Stories are like opinions: everyone has one and some start to sound very much alike if you look close enough. Even with stories that seem like they have nothing in common, like Pride and Prejudice and Star Wars, there are fundamental rules that show why such stories resonate with the audience for generations to come.
One of those rules is perhaps the most fundamental of all:
A main character needs to achieve something despite several obstacles along the way.
Most people will tell you that conflict is essential for any story, like the heroic Rebels versus the evil Empire or the plucky young woman trying to escape the hideous monster. But a character’s need may be the most important thing to a story, and as I’m looking over several modern stories, I think I see why that is.
Now, I could ramble off a bunch of platitudes like “Human beings need things!” or expound on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But rather than do that, I’ll just ask this question. When you think about your favorite stories, what is it that the main character wants most and what do they do to get it?
In The Hobbit, Bilbo and the dwarves need to reach the Lonely Mountain and take back their kingdom from the dragon Smaug. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker wants to fight the Empire and protect his friends from danger. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone wants to stay out of his father’s criminal empire, but still keep his loved ones safe. All these characters have specific, tangible needs, even if they don’t always get fulfilled or come off with good results.
I’ve begun to notice in some stories, however, that this overarching need just isn’t there. For example, in the first season of the CBS show Elementary, we understand that Joan Watson needs to help Sherlock Holmes solve crimes and deal with his tragic past as a recovering addict. By the end of that season, we have a strong resolution about his failure to save Irene Adler—which led to his drug addiction—and his present-day battle with the criminal mastermind Moriarty. By contrast, Season 2 of Elementary meanders without any clear point. There’s a conflict involving Sherlock’s brother Mycroft and some intrigue with a British intelligence agency in the finale, but the rest of the season doesn’t bring us there. We have Watson moving out, but we don’t get a clear sense of how this was building up from the start of the season.
And perhaps we’re more familiar with another flawed story: the infamous Star Wars prequel trilogy. Despite the hype that was thrown onto seeing Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader, we never had the same tangible need that we had in his son Luke. Yes, Anakin is haunted by the loss of his mother and turns to the dark side for fear of his wife’s death, but that fear isn’t present throughout the rest of the trilogy. It would make sense if we saw Anakin taking more drastic actions during the movies in order to protect the ones he loved (especially if those actions put him in opposition to Obi-Wan and the rest of the Jedi Order). Instead, we got a podrace in Episode I, rolling in some meadows in Episode II, and some moping around (right up until he kills his first Jedi) in Episode III. There’s no real progression based on his need. Anakin just reacts to things and then becomes evil.
By contrast, in the original trilogy, we saw how Luke lost his family and what he’s sacrificed in fighting the Empire. We know how much he wants to become a Jedi like his father and also how he’s willing to abandon his Jedi training for the sake of saving his only friends. We know exactly what kind of pain Luke is dealing with by the end of the trilogy when he has to confront Vader and not walk the same dark road that his father took. In the prequels, we were just relieved when Anakin became Vader, but in the original films, we cheered when Luke stood up to the Emperor and redeemed his father’s legacy, even when he had every reason to hate him.
Finding a conflict for any story is easy, but it takes real effort and commitment to bring out a character’s need in storytelling.