Many years ago, as a young and aspiring screenwriter in Hollywood, and a newly minted member of the WGAw (Writers Guild of America West), I mustered the money together to attend WGA Writers Conference at the UCLA Conference Center up at Lake Arrowhead in California. I’d heard about the event for some time, and was excited to be going for the first time. I’d get to meet other writers in a beautiful setting, and hear some of the greats talk about their craft and tell their war stories. I heard plenty, but decades later, one memory stood out. And he shared a writing note that has defined an aspect of my writing ever since.
Waldo Miller Salt (October 18, 1914 – March 7, 1987) was an American screenwriter who won Academy Awards for Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home. He also wrote the screenplays for Serpico and Day of the Locusts. In his earlier years he was blacklisted during the Red Scare of the McCarthyism era. He’d experienced some of the intense highs and lows of what a life can offer, and he was sitting with us out on the grass, a bunch of young television and screenwriters, under the shade of a big oak tree, with a view of Lake Arrowhead. Idyllic. His manner was quiet, with a quality of humility, yet still a spark in his eye about that which is possible and yet to come.
He’d shared his process working through his screenplays with us and told anecdotes about working with big stars like Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Jane Fonda, as well as some of the sobering details of the McCarthy era. But he wrapped his talk up by calling our attention to something that he thought was most important for us to hear. He said that all the stories he’d just shared and the questions the different writers asked, were all very interesting, of course. They were the kind of things this audience of young writers wanted to hear, the entertaining stuff… But there was one thing that all the writers there needed to make sure they understood about the characters they wrote: the difference between what a character wants, and what a character needs.
At the time, I had a pause processing this concept, because I originally viewed these motivational drives in a similar manner. But Mr. Salt took care to emphasize the critical distinction between the two, and with this difference was a crucial core to the driving structure, urgency and energy of any story. A character may want something ardently, and go to great lengths to get what they want, but what a character needs is something without which they cannot ultimately survive. And while a character may not know what they need, while they know what they want, it is this distinction that establishes a character and defines their arc in any story.
For me as a writer, this fundamental observation – delineating the difference between a character’s wants and needs – has become a foundational consideration in how I think about characters and develop my stories. I think it’s an invaluable life perspective as well.