Most Common Writing Mistakes: Characters Who Lack Solid Story Goals

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?

Most Common Writing Mistakes #25

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland's monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.
Email:
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. This is a fantastic post! Of all things, non-plots or story arcs that go nowhere annoy me more than just about anything else. Anyone who write’s fiction in any medium must have a sense of continuity since the literal definition of a plot is a series of connected events with a satisfactory conclusion. I think the main problem is that some people are into character driven stories and they don’t realize that big events still need to happen and connect with each other. I dropped a book about a month back because it was all exhausting character back story and zero plot momentum. Recently I finished an amazing character driven book that worked because events happened, connected, and led to a satisfactory conclusion.

  2. Excellent, excellent! I just shared this post with a recent editing customer who had this problem. Very interesting story, but no character goals at all! Thank you for writing it!

  3. In the mystery I’m finishing, my protagonist is seeking to solve the murder of his friend, which the police have tied to the murder my protag’s wife one year earlier and two hundred miles away. I realized my mistake early on, that my character’s other goals weren’t tied in to the story premise (or moral premise, as Stanley Williams calls it). So because my premise surrounds the theme of partnership, all of my protag’s other goals were hindered by his inability to work with a partner. This, of course, resulted in his floundering marriage and consequently lead to the murder of his wife. Once I realized the power of the “other” goals, it really brought life to my story.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      This is why it’s so important to remember that character and plot are really inextricable. To maintain cohesion, the plot has to directly influence the character arc – and vice versa. Otherwise, the whole thing fragments.

  4. I’ve never thought about scene goals, actually. I found myself in this place (not having a clearly defined goal/path to get there) because I started out not knowing what the end would be. My next round of edits may focus on this, but I think I’m going to start paying attention to what the goal of every scene is.

    This is great advice. Thank you!

  5. This is fantastic advice. I’ll have to come back to this every now and then to remind myself.

  6. Thanks for the post. This has been a nagging problem for a story I’ve been writing on and off for nearly a year. I was actually trying to write a story where the main character doesn’t have any goals in the beginning (because the story is supposed to be about how she discovers what she really wants out of life). I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t make it work. But I realized upon reading your post that she can’t start out without any goals at all, even if they are dumb ones (for example, maybe her goal in the beginning could be to carry on the family business because she thinks that’s what her deceased father would have wanted). Thanks again for the insight!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      You’ve stumbled upon one of the most important technical aspects of the novel. Even if the character ends up changing his goals, he has to start out wanting something. Often, he starts out wanting exactly the wrong thing, and the story is about his evolution into gaining a better a goal.

    • ‘(because the story is supposed to be about how she discovers what she really wants out of life)’

      That is a goal isn’t it? Her discovery of what she realy wants, could drive her forward to find what matters the most to her, and a rich self discovery in the process of the search. Or a plot twist of discoloring what she thought waht she wanted wasn’t what she expected. :3 Just my thoughts.

  7. Oh so true. Goals are what pulls everything together.

    Especially, I know writers who get caught up in “the daily life” of a character. Okay, but is it leading somewhere bigger, or have they dug into that daily life enough to make that into a low-key but complete goal? It always comes back to this.

    The best part of this is, even if a scene is a pause between the plot (that vital but “dull” scene of “he needs a morning at work telling himself he didn’t see a ghost last night”), you can dig into that and find a goal just for that scene. Trying to get through work you hate is so different from on okay job beside a friend or a routine haunted by regrets, and any of those can hold a quiet scene together, if you know which is its.

  8. Thanks for another great post!

  9. I’m coming to this party late, but this is exactly what I’m struggling with. My third book in a series (which wasn’t well planned–I’m a novice) focuses on a teen character from the first book who is very well- adjusted and has it all together, particularly so since he is blind. It’s like trying to find a gift for the person who has everything! I can not figure out what he wants!! I know he feels guilt , believing he could have prevented his father death if he’d been able to see. And he feels like he failed his dad, who was his encourager, always telling him he could do whatever he set his mind to do. But what questions do I need to be asking to come up with a measurable story goal?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’ve already identified some interested weaknesses in the character. Your next step to figure out how these weaknesses might be holding the character back–and from what? What goal could his guilt and sense of failure put in jeopardy?

  10. Thanks, good advices.

  11. Come on, NO ONE recognized Tangled?? 🙂 Maybe they just didn’t think it worth commenting on. 🙂 But I never realized how weak the movie would have been if her goal hadn’t been “get out into the world *right now*” and see the lanterns *this year* for my birthday.

  12. I had a feeling that you were referencing Rapunzel and I am sure that Rapunzel does try to escape, but the main villain often prevents her from escaping, and Victor’s goal is to have armies at his will and Samantha wants to protect the people she loves and her city, and StarGirl wants to help people in general, as well as get over her lack of self-confidence and start trusting her instincts.

  13. Aha! I have found my problem! I have no idea what my protagonist wants. No wonder I wasn’t able to nail down my central narrative conflict, anchor scenes, or ending! I get these great ideas about abstract story themes, but I never seem to know what they’re *about*!

    Thanks for the great post, I guess it’s time for me to step back into discovery phase…

  14. Great post! I find that when I see a story in which the character lacks a goal, the chapters feel episodic, as if the whole thing is a patchwork of conflicts that don’t really relate to each other. You’re exactly right in saying the story lacks focus.

  15. Christy Moceri says:

    I’m struggling with this right now on my next novel, The Burning. Fortunately, I read your outlining book, so I am aware this is a problem before even writing the draft. I know that my protag is desperate to find a way out of her situation, which is effectively slavery, but that she doesn’t want to give up her addiction in order to do it. Reality is just too difficult for her to face. She is largely driven by a self-interested survival mentality, but that will have to change throughout the course of the novel. I still haven’t come up with the climax yet, so I think I need to try that ”outlining backward” thing and see if her goals become more clear.

  16. Her goal is to discover what she really wants out of life?

    Or some larger goal which requires that to happen first?

Trackbacks

  1. […] confusing the reader; Jami Gold shows us when “telling” is okay; K.M. Weiland warns against characters lacking solid story goals; and Deborah Raney has suggestions for keeping your timeline straight in your […]

  2. […] Weiland notes that characters might possess life goals that are entirely separate from the immediate plot of the story. She writes: ‘Sometimes life […]

Speak Your Mind

*