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.

>>Click here to read more posts in the Most Common Writing Mistakes Series.

Tell me your opinion: What is your character’s plot goal?

Most Common Writing Mistakes #25

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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. 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?

      • Does the character have to start off wanting this story goal from the beginning of the story?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          He needs to start off with scene goals that will lead him up to the main story goal, via the Thing He Wants.

          • Can the POV character’s goal in the opening scene be somewhat nebulous? My character’s opening scene goal is basically to live in peace (although that is more implied than clearly stated), but that is interrupted by the arrival of the antagonist who makes his peace seem more unattainable.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Even if the main story goal is passive, such as wanting to live in peace, the opening chapter should still feature a concrete scene goal that ties in either to the plot or the theme. For instance, maybe the character is going to the bank in an attempt to secure a mortgage extension on his house, which will enable him to continue living in peace.

  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?

  17. This is what i needed today (even though you wrote it long ago)! I realized I have several scenes where my POV character doesn’t have a distinct goal (other than to get through the day), and it’s because i’m missing the larger goal for her in part of the book. i know her goal needs to change from what it is in the beginning of the book, but i need a way to pin down the specifics of what it is once it does change, not just a desire to see what happens now that everything is rolling.
    hmmm. much chewing and notebook rambling will be taking place on this today (probably even some out-loud-conversations with myself/her).

  18. mauricio says

    I find my current story slightly off, and I think the reason might be because of the subplot goals I put into the story, for example, after the first plot point, my protagonist has the goal to find his family and escape from a town after a rebel group begin to take it over. The protagonist’ main goal is to stop the rebels from taking over the town, so I feel like I’m taking attention away from the main goal with this subplot goal. Is it fine to focus on a subplot goal which then transitions into the main story goal?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As long as the subplot goal feeds into the main plot goal in a meaningful way by the end of the story (which yours sounds as if it does), you’re fine.

  19. I’ve been struggling a lot with finding a plot goal for my MC. As a psychology student, I want to write a story about a girl with anorexia. The problem is, people with eating disorders (and mental health problems in general) tend to be completely occupied with their illness, leaving no room for other goals than ‘eating as little as possible’, ‘having control over how much I exercise and eat’ or ‘not gaining any weight’. At the beginning of my story, the MC already has anorexia, and she knows she has a problem, but doesn’t want any help (so basically, a negative goal). I just can’t seem to figure out a way to turn that into an active goal.

    It’s been bothering me a lot, since I’ve got all the other elements to turn my ideas into a good story. An interesting backstory, difficult relationships with her family members, an ending where she finally decides to get professional help and deals with the demons from her past… At one point, early on in the book, she also meets another girl who has a completely different perspective on life. She finds her a bit annoying at first, but after a while she notices how much she likes to be with her (unconsciously, she wants a friend who recognizes she has a problem and treats her like a normal person, that and a way out of her miserable life). Her eating disorder stands in the way though, so there’s also a lot of conflict, but I don’t know if that’s enough? I’m afraid the story will feel episodic, although every scene will eventually push her more and more towards the ending she didn’t want at the beginning. Any ideas how I could tackle this problem?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Her disorder in itself could be the goal. She’s determined to get to a certain weight? She’s obsessed with keeping it a secret (from everyone or just someone in particular)? Ask yourself what is motivating the disorder/what caused it to begin. That motive could be driving a goal still.

      • Thank you for your quick reply! Could the meeting between my MC and the other girl be the Inciting Incident, after which the MC decides she wants to befriend her, but doesn’t want her to know she has an eating disorder? (Could that be her overall goal?)

        (I’m binge reading all your articles, and they’re really helpful! They also made me realize that I’ve got so much to learn about writing. As an aspiring writer who only learned the meaning of the word ‘plot’ about a week ago, I have a lot of catching up to do!)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          The Inciting Event will kickstart your story’s main conflict. It is the protagonist’s Call to Adventure, which will happen halfway through the First Act around the 12% mark. Choosing the right Inciting Event will depend on what happens in your story’s Climactic Moment. The Climactic Moment is the answer to the Inciting Event’s question. They bookend each other. So if wanting to be friends with this other girl is the plot goal (and keeping her disorder a secret is the conflict, or part of the conflict), then their meeting would be a fine Inciting Event.

          If you haven’t already read it, you might find this post helpful: .

  20. Hi Katie. I have a couple of questions.
    First: Would you say that the plot goal is akin to the dramatic question or ‘throughline’ of a book or book series? I don’t want to mistakenly equate it if its not the case.

    My character has two goals, of which I’m guessing one is the plot goal/dramatic question/throughline and life goal/what the character wants. He has a premonition that his village will be destroyed by a manevolant force. (Dramatic question: Will he save his home?) His plot goal is to save his home town, and his life goal is to become a famed hero. His motivation/life goal/thing he wants however is holding him back from what he needs. He wants to save home in order to attain glory and validation (the thing he wants), but what he must realize (the thing he needs) is that both home and himself have inherent values of themselves worth defending.

    Second question: I’m thinking of making this a series, but find myself questioning if this plot goal is enough to carry it through, or If its cliché/too simple to be the spine of the entire story. Would you say my plot goal is good as is, or needs to change?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The dramatic question and the main plot goal are often the same thing. And simple goals are often the most powerful, so I see no reason yours couldn’t carry a series.

      • After thinking about your response, I suppose so long as the plot goal never changes and never gets resolved (until the climax) it has potential to qualify as an overarching dramatic question. Thanks for getting back to me. Always appreciate the feedback!

  21. Hi Katie, I have a couple simple questions.
    Would you say the plot goal is akin to the dramatic question in a novel, or through line in a novel series? And additionally, would you say that a life goal is akin to ‘what the hero wants’?

    I’m considering writing a fantasy series, and I think my plot goal for the overarching series is preventing a premonition of the protagonists home being destroyed from becoming a reality. I’m curious if you think this is too simple of a plot goal / through line / spine of my plot, or is simplicity actually a good thing for this goal?
    (Sorry if this posts twice!)

  22. Thank you for taking the time to provide these articles! As a writer working on my first novel, I’ve come back to your site over and over. This article in particular is one I’ve read several times, and I think it’s because this is where I seem to struggle the most.

    I realize this article is a few years old, so I’m not sure if you still check comments on it, but if you happen to see this one, I wanted to ask a quick question – well, kind of a two-part question. For the first part of the question…Do you have a suggested amount of time it might take to come up with a plot goal for the main character? I realize this will be different for everyone, but just in general terms. A day? Week? Months? I ask because I’ve had the idea for my novel for a while now, and while I don’t write full time, I’ve been working on the brainstorming/outlining part for this idea frequently. Over the past few months I’ve come up with pages of notes and ideas for scenes, characters, themes, etc. But every time I come back to the question of the actual plot goal (which I do a lot!), I end up staring at a blank screen for an hour and then getting frustrated and turning to researching, more scene ideas, or as a last resort laundry! Which leads me to the second part of my question… Any tips on coming up with something that works? I feel like I have a lot of other pieces in place, but no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to come up with a plot goal that I think fits. I’m guessing it could be a matter of lack of experience, or maybe something’s not working somewhere else in my planning, or maybe I need to just pick an idea even if I don’t like it and run with it to see what happens, or maybe I need to keep trying to come up with more ideas (hence the first part of the question – how much time should I really spend on this before putting this idea in the “ideas that don’t work” folder!). I know I’m just working on my first attempt at a book, so I’m not expecting it to be perfect or even that good! But I know that this is such a crucial part of a story, so I really don’t want to go much further in the process without figuring it out. If there’s something really obvious (or not obvious!) that I could try to help get past this hurdle, I’m all ears!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      For me, figuring out the character’s plot goal is usually directly associated with my understanding of what the plot will be. If you have any idea of what will happen in the Climax (e.g., the protagonist fights and beats the antagonist), then that is usually a pretty clear indication of what the plot goal should be (e.g., what’s the thing they’re fighting over?).

  23. I love this, thank you.

    I have a character who is in denial of who she is and what she wants. So, her conscious goals are different from her true goals. She says one thing, but does another.

    Does this make character goals more complicated? IE, now I have to consider her conscious and unconscious motivations?

    For context: she is an assassin engaged to a “normal” man that she doesn’t love, who has no idea who she is. She thinks she wants to be normal, but what she really wants is to feel belonging, which she only feels from another assassin – someone who understands her. So she is rebelling against the fact that she is not normal.


  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 […]

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