When we talk about characters, we always talk about their internal wants/needs as if the two are interchangeable concepts. We say that a character must have one to sustain their inner plot arc and that meeting this want or need is what propels the character to grow. That simply giving your character something to want or need is enough to motivate them towards their goals.
And all this isn’t wrong. Exactly.
However, there is a difference between the two. In a nutshell, a need is more primal than a want.
For example, I’m on this whole house organization kick these days. I want all these random clear bins and baskets for different rooms in my house. As another example, when the new Xbox One was coming out for the first time way back in the before days, my then husband and child informed me that if they did not get an Xbox One X when it came out, their lives could be considered incomplete. These are both powerful wants. My son works hard at the various tasks we set him in order to earn the video games he enjoys. These things can be powerful motivators to set him on paths of growth.
But let’s be realistic. Dramatic statements aside, my ex and child survived just fine when an Xbox One X didn’t materialize on release night. My house has not descended into disorganized chaos because I can’t store my stuff in Pinterest worthy clear bins.
A need, though, are the things we can’t live without. These are the things we’re sending to the areas affected by hurricanes and earthquakes. The things like food, water, fuel, medical supplies—the absence of which directly leads to death. True, a need can go beyond the physical. We all have emotional needs like friendship, love, and respect. However, the more physical the need, the more time constrained the character is bound, the more tension and drama is created in your story.
In the end, this means that a need will always be a stronger motivator than a want. A need will always cause more tension because no matter how cherished the want may be, it can always be set aside. A need can’t. For that reason, I encourage you to consider whether you are motivating your character with a want or a need. Remember that either will work, but consider if your story would be strengthened by using a need rather than a want.