In the Disney animated film Aladdin, our protagonist is a lowly street thief who dreams of a better life. From the very beginning he speaks longingly of having enough wealth to live comfortably and not be pushed around by the palace guards.
When he is offered a job to retrieve a lamp for untold riches he jumps at the chance, but the operation doesn’t go as planned. By the end of the job Aladdin finds himself alone, buried in an underground cavern, with no way out. All he has to show for his efforts is that one, little lamp he was supposed to deliver to his employer.
But then, of course, he realizes that this is no ordinary lamp. It is actually the home of an all-powerful genie, who will grant Aladdin three wishes. Aladdin quickly uses the first of these to make himself into a prince, and then makes a dramatic entrance to the city, riding atop an elephant with a magically-generated entourage of a thousand servants!
At long last Aladdin seems to have come into life he always dreamed of. He has wealth, he has security, he has respect, and he is able to catch the attention of the woman he loves. Yet ye soon finds out that he has traded one set of troubles for others that is far more dangerous. The palace guards may not be a thorn in his side any longer, but now he’s in the sights of the royal vizier Jafar.
Jafar proves to be a much more capable foe, and soon he has stolen the magical lamp, taken over the kingdom by force, and blasted Aladdin into exile. For Aladdin, it would seem that getting everything he wanted didn’t actually actually get him everything he wanted!
Everything You Ever Wanted)
Compare that to the similar experience of Billy in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Billy has spent his whole life dreaming of joining the ranks of the most powerful supervillains in the world. At the start of the show his alter ego, Dr. Horrible, has finally caught the attention of Bad Horse, who is the leader of the prestigious Evil League of Evil. Billy might be allowed into the league himself, but only if he can prove his worth with a particularly dastardly deed.
At the same time Billy gains the notice of someone else he has been vying for the attention of: Penny, the pretty girl he sees every week at the laundromat. Penny is a completely selfless and giving soul, and the more Billy spends time with her the more her sunny disposition clashes with his lust for world domination.
This dilemma is all resolved, though, when Billy’s nemesis, Captain Hammer, start developing a romantic relationship with Penny. Billy is now doubly motivated to kill Captain Hammer; on the one hand so that he can enter the Evil League of Evil, and on the other so that he can pry Captain Hammer and Penny apart. He hatches a plan to assassinate Captain Hammer, which goes remarkably according to plan…until he gets cold feet at the moment of pulling the trigger.
His hesitation gives Captain Hammer a chance to retaliate, which indirectly results in an explosion going off. The blast cripples Captain Hammer, but also kills Penny, who was hiding nearby. The press interprets the event as an intentional and evil deed, and Dr. Horrible is immediately ushered into the ranks of the Evil League of Evil. In the show’s final musical number he sings that he has finally gained everything he ever wanted, but as his thoughts turn to Penny his expression becomes one of numb brokenness.
Need vs Want)
There are plenty of stories where the heroes knows exactly what they want, pursue it, and at the climax of the tale finally achieve it. But many other stories have learned to add a layer of nuance by making what the heroes want be different from what they actually need.
Aladdin wanted wealth, but he needed self-acceptance. Billy wanted the position in the Evil League of Evil, but he needed love. If the hero learns to give up what they want for what they need, then the story has a happy ending, such as with Aladdin. But if they don’t, then the story becomes a tragedy, such as with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
Of course there are other cases, too. Sometimes what the hero wants isn’t strictly opposed to what he needs, but he still don’t get it anyway. In these cases the story isn’t about how the main character learns to sort out his priorities or achieve success, it is about how he deals with failure.
This is the situation of Kunta Kinte in Roots. Kunta is a youth in Africa during the mid-18th century, but he is kidnapped and brought to America as a slave. He then proceeds to make one escape attempt after another, never losing his fire for freedom, even after the front of his foot is chopped off as punishment for trying to run away.
But as the years go by Kunta falls in love with another slave, marries her, and has a child. Now he is divided between his continuing desire for freedom, and his desire to be with his new family. For a time he wavers between the two, but ultimately chooses to remain with his wife and child.
The story isn’t trying to say that Kunta “wants” freedom but “needs” family, more like he needs both but can only have one. He must make a choice between them, and that’s just the way it is. No matter what his choice there is a significant loss, and he must make his peace with that.
Another story, Of Mice and Men, is also about characters who don’t get the things that they want or need. The story opens with George Milton and Lennie Small, traveling companions who forever dream of settling down on their own piece of land.
Unfortunately, they are in the thick of the Great Depression, a time that ate hopes and dreams for breakfast. For a little while it looks like they might actually realize their plans, but then tragedy arises, and Lennie dies at the hands of George, taking with him any hope for a brighter future.
How to Respond)
Failures are interesting in a story, because the way that a characters responds to them reveals the deepest layers of their personality. It is most often in their deepest disappointment that you learn who they really are.
In my own story I just had my protagonist meet a terrible setback. He has spent seven years bringing a prototype weapon to the westernmost province of the United States. All this time he has imagined being welcomed as a savior, but what he finds just the opposite. The people are afraid that his plan will backfire and they want nothing to do with it. Now he has to decide how he will react to this setback. Will he surrender his plan and find a new purpose…will he wander aimlessly away…or will he harden his heart and press on regardless? Well, if you’ve been paying attention to his character you already know that he’ll choose the latter. He is going to persist, even in the face of broken expectations, willingly shifting from an ally of the city to its foe.