Characters have to want something, right? That’s the whole point of a story. The character wants something; the antagonistic force gets in his way; conflict ensues. Bing, bang, boom. So it’s totally a no-brainer to point out that a book in which a character lacks solid story goals is a book that’s not going to work.
And yet . . . (saw that coming, didn’t you?) this is actually a surprisingly common problem. We come up with an awesome character and an awesome premise, and we turn that character loose within our awesome story world. And then something goes wrong. The story starts to flounder. The plot goes nowhere. We have a killer antagonist to create conflict, threaten the protagonist, and just generally make things interesting. Except that . . . it’s not interesting.
What’s gone wrong?
In situations like this, the problem is very often a missing ingredient: a solid goal for the character.
What does your character want? Not just in this scene, not just for his life. But for the duration of the story. We’re talking plot goals here. Without solid plot goals, there just simply isn’t going to be much of a plot. No matter how excited readers may have been about your awesome characters, premise, story world, and antagonist, they’re inevitably going to grow bored if you’ve forgotten to include solid goals that keep the action popping in a thematically meaningful way.
Different Types of Story Goals
Before we go any farther, let’s take a quick moment to differentiate the various kinds of goals we find in a story.
1. Scene goals
The scene goal is the basic driving force of your story on the scene level. Every scene is based on your character’s attempt to achieve something—which is then met with scene-level conflict. These scene goals are the stepping stones that will eventually lead him to his overall plot goal.
2. Life goals
Your character may have big goals that are entirely separate from the plot. For instance, the plot might be about defeating the evil bully nerd and winning the high school science fair, but his life goal might be to become a life-saving surgeon, marry, and have a big family. Sometimes life goals don’t affect the plot at all. Other times, life goals can only be enabled if the plot goal is met. And, other times, life goals will stand in the way of the plot goal.
3. Plot goals
Plot goals drive the story. Dr. Alan Grant’s plot goal was to survive Jurassic Park. Luke Skywalker’s plot goal was to stick it to the Empire. Mike and Sully’s plot goal was to “get that thing back where it came from.” These plot goals affected these characters’ life goals and were made up of their scene goals, but they were also distinct goals in themselves.
For any book to work, your character has to be exercising all three types of goal, but the plot goal is particularly important. Without a solid plot goal beginning to take shape in the very first chapter, your entire book will lack focus.
A Book Without Strong Story Goals
Let’s say you’ve written a story about a teenage girl with long blonde hair who lives in a tower. You’ve made it clear from the beginning that the antagonist is the girl’s nasty pseudo-mother who’s keeping her locked in for not so motherly reasons. The girl and the mom argue. There’s much pouting, that’s-not-fairing, and flipping of long blonde hair. So you know you’ve got your conflict angle covered.
The girl has a life goal: get out of the tower and see the world. She has scene goals which are met with various levels of antagonism from pseudo-mom. But . . . something’s still missing. The girl dreams about escaping, maybe talks to her little animal friends about having a life outside the tower walls. She might even make plans to escape. But she never really does.
Her story meanders on, always hinting at major plot conflict to come. But it never happens because the girl never enacts a plot goal. She never actually tries to escape—until maybe right up until the end.
3 Reasons Books Might Lack Strong Story Goals
You might find yourself in a pickle like this one for several reasons:
1. You entered the story without an ending in mind
Sometimes (especially if you’re not into outlining), you’re going to discover your story as you’re writing it. This often means that you spend a lot of time “exploring” your story before figuring out what it is your character is really after. Nothing wrong with this as long as you go back and tighten up those rambling, goal-less scenes that don’t drive the story forward.
2. You want to make sure you have enough material left over for a sequel
In all frankness, this is a horrible reason. Don’t save the good stuff for a sequel. Hook your readers now, so they’ll want to read on to the next book. If not enough plot stuff is happening in this first book, then you either need to move some of the sequel’s events into the first book—or you need to consider that perhaps this first book is more properly backstory and that the series would actually be better off beginning with what you planned to be the second book.
3. You’re fascinated by your character’s daily life
No doubt your character is fascinating. But keep in mind that, as his creator, you’re going to be just slightly prejudiced. Readers want to see your character in action. They’re not going to find his goal-less, everyday activities any more interesting than they would your home videos.
If you can give your character solid story goals that keep him running through your plot, you’ll never have to worry about boring readers.
Tell me your opinion: What is your character’s plot goal?
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