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Characters Need Goals

May 10, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 11, 2012

Desires produce goals. I want a chocolate ice cream cone. Therefore the goal is to get one. If the desire is strong enough, I’ll pursue the goal.

If the desire is strong enough and I’m thwarted—especially by someone I don’t want to be bested by—I’ll work even harder to achieve my goal.

If I’m eight years old, I may pull a cone out of the freezer and eat it even if my mother tells me it’s too close to dinner or if my sister tells me the last cone is hers.

I may want one so badly that I steal one. Not a whole box, because of course that would be appalling. But I might sneak one out of the case at the convenience store. Which will get me into trouble and still not see me satisfied if my mother or the store manager catches me before I can eat the cone.

My goal may be all-encompassing, may have me ignoring rules or laws. I may steal from money from my mother’s purse to buy from the ice cream vendor who trolls the neighborhood.

My goals may push me beyond accepted and acceptable behavior.

My goals may be so strong that I hurt myself and my reputation in order to pursue them.

Or, at the other extreme, my goals may not stand up to any pressure and I may give up at the slightest challenge or roadblock.

Goals and desires can be of different strengths and thus produce different behaviors.

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Characters need goals.

Character goals drive a novel. Novels without character goals go nowhere. Or they go everywhere but nowhere special, prove to be aimless and without direction.

Novels without character goals have little meaningful purpose.

Stories without character goals have an incomplete structure.

Okay, I’ve made several claims here. Just what am I talking about?

Characters, particularly the protagonist and antagonist, have specific aims at the story’s start. They want something or they want something to happen or they want something not to happen. Maybe they want to be left alone, want to just finish their day’s work and not be bothered by anyone. Maybe they want to hide from the world, from a friend, from an enemy.

But once a story begins, both your protagonist and antagonist have their lives interrupted by others or by events beyond their control. They’re pulled into a mission or quest or an adventure they hadn’t planned for.

And now their goals have changed. Maybe a man still wants to be left alone to grieve but suddenly finds he must first save a friend’s daughter from the same man who murdered his wife.

Maybe a young woman must scour the universe for the man she thinks is her father.

Maybe a retired spy must save the planet from an enemy he knows inside and out, one no one else has ever been able to find or identify or capture. Maybe he has only five days before his nemesis secures the feisty but unwilling scientist who can complete his nefarious plan and put it into motion.

Your protagonist now has new goals, goals that push and pull him through your story, that logically get him from scene to scene and meeting characters who either help or hinder him.

He has goals that drive him, that allow him no respite because someone’s going to die if he doesn’t achieve them. Or someone’s going to hate him forever. Or someone will be disappointed. Or he’ll be disappointed in himself.

Or he’ll let somebody down.

Goals are objectives or maybe aspirations. They are a place a character has to reach for or get to, a task he has to complete, a monster he has to conquer, an enemy he must vanquish.

Goals may be based on a promise or be the result of a bet. They be may lofty or earthy.

There may be much more to the pursuit of them than a character could ever imagine.

_______________________

Goals come in varieties and levels.

Your main character could have that ice cream goal, a save-the-world goal, or a private-self goal.

The first, securing an ice cream cone for himself, or even for his daughter, would be way too thin to power a novel. Getting an ice cream cone is fairly easy for almost all of us. The pursuit of it wouldn’t involve too much effort or planning or angst.

Easy goals or short-term goals might come into play for a scene or for several chapters, but characters need potent long-term goals to get them through everything you plan to throw at them over the course of your story. The short-term goals are important to move a story from scene to scene, but I want to focus on long-term goals in this article.

There’s the second kind of goal, that of saving the world. This type of goal would be sufficient to see you through a genre novel. Your MC might literally save the world—from aliens or world destruction or Mr. Evil’s great-grandson. Or your MC could solve the crime, discover the murderer, prevent a murder.

Of course, not all save-the-world goals are literally about saving the world. This is an example of an external goal that a character reaches for outside himself.

The third type of goal—protect the self—would be enough for a literary novel. To go after this type of goal, your MC might have to discover who he is. Or he might already know who he is and instead try to hide his nature from others, so they don’t discover who he is. He may try to protect the status quo and not rock the boat. Or, perhaps your MC is a boat-rocker and she’s determined to shake up her family in an effort to discover who she is and where she came from.

This protecting-the self is an internal goal and is often much more personal than the external kind.

Both saving-the-world and protecting-the-self goals can produce powerful stories and riveting characters. But can you imagine the story you’d create if you gave your lead character powerful external and internal goals? You could drive him relentlessly, playing the goals off each other so he has no choice but to succeed, no option to turn back. He can only go forward because to quit would shame him before the world (the literal world or his own world of friends and family and co-workers) or shame him in his own eyes. His failure might result in the destruction of that world.

A story with competing or complementary character goals would make for a powerfully compelling and engrossing novel.

A story that taps into a man’s fears for society and into his fear for himself will have a strong hold on readers.

So . . .

What does your protagonist (and/or your antagonist) want?

Societal or external goals: save the world, save the princess, recover the national treasure, discover a new world where mankind can make a fresh start, destroy the enemy, uncover the plot, recover the President, diffuse the bomb, neutralize the pathogen, identify the murderer, get a wife back, graduate from college, complete a masterpiece.

Personal or internal goals: prove himself, to not be found wanting, be a success, be the best concert violinist (ball player, father, whatever). persevere, show himself a better man than his father (or better than his father’s predictions), succeed or die trying, make it one more day, not kill himself, do it alone, ask for help, show himself a friend, love unconditionally, love for the first time.

There are many, many options for your character’s goals. But something should drive him. Something should keep him pushing forward when everything and everyone is pushing back, standing against him, discouraging him. Killing him either literally or figuratively.

Goals keep characters on task when they’d otherwise gather up their toys and go home. Or go hide in a cave. Or flip the world the finger and tell it they’re not going to put up with the garbage any more.

More about the goals—

Societal or external goals may be stated bluntly—Paul Booker’s got 72 hours to stop Dr. Badman from releasing his toxin. His only problem is that he’s no James Bond and therefore he has no national agency supporting him, no cool gadgets to aid him, and no experience in chasing crazed madmen across Europe.

A private or internal goal may not be as obvious and only reluctantly revealed through dialogue or backstory or action. Many people don’t like to reveal their weaknesses, not even to themselves, and may have a hard time admitting their primary goal every morning is simply getting out of bed or facing the job one more day. Maybe we see a character who drinks himself to sleep every night and who only slowly reveals that he does so because he doesn’t want to dream anymore of the fire that took his family four years earlier.

While an external goal might raise a few eyebrows, an internal goal may be belittled, even by the protagonist’s allies. Maybe especially by his allies.

It may be used against him by the antagonist as a means to prevent the protagonist from achieving his societal goal. It may be used as a distraction, as a weakness.

This internal goal may be stronger and more deeply entrenched than the societal goal. It, this internal ambition, may be all that sees a hero through when victory seems hopeless, when failure seems assured.

Pursuing either goal could get the protagonist into deeper trouble or pull him out of a difficult situation.

_______________________

All characters have goals—it’s the goals of the protagonist, the antagonist, and major secondary characters that fuel your fiction.

If characters don’t have a reason—a strong enough reason—to keep moving forward, they won’t. They’ll stop. It’s your job to give them strong goals—internal and external—and make those goals known to the reader. Hiding character goals from readers would have the same result as a character having no goals—there would be no believable reason for a character to push beyond the first challenge. And when characters have no believable reasons for their actions, readers tend to doubt their common sense or the storyteller’s skills.

Goals make a character’s actions seem inevitable. Reasonable. Justifiable.

They give purpose to character action.

They are necessary to see characters through the mess you’ve created for them.

Stories need characters with compelling goals. Readers need them.

Characters and goals go hand in hand in fiction.

And you have the task of making certain character goals are sufficient for you fiction adventures.

*******

Character goals are not the same as the writer’s goals.

Your character wants to make it through the bar fight alive. You want to create tension and show your character’s fear of dying as well as show off his karate skills. He wants to save the world. You want to entertain the reader.

Give your characters something to strive for, to reach toward, to desire. Give them a reason to go on.

Give them worthy goals.

And give your readers a story to remember.

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