What a character needs, and what a character wants, are usually totally different.
A character’s traits are the surface aspects that we might use to describe them: A person’s friends, job, spouse, car, hobbies, where they live, where they vacation, where they go to school.
But obviously these traits don’t define a person’s character. Character is revealed during times of trouble. When all of a person’s “traits” are snatched away, that’s when we find out what they’re really made of.
Right now I’m watching a TV Series, “Murder In the First”, in which the antagonist is a young, rich, entitled Silicon Valley entrepreneur (played by Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series). Over the course of the first season, this character gets a few big scares, and he realizes that he’s not as invincible as he once thought. Suddenly his whole life is on the line, and all of his freedoms are nearly stripped from him.
Sure this character wants to be found “not guilty”, and go back to his company and his familiar ways. But what does his character really need? In order to become a better person, what does he need? Maybe these trials will be good for him – maybe he’ll learn a valuable lesson or two.
Maybe he just needs a scare? Maybe he needs to do hard time? That’s for the writers to decide.
Being able to distinguish between what characters want and what they need is key to creating rich, lively people on the page. It’s an important thing for authors to think about – and as with all of these “Art of Story” aspects – it’s a question worth asking in our own lives as well.