Wanting vs Needing

(this post contains Mockingjay and Harry Potter spoilers) Some writers create dossiers about their characters - what they look like, what breakfast cereal they like best, what star sign they are. It doesn't really work for me. Instead I ask myself two simple questions:

What does this character want?

and

What does this character need?

For a good story, the answers to those two questions must be different.

Let's go back to our old friend Harry Potter. Luckily for us, there's a chapter in the first Harry Potter book where the Mirror of Erised shows us the thing that Harry wants. It's not to kill Voldemort, or to become a great wizard, or be really good at quidditch.

Harry wants a family. First of all he just wants his parents back, but as the books progress, Harry wants this new family he's found - Ron and Hermione and Ginny and Hagrid and the rest of them.

So what does Harry need? What's standing in the way of Harry achieving the thing that he wants? Another easy one. He needs to destroy Voldemort.

When Harry goes into his final confrontation with Voldemort, he can't take his family with him. He has to go on alone, and know that win or lose, he may never see them again. He has to sacrifice the thing that he wants, in order to achieve the thing that he needs.

This is how good stories work. You give up what you want, to get what you need.

A recent article in Salon asked who was more empowered - Twilight's Bella Swan, or The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen. And much as I hate to say it, the article is right, and the answer is Bella*. Because at least Bella knows what she wants, and she relentlessly pursues it until she gets it.

But Katniss in Mockingjay - what does she want? It's hard to say. She can't decide whether she wants Peeta or Gale - I don't really believe she wants either of them. She wants to kill Snow - but when her chance comes she doesn't. She doesn't want children - but she ends up having them anyway.

What does she need? I would say she needs to stand up for herself and stop being pushed around by the powers that be - but I don't think that ever happens. Katniss doesn't get to do very much at all in Mockingjay. She was left out of planning the rebellion - even the decision to join the rebellion was forced on her. She doesn't get to rescue Peeta. She doesn't get to kill Snow. She doesn't even get to attend her own trial - let alone defend herself. She doesn't get to decide where she lives or who she marries or whether or not she'll have children. I can't quite figure out what Katniss wants or what she needs - but I'm pretty sure she doesn't get either of them. Which is why I was ultimately disappointed by the book - I was expecting something empowering, and instead I got something bleak and pessimistic.

A character must want something.

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* When students ask me what Bella's wants and needs are, I usually say that she wants Edward, and to be a vampire, and she needs to get a life.