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

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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.

Comments

  1. 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?).

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