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

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.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook computer program logoIn previous posts, we’ve talked about your character’s two conflicting goals, based on the Thing He Needs and the Thing He Wants. Between them, these two desires drive your entire story, pushing and pulling your protagonist and the people around him until they end up in a completely different place from that in which they began the story. My Outlining Your Novel Workbook software will help you work through important questions to find your character’s Want and Need.

Character Arc and Theme Outlining Your Novel Workbook Software

But here’s another question for you: Does it matter what your character wants?

Obviously, a character’s goal has to tie into the plot in a logical way. But there’s more. In order to resonate deeply with your very human audience, your character’s goal needs to be one of five specific things.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Why It Matters to Authors

Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” is a theory that suggests all human desires fall into five categories, grouped from basic physical needs to those of self-empowerment and realization: physiological, safety and security, love and belonging, esteem and recognition, and self-actualization.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

According to Maslow, the order of these five needs is also the progression humans must experience as they grow into a better awareness of themselves and the world around them, allowing them to become centered, healthy individuals. Same goes for your character. Your character’s wants and needs–your character’s goal–is going to fall into at least one of those categories, depending on where he currently finds himself in his progression from primal survivor to empowered individual.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the five categories of needs.

1. Physiological

Physiological needs are those essential to human survival. Without these, your character dies. They’re the foundation of the pyramid. If your character has to consciously think about pursuing these needs, then he’s not likely to have the time or energy to devote much thought or effort to those needs higher up on the scale. Physiological needs might include:

  • Air
  • Water
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Shelter

Example of a Character’s Goal:

In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara’s vow to “never be hungry again” is born of her starved search for a root in the ruined fields of Tara at the end of the Civil War.

Scarlett O'Hara Gone With the Wind Vivian Leigh Never Be Hungry Again

2. Safety and Security

Once physiological needs have been met, your character’s goal will most likely evolve into a desire for safety and security for himself and those he cares about. He wants to protect his body, so he doesn’t have to consciously think about his physiological needs. Safety and security needs might include:

  • Protection against assault or injury
  • Adequate money
  • Steady employment
  • Good health
  • Protection of private property

Example of a Character’s Goal:

In The Maze Runner, Alby and the other boys build a sustainable sanctuary in the Glade in order to avoid the lethal Grievers that roam the Maze.


3. Love and Belonging

Once basic physical needs are met and assured for the foreseeable future, your character will get to focus on his emotional needs and desires. If your character isn’t on the run or trying to keep from getting killed, then he’ll probably be dealing with interpersonal conflict in an attempt to find harmony and fulfillment in his relationships with other people. Love and belonging needs might include:

  • Friendship
  • Romance
  • Intimacy
  • Family

Example of a Character’s Goal:

In Wuthering Heights, every bit of Heathcliff’s lifelong quest for vengeance is based on his burning desire to be loved (especially by Cathy) and to find a sense of belonging in a world that rejected him almost entirely from his childhood onward.

Wuthering Heights BBC Tom Hardy Charlotte Riley Heathcliff Cathy Linton

4. Esteem and Recognition

Once your character has his physical and emotional needs reasonably met, he’s going to start wanting to feel as if who he is and what he does is worthy of respect. We all want to feel as if we’re doing a good job, as if we’re making a difference in the world around us. Otherwise, what’s the point? Your character’s goal in this category may not be immediately quantifiable as a desire for “esteem and recognition.” What readers may end up seeing on the page will be simply his desire to be President, to get someone to buy his invention, or to get an A+ on his history paper. Esteem and recognition needs might include:

  • Independence
  • Compensation
  • Respect
  • Promotion
  • Credit
  • Gratitude
  • Appreciation

Example of a Character’s Goal:

In The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner wants to not just find a job that will allow him and his son to survive, but to become a successful stockbroker.

The Pursuit of Happyness Will Smith Jaden Smith

5. Self-Actualization

Finally, at the tippy-top of that hierarchy of needs is the desire to find and fulfill the deeper meaning in life. Your character wants to do more than just live, he wants to thrive. He wants to reach the full extent of his personal potential. He probably has most of his other needs taken care of, which allows him the time and energy to focus on discovery and creation. Self-actualization needs might include:

  • Higher education
  • Spiritual enlightenment
  • Artistic pursuits
  • Travel and experience
  • Altruistic and charitable contributions to others

Example of a Character’s Goal:

In My Man Godfrey, Godfrey abandons his riches and social position to live first as a hobo and then as butler to another wealthy family, out of a desire to find a purpose in his entitled life.

My Man Godfrey William Powell Carole Lombard

When Your Character’s Needs Overlap

Have you spotted which of the categories into which your protagonist’s story goal fits? It could be his goal actually fits into more than one category. In fact, it’s pretty likely. Life isn’t exactly as neat as Maslow likes to make it look. We may be struggling through any combination of these needs all at the same time. For example, the protagonist in Pursuit of Happyness has a main goal that fits into all the categories except Love and Belonging (and we could maybe even make an argument for that one too).

negative trait thesaurusAs Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi point out in the appendix to their Negative Trait Thesaurus (which includes tons of great examples of goals and motivations for all five categories of needs):

Please note that needs may fit into multiple categories depending upon the character’s motivation. For example, the need to acquire an education could be based on a need for security (if the character’s purpose is to escape a bad neighborhood), esteem (if the goal is being pursued out of desire to prove oneself to others), or self-actualization (if the character is seeking knowledge as a way to become more self-aware).

In many stories, an overlap between the categories can actually be an asset, since it creates multidimensional motivations and goals for your character. But even if your character’s goal only falls into one of these categories, you’ll be able to verify you’ve created a deeply realistic story, one that will resonate on a primal level with readers everywhere.

Tell me your opinion: Which of these five categories does your character’s goal fit into?

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

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I am writing a short story in which the main character’s goal is to simply be remembered after he and everyone he knows and loves has died. I’m not sure if that fits into the esteem or self actualization part of the pyramid.

  2. Nicolle Rosette says

    Hi I just wanted to mention that you stated the wrong actor for the movie The Pursuit of Happyness. The actor is actually Will Smith and not Chris Gardner.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Chris Gardner is actually the name of the real-life man portrayed by Will Smith in the movie. 🙂

  3. Can the character have more than one of these goals?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. Think about your own life and how you may hold any number of these goals at the same time.

  4. the more basic and primal, the better, I’d say. need for air or water or food is much more powerful than the need for being accepted as a member of the Chewbacca Chewie Community Club for Common Cyan Cardboard Crocodiles.

  5. Good stuff here. Very helpful.

  6. My character Amelia wants to help people, and Samantha wants to protect her city and the people she loves, and they are completely different since Amelia just rounds up the bad guys and lets the police arrest them, and Samantha kills and tortures them, but at the same time, enjoys doing it.

  7. My character is the soul of a dead woman who is reincarnated, and she is trying to prevent the person who she inhabits not to make the mistakes she had made previously, as well as righting the selfish acts by helping others. I was struggling with the goal, but I would say it would be purpose in life/ altruistic.
    What are your thoughts??

  8. Great article! My protagonist needs to forgive himself about something, before he can allow himself to progress to love again. Would I be right in assuming that would come under the headings of esteem/safety/belonging?

  9. K.m.,

    My main character Leilani who is a mermaid princess who has visions in the co-author book. Does help people who are sick with the yellow death they have in the book. How much to do pace in your books. I am hoping to do five books total.

  10. K.m.,

    My main characters are Leilani who is a mermaid princess who has visions in the co-author book and Zane who becomes her protector who is also a prince and a merman to. She does help people who are sick with the yellow death they have in the book. Eventually they become immortal. How much to do pace in your books? I am hoping to do five books total.

  11. K.M. Thank you. I bought your book and I like it. The other one has not come yet. In your outlining your novel workbook -Do you have to you the four temperaments? I mean for my characters. The mermaid is headstrong and sometimes stubborns and she is the oldest twin in her family because she has anidentical twin sister and a younger sister. Leilani also wants to be loves too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks! Glad you’re enjoying the book. And, no, you don’t have to do any of the sections in the workbooks that you don’t feel are right for you.

  12. onewordtest (@oneword_test) says

    My characters goal fits into and overlaps in all of them, except for physiological (which he had before the story started, since his current situation was brought on by him nearly drowning! he survived that, so now he’s got to deal with the rest I guess!)

    My child character from my other WIP mostly falls into Safety and Love/Belonging.

  13. I think my character would fit self actualization and security and safety since he is driven by hatred and vengeance on someone who took away everything important to him in the past and at the same time tries to stop him to protect others as well.

  14. Will Nettles says

    Maslow’s theory may seem sensible and reasonable but it’s been discredited. (As a teacher I know they still drag this stuff, Gardner Learning types… Doesn’t mean it’s right or it works.)
    Attachment Theory is better. The need to belong, to connect.


    This next site talks about how Maslow causes problems in the workplace
    Also as writers it should be obvious that Maslow is wrong. Sure we can’t write if we don’t have water and food, the desire and need to write that we find so primal is at Maslow levels 3-6
    I’m almost through Structuring Your Novel, 100 pages of notes and thinking…. Thanks

  15. I have a general question about goals. What my character wants is to avoid dealing with the death of a family member. To do this he’s given up an activity that was very important to him but would force him to think about her. But it seems like his ‘goal’ is kind of a negative one – It’s not something he wants, it’s something he wants to avoid. It’s also more emotional than concrete. Does that still count as a goal or does it need to have a positive counterpart to represent it and a concrete manifestation?
    Thanks, I find your site so helpful!

  16. love you girl. this is very informative


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