3 Resources You Need to Unlock Fascinating Character Goals

3 Resources to Help You Unlock Fascinating Character Goals PinterestArguably, the single most important decision you can make in any story is that of character goals. What do your characters want and how will they go about trying to get it? This is the whole theory of story all in a nutshell.

I receive many questions from writers who are struggling with plot problems. Easily 80% of the solutions come down to character goals. Either the protagonist’s goal isn’t being obstructed by the conflict, or the goal doesn’t coincide with the overall themes, or the character just plain doesn’t have a goal.

When you understand how to use focused character goals to power your plot, you will be able to take control of your story and solve half your plot problems in one fell swoop.

Today, I’ve handpicked three articles that will show you:

  • How to identify and correct the crucial problem of AWOL character goals
  • How to select realistic goals for your characters, based on Abraham Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs
  • How to choose scene-level goals that create integral and powerful scenes

Use the following resources as a jumping-off point for transforming and refining your story.

Don’t Make This Mistake: Characters Who Lack Solid Story Goals

Crumpled Paper

A book in which a character lacks solid story goals is a book that is not going to work.

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.

In Most Common Writing Mistakes: Characters Who Lack Solid Story Goals, you’ll learn the three different types of story goals–and the three reasons your book might lacking strong character goals.

Why Your Character’s Goal Needs to Be 1 of These 5 Things

Every story comes down to just one thing. Know what it is? Conflict’s a good guess (“no conflict, no story” and all that), but before a story can offer conflict, it has to first offer something else: desire. In short, story is always going to be about a character’s goal.

In order to resonate deeply with your very human audience, that goal needs to be one of five specific things.

Check out Why Your Character’s Goal Needs to Be 1 of These 5 Things to learn what they are and how to use them to power your story.

Structuring Your Scenes: Options for Goals in a Scene

options-for-goals-in-a-story-scene

The goals in most scenes will boil down into one of five categories.

Your character can want anything in any given scene, but within that universe of options, you must narrow down the desires expressed within your scene to those that will drive the plot. Wanting to buy pink carnations for Mother’s Day is a worthy goal, but if your character’s mother is a nonexistent player in your story of a nuclear war, it’s not going to belong in your story—and certainly not as a scene goal.

In Structuring Your Story’s Scenes: Options for Goals in a Scene, learn how to power your story on the scene level using properly chosen character goals.

Use Strong Character Goals to Transform Your Story

Character goals define stories. Find the right goals for your characters, for the story as a whole, and within every single scene–and use them to bring focus, clarity, and fascination to your book.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What character goals are most important to your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Kate Flournoy says:

    Hm, yes. Very good stuff. Another thing I find that helps with goals/plots is just simple relationships. Developing the relationship between the MC and his father, the sidekick and his brother, the love interest and her mother— it’s all great for creating conflicts of interest and fascinating character goals. In fact, it’s probably my number one staple. 😉
    I also love it when two characters have the same goal and go about achieving it differently. It makes for some awesome thematic parallels.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. That’s where character and plot really get interesting, because the relationships are almost always going to be the deepest, richest, most insightful part of the story.

      • Kate Flournoy says:

        YES. I practically live for characters first, and relationships second. There is nothing more satisfying to me than creating a dynamic character, but close second after that is creating a dynamic relationship. And the best part? They’re inseparable. I love that.
        Translated as: I may be slightly more obsessed with that than is actually good for my health. 😉

  2. Mirkwood says:

    Oh man, this is exactly what I needed. I think the mystery of my plotting problems has been solved. I’ve been struggling to get any semblance of plot for my stories lately, but couldn’t get anywhere, and now I know why. My characters don’t want anything! 😛

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The cool thing about this realization is that when you start actually looking for your character’s desire line, the whole story just POPs. It’s awesome.

  3. Good resources here. Critical topic too. I like the Maslow hierarchy of needs. My character is not human but I think it still applies. Don’t want him to be so weird no one can relate to him. Like some flesh-eating amoeba slithering across the walls.

    My character resembles a reluctant hero. He doesn’t want what he needs. He comes from a multi-cultural upbringing that shapes him a certain way and influences his outlook on the world. He’s kind of an atypical ruler. Principled, compassionate, a rebel and somewhat inexperienced. He sees corruption, unrighteousness, etc and not afraid to challenge it head on. Deep down he wants justice, but he doesn’t see it in his environment. So he rejects the whole system throwing the whole balance of justice off in the universe.

    I know what he needs (destiny)
    I know what he doesn’t want.
    I need to develop the Lie a bit more though.
    Definitely could use Maslow theory to develop his desires.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Take a look at what he *doesn’t* want. His goal will be right there in the flipside of that. You want him to be pursuing something actively (not just with passive resistance), but that something can totally be the result of his wanting to avoid something else.

      • Now we’re talkin! That helps. Seeing whats on the flip side side of the coin. Been working on his backstory has been a plus too. But I pondered several possibilities while driving and have some good direction. Some of my best ideas come when I’m driving! That’s my creative lollygagging time. 😉

        Thx

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          You bet! People never take negative actions; even when they’re in avoidance mode, they’re always taking proactive steps to accomplish the avoidance.

  4. Happy, my protag, wants to find her son, missing for 35 years (kidnapped by his pedophile step-father), but she has impoverished herself looking for him (that’s all backstory.)

    When the actual story starts, she’s still without resources (obstacle to safety and love) and has almost given up hope, until she meets one of the founding members of a conspiracy of women who kill pedophiles (a character from the first novel in the series). Because of the resources of the conspiracy (now with over 40 women from all walks of life, with access to information, etc., that most individuals don’t have), she regains some hope.

    Tons of obstacles remain, of course.

    By the end of the story, she is forced to re-define love and safety, and starts the journey toward self-actualization (although we don’t see that journey.)

    I think it will work, but the needs heirarchy helps to deepen and complicate her goals. Thanks for reminding me about it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Maslow’s hierarchy isn’t perfect (lots of people pursue higher goals even when still technically needing lower ones), but it’s a great organizational tool for figuring out where our characters are and why.

  5. To save the world is the larger goal. Subgoals: Make peace with the past to move forward in the present; learn to be a leader after a lifetime as second-in-command, and three — find a way to reunite with and redeem a kidnapped child who has been raised with an evil creed. Those are the three goals of three heroines.

    I’ve learned that if a scene is not working for me it’s typically because it’s too low-conflict. The character has a goal, but there’s no real obstacle to obtaining it in that scene. That’s when I start taking snapshots in Scrivener, which psychologically frees me to slice, dice, and rewrite until the conflict gets good. My beta readers have confirmed that this really is the issue with scenes I didn’t like as much. So I have to learn to trust myself more. Easier said than done 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good observation. High stakes always result from an intense goal and significant obstacles.

  6. Meg Brummer says:

    This is great! This is definitely where my current story is slacking. Sure, I know my protag’s goals are safety and belonging, but as I peruse back through the first draft, it’s not as clear as it needs to be. Time to amp it up!

    Thanks for breaking it down for us!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It can sometimes be easy to let existential desires like safety and belonging end up inspiring very passive goals within a character. It’s helpful to remember we always need to give them a concrete, physical goal to pull them through the story’s plot.

  7. Skyline says:

    A thing I learned is that you need a goal, that doesn’t suddenly get nullified mid story. I did this a couple of times. Recently I made the thing my protagonist wants to get rid of her powers, because she killed a close friend with them. At Plot Point 1 however she discovers that this friend is still alive but in a pickle and sets out to save her. Suddenly she has no foundation to get rid of her powers and I tried to cheat my way through it by saying “well she still blames herself to bring that friend in that problematic situation.” Thing is I took so much steam out of her ghost moment, that it was just not feasible.

    TL;DR Don’t give your character a goal, that has it’s foundation destroyed before the third plot point, and even then leave some space for doubt.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. The “desire line,” as John Truby calls it, is the spine of the entire story. It’s what unifies the whole narrative into a cohesive whole.

  8. I really like the Maslow hierarchy for working out how scene goals relate to the character’s overall goal. I don’t necessarily agree with it as an actual statement of human needs, but it’s a very helpful organizational tool for crafting a story.

  9. Thanks for the refresher course!

    I’m nearly finished with Outlining Your Novel and one of the things I’m realizing is how insanely important character goals are and how foolishly I’ve ignored them in my current story. Looking at the feedback I’ve got from beta readers, I think most of the main issues come down to inconsistent, unclear or absent character goals. Well, I guess I know what my goal is: get better at focusing on character goals!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily foolishness. It’s more that we, as authors, have a tendency to forget about goals in the helter-skelter of arranging all the story’s outside action.

  10. This is great. Just what I’ve been needing for a long time. I had a huge plot whole and things weren’t making sense until a week ago when i finally came up with a goal that fitted. The plot hasn’t really changed, but it doesn’t seem like a whole lot of contrived rubbish any-more.
    It did however confirm my suspicions that I needed to add an antagonist. I had a few people who were either secretly antagonist, or perceived as antagonist but really weren’t. And I had a bunch of unnamed bad guys, who got in the way a little but weren’t personal enough.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not every story needs a full-blown bad guy, but they all need an antagonistic force of some kind to act as an obstacle. But, as you’ve discovered, I personally feel that a three-dimensional, well-developed antagonist character can totally raise the bar for the whole novel.

  11. I had to get past the midfle of the boojlk before I really knew my characters to even be able to do this. I don’t know if I’m doing it right but think it’s better then it was. 🙂 Thanks for this posting l it helps.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This isn’t uncommon at all if you’re wanting to write your first draft without knowing much about the story beforehand (i.e., without outlining). Sometimes you have to write your way into an understanding of the story.

  12. Joe Long says:

    Looking at Maslow’s hierarchy, my WIP is primarily about relationships, falling into Love/Belonging.

    The MC has esteem issues, many brought on by a dysfunctional relationship with his father, which become obstacles to forming intimate relationships.

    Along the way, the characters occasionally examine their lives and discuss. Example: at one point they’re at the drive-in watching “Life of Brian.” While discussing the movie’s take on God vs organized religion, she asks, “Do you think God might not like what we’re doing?” which then leads into, “Do you believe in God?” “Do you go to church? Why not?” etc.

    Self-actualization issues. The climax has issues of both Safety and Physiological.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, from what I’ve heard about your story, I’d say it fits nicely into the Relationships category.

  13. Courtney says:

    Great tips. I plan to Maslow the heck out of my story when editing time comes lol. Thanks again for the post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You know you’re a writer when you turn a proper name into an action verb. 😉

  14. This is a sticking point for one of my stories in particular. I wrote a novel-length story for last tear’s NaNoWriMo, and though I’m now working on an outline for it, I’m having s hard time identifying what my protagonist really wants. Maybe I’m stuck because I identify so much with her, & I’ve always been better at identifying what I don’t want than what I do. I’ll check out the resources you’ve provided and hopefully will be able to give my lead character the goal she needs.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Avoiding something she doesn’t want *can* be a goal in itself, but you have to flip it on its head and figure out what she’s ultimately striving for in a positive sense. In a really broad example, we could say that if what she wants is “no more war,” then what she’s striving for is “peace.”

  15. In my superhero stories, my character Amelia’s goal is to help people and Samantha wants to protect her city and the people she loves, but she does it by killing and torturing bad guys, and enjoys it, whereas Amelia just rounds up the bad guys and lets the police arrest them. Vance, Sam and Mary are just helping out Amelia on her adventures, but Vance especially since he’s always been there for her and gotten her out of situations that she couldn’t get out of by herself and vice versa, since there is a chance that they might end up together and he trained her, since he’s the one who taught her how to control her powers and taught her karate moves.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s great when all the supporting characters have their own powerful and personal goals as well–especially when those goals start conflicting with the hero’s. That’s when we start getting some really interesting, deep conflict.

  16. There might be some interesting conflict between StarGirl and Samantha since they have very different morals and StarGirl’s not as dark as Samantha is. She might’ve killed twice, but once was in self defense of Vance and the other was a do or die situation, but most of the time, she just rounds up the bad guys and lets the police arrest them, whereas Samantha just kills and/or tortures them and enjoys it. That’s conflict there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s great when character represent conflicting personal values. There’s always lots of room for interesting exploration there.

  17. I agree. When a character represents conflicting personal values to a main character, it creates a lot of interesting conflict since it adds a lot of depth to the story, and makes the readers want to turn the page, and it’s interesting to explore since it could create a lot of interesting possibilities for you as the author and the reader.

  18. Krishnapriya says:

    Thanks for the wonderful clarity! In my story the pro-tag has a self-acutalization goal to always be in the God’s presence. She did not think this was possible for an ordinary person like her, but got inspiration from a wise mentor to follow her heart’s desire. She undertakes a series of vows (fasts, prayers) etc but there is no conflict – only her own self-doubt and there is no external concrete goal. Is a concrete, physical goal mandatory? Can a story be sustained with just internal conflict?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Man against Himself is, of course, a time-honored storyform, so there’s nothing wrong with writing a book that centers primarily around a character’s inner conflict.

      However, that conflict will almost always manifest in the outer world as well. The best way to think of conflict is as a series of related obstacles that prevent the character from reaching her overall goal until the end of the story. The best way to think of an antagonistic force is as whoever or whatever is presenting those obstacles. (The antagonistic force’s moral alignment within the the story is irrelevant as far as the foundational conflict goes.)

      Take a look at what is consistently standing between your character and her goals throughout the story. Whatever you find, that’s your primary antagonistic force–whether it’s a person, the character herself, something physical, or something incorporeal.

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