Self-help gurus have been saying it for years. You’ve gotta have goals. If you don’t have a goal, you’re standing still, watching life go by and waiting for things to happen. Your characters are no different. If they don’t have goals, they’re just passive cardboard cutouts, reacting to the random events of your story. That’s how you get those books where you find yourself two hundred pages in and wondering what the point is.
Goal and motivation are tightly knotted together. Goal is the “what?” while motivation is the “why?” Put simply, your character must want something. Maybe they want to survive, to get laid, to win the job, to keep their secret, to kill the bad guy, to thwart the zombie apocalypse…these are all worthy goals.
What’s the thing that keeps your character moving forward when it’s getting dark and the bullets are flying? What keeps them going on alone when everyone else says, “Turn back?” What keeps them clawing their way up Mount Doom?
You have to know what your character’s goal is so that you can deny it. Story is what happens when your character pursues a goal and you firmly say, “No,” like a firm but loving parent. Or, you shout, “NO, AND I’LL PUNISH YOU FOR EVEN THINKING SO!” like a sadistic bastard, whichever way you lean. Either way, your story happens when your characters have to react to that denial and make a decision.
So let’s talk goals. First, goals can be external or internal.
The external goal typically results from the inciting incident of the story. Katniss Everdeen wants to survive the Hunger Games. Luke Skywalker wants to become a Jedi. Elle Woods wants to get into Harvard Law School and become a lawyer.
The internal goal is often something the character has carried within them long before the story begins. Katniss wants to protect her younger sister, which in a gold-sticker moment for Suzanne Collins, is why she even volunteers for the Hunger Games. Good job on goals driving the entire story! Luke wants a life of adventure, to escape the monotonous, dead-end existence of moisture farming on Tatooine. Elle wants to be taken seriously and prove herself as more than a pretty face. (Legally Blonde is so under-appreciated.)
Again, these things are going to develop organically as you plot your story. Plot dictates character which dictates plot which dictates character which…you get it. But start thinking about your protagonist and what they want. If you don’t know, sit them down (figuratively) and talk to them. Open a blank document and ask them questions, then respond to the questions. Not only does this let you get to know the character, you discover some of their voice. Ask them what they want, why they want it, and what they’re willing to do to get it. (This is an acceptable form of talking to the voices in your head. Writers get away with it.)
Now here’s where the fun is. Your antagonist also has goals. You need to know their goals too, because they should be in direct opposition to the protagonist’s. Every beat of the story should be a direct result of one or both of them pursuing their goal.
In the Hunger Games, you could argue about who the antagonist is; the other Tributes, particularly the well-trained and vicious Careers, are the most obvious. President Snow and the Gamemakers are also candidates. The other Tributes want to survive just like Katniss; whoever wins does so only by the death of the others. Obvious conflict. President Snow and the Gamemakers have their own goals, but they want for the Games to go as planned, meaning twenty-three of the twenty-four Tributes die. As they see the audience approval swinging toward Katniss, they want her to lose. Again, you can see the conflict with Katniss’ goal to survive.
Now, all the conflict doesn’t have to come from the antagonist. It’s deliciously tense when your protagonist has internal conflict. Your character may have two goals that are in conflict. To follow one, she’ll have to sacrifice the other. There is a non-stop tension then as she makes choices pursuing one or the other. Again, the Hunger Games is a perfect example. Katniss doesn’t want to kill anyone else. But there comes a point when she has to choose between this desire to remain relatively innocent and her own will to survive. Your character may have a profound fear that prevents them from pursuing their goal. Finally, their internal and external goals may be in direct conflict.
But we could talk about conflict all day. Conflict is what will drive your story! As we get into plotting, we’ll talk more about conflict and milking it for the ultimate misery of your characters.
For now, focus on the goals of your primary characters. How will those goals drive the story you want to write?
As always, thanks for tuning in and be sure to check out the previous entries if you haven’t!
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