday!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Jim sounds interesting. But did you like him, or did you want to throttle him while all this was going on?

Brendan said...

I do like the Raistlin character and his decision to renounce his plan for domination was well written. One of the problems that you see with many villains is that all too often their goals are in the end self-defeating, so it was refreshing to see someone so pragmatic. After all - as long he is alive - and the Dark Queen wants him to suffer forever - there may be other opportunities;)

Chris McMahon said...

That scene where he does not wait for the top to topple for me was a cheap shot - the filmaker could not resist the obvious twist at the end. However, for me it invalidated the movie.

McKee talks about something similar. I'm not sure but I think the terminology he uses is the character's Desire and Unconscious Desire. According to his theory, they must follow the Conscious Desire until they realise this is not for them, then must follow the deeper desire. Not sure it has to be that clear cut.

Jim McCoy said...


Both. It depended on what was going on at the moment. I was kind of a geek growing up myself so I got him at the beginning. By the end he was so twisted it was just fascinating, but there were definitely times when I could have choked the guy.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Brendan said:

After all - as long he is alive - and the Dark Queen wants him to suffer forever - there may be other opportunities;)


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris daid:

That scene where he does not wait for the top to topple for me was a cheap shot - the filmaker could not resist the obvious twist at the end.However, for me it invalidated the movie.

Me too. I felt like, 'Oh not another conspiracy/faceless corporation/ambiguous ending ending.'

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Joe Abercrombie's torturer character is fascinating, because he is so flawed.