Warning: Poor Choice of Your Character’s Goal Is Killing Your Story

Warning: Poor Choice of Your Character’s Goal Is Killing Your Story

This week’s video talks about the crucial difference between your character’s goal in the overall story and within individual scenes–and how getting the two mixed up can irremediably endanger your book’s success.

Video Transcript:

What’s the fundamental basis of plot? Your first instinct might be to say, “Conflict.” And that’s not wrong, but then what’s the fundamental basis of conflict? If we dig down a little deeper, what we find is that conflict begins with a character’s goal.

Your character wants something. And he wants it so badly and with such personal and urgent intensity that he is going to chase it all the way from the beginning to the end of your story. Not only is your character’s goal the basis of your plot, it’s also what’s going to create an overall sense of cohesion. It’s what’s going to tie together your entire story, from beginning to ending.

But what happens to your story when there isn’t a strong overarching goal?

In a nutshell? Bad things.

One of those bad things is the fact that your story will end up becoming very episodic in nature. Why? Because the ideal overarching goal that should be driving your character throughout the story is going to be replaced, at best, by a series of smaller goals.

Your character will pursue and reach these small goals, one after another—which will keep your story rolling along. But without that overall goal to pull these smaller goals together, you’re going to end up with a story that lacks any kind of through-line, any great pull toward the ending.

Now, of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with your character’s having many smaller goals throughout your story. Indeed, the smaller goals are the foundation of good scene structure, where we have goal, conflict, outcome—and the cycle just keeps repeating. The key, however, is making certain all of the smaller goals are related to and tie into the larger story goal.

Consider your book and ask yourself, What is your character’s goal in the overall story? And then dive down to the scene level and start examining his smaller scene goals. Are they all tying into that overall story goal? If so, you’re on the right track to a cohesive and powerful book!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your character’s goal in the overall story? Tell me in the comments!

Warning: Poor Choice of Your Character’s Goal Is Killing Your Story

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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. A grandmother whose son was kidnapped by the child’s stepfather, a pedophile, when the child was 8, is still looking for her son.

    Working title: A MILLION CLOSED EYES… a thematic title, because she, her brother, and many elements of society overlook or don’t recognize the signs of child abuse.

    I am so enjoying writing this novel because I can see the growth in my writing, and it’s damned exciting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Growth is always exciting. 🙂 Nothing is better for a writer than being able to look back on old writing and see its flaws. Means we’re moving onward and upwards!

  2. This is quite true! Now, I really fear to ask myself what is the character’s goal of the story 😐 But I must do that … now!

  3. thomas h cullen says:

    In a recent correspondence, with a Yann Bertrand (the maker of the new film project HUMAN), I spoke of Belinda Bauer in Robocop 2 deserving to be the centre of the universe (and, that this reality exists in all the people used for HUMAN).. Despite Robocop 2’s flaws, as well as the fact that Dr Flax’s raison d’etre is actually rather uninspiring (as in shallow), I’d perceived myself as seeing something special, in the facet of Dr Flax.

    Goal on its own isn’t enough – if it were, I would have found a literary agent by now.. Just as essential to goal is form (or packaging), which is what Robocop 2 had.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re right: good writing is a sum of many parts. It’s not possible to write a good story just by acing *one* of the important requirements. We have to successfully keep all the juggling balls in the air.

  4. Great post! One thing I was wondering while reading this: should the character’s goal in the beginning of the story be the same goal for the rest of the story? I understand the importance of having an overarching goal. But, many of my favorite books take the character from wanting one future at the beginning, to wanting a totally different-looking future toward the end.

    • My opinion only: sometimes you don’t know what you want until you want it. So, I think switching goals during the story is a good thing. Of course, if the overall goal is happiness or safety or contentment, there are many ways to get there. One of my WIP has safety as the primary goal. Toward the end, she puts safety at risk for something more important, safety for others.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ah, this would the beautiful juxtaposition of the Thing the Character Wants and the Thing the Character Needs. The Thing He Needs is the ultimate story goal–even if the protagonist doesn’t realize it at the beginning. The Thing He Wants will very often be something that is, in fact, standing in the way of the Thing He Needs–which is what causes the change mid-plot.

      Let’s take the movie My Best Friend’s Wedding as an example. In it, Julia wants to marry Dermot, but she needs to do the right thing, be a good friend, and let him go be happy with Cameron.

      I talk about all this a whole lot more in my series on positive character arcs: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/write-character-arcs/

      And Nora’s right too: the character won’t always (or even often) be aware of the Thing He Needs at the beginning of the story.

      • Who my MC finds in the end is not who he was after in the beginning. He’s a shy 19yo college student who has no real experience with girls and simply craves a normal relationship. Suddenly he meets the girl with whom everything clicks – but it’s his younger cousin who’s returned from years out of town. With the age difference, the relationship and other factors, their path is much rougher than need be. In the end he finds true love elsewhere, but might not have without the experience he gained in the story.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Sounds like what he wanted in the beginning was “true love,” which he *did* find in the end, just not in the way he thought he would.

  5. For my WIC, set in 1920 America, my main character thinks his main goal is to get across country to his uncle’s farm in California. Subconsciously, his real goal is to run away from his past as far and fast as possible.

    My only concern is that this goal won’t feel compelling enough to the reader, especially because this story is not genre fiction (other than historical), and it seems general/literary fiction is already losing popularity in recent years.

    I’m trying to keep the story intriguing by sprinkling in allusions to the past he’s running from, sort of as the mystery behind why we are where we are with this guy as we go along. I’m hoping that this will work.

    Any thoughts about this, anyone?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Speaking personally, nothing hooks me so surely as alluring hints to a haunting backstory. Don’t worry too much about what you *think* readers or the market wants. Write what *you* would want to read.

  6. What if what a character WANTS is on the level of life or death–for instance, an abused woman WANTS to keep her (also abused) children safe (her overarching external goal). If what she NEEDS (to give them more than an isolated fugitive existence, to trust in others, to help them find happiness) could jeopardize this WANT, even a little, is she not foolish for taking the chance? For putting her NEED ahead of her WANT? This confuses me. What if the WANT falls higher on the hierarchy of need pyramid?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When the character is already in alignment with the Thing She Needs, then she is probably following a flat arc rather than a change arc. In that instance, she will stay basically aligned with her Need/Truth throughout the story. She won’t change; rather, she’ll use that Truth to change others and the world around her.

  7. Thanks, Katie. Appreciate the help.

  8. I appreciate how succinctly you can explain something as complex as this. I tend to have multiple perspectives, but in what I’m writing currently:

    1 character’s goal is to reach the top ranks in his flight school, but he was caught cheating and also has a bad habit of looking for shortcuts.

    Another character is a sort of politician who made it one rung from the top but did so through ruthlessness and betrayals. The last betrayal was a family member and the consequences still haunt him, so his goal is to remain loyal to the president (except the president is incompetent so he has to decide between keeping his promise to himself or serving the greater good).

    Another has a lot of potential, but her father was always verbally abusive and never thought she was doing enough with the skills she had. He ended up being cast out from society for a legal problem and she now tends to sabotage herself whenever things start looking up, but her goal is to fail, which will eventually shift.

    They’ve all been pretty fun to write about. I’ve put a lot more thought into character motivations and goals this time around, and find it is really making the whole writing process easier. It gives me a clear sense of what I need a scene to accomplish and also helps me tie them all together. I’m just struggling with how clear I want their goals to be early. At times I feel like I’m veering toward telling and not showing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Goals are like the secret sauce. When they’re firmly in place, the whole story generally just falls in line (comparatively) effortlessly.

  9. This might sound silly, but is happiness a goal? At least for the first 3/4 of the story? One of my main characters doesn’t really want to be involved in anything going around her. Her goal is to forget the past and attempts to do this by gaining control. My other MC’s goal is to restore the kingdom and to get the aforementioned MC to join him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely a goal. Just make sure the character is pursuing something *specific* that she thinks is going to lead her to happiness.

  10. Jack is trying to save the Constitution, which will save the country. The thing behind that is he has to find out who is actually running the world.

    He knows he needs help. He doesn’t know where he’s going to get it from.

    Then comes along Renee Truman, who Jack brushes off at first. Until Renee gets him to see that if you have a common goal with someone, who knows what kind of goals can be attained and emotions can boil up.

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