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6 Requirements for Writing Better Character Goals

better character goalsQuick. Tell me what your characters want.

Maybe you have an immediate answer. Maybe your protagonist wants to save the world, survive, or live happily ever after.

While those are all legit goals that have powered hundreds of good stories, what I’m talking about is what your characters want.

I’m talking about the one thing your characters want more than anything, want unto obsession, want even unto death. They want this thing, whatever it is, so badly they will chase after it in the face of impossible stakes, sometimes against their better judgment, sometimes at great cost to themselves and people they care about, sometimes even at the risk of saving the world/surviving/living happily ever after.

This powerful desire is at the heart of dynamic characters, complex conflict, and effortless plots. When we talk about the symbiosis of plot and character or characters who “write themselves” (and therefore the story), what we’re usually pointing to is a cast with powerful underlying desires.

This is a secret of good writing. Why a secret? Because it’s so easy for authors to overlook.

We’d all agree that yeah, yeah, characters need goals. Of course they have goals! Just look at them—they want to save the world, survive, live happily ever after. We might even throw in a couple bonus prizes, just cuz we’re cool like that. Our characters want all kinds of big things. Happiness. Self-actualization. World peace.

Snore.

Those desires don’t count. Those desires are boring. Even if your characters are actively working toward these goals, these things are just too big, abstract, and pedestrian to drive a story. Everybody on earth wants those things—especially when forced into a story situation in which these things are suddenly and legitimately threatened. When the zombie epidemic hits, you can bet I’m going to have a lot invested in finding a cure. But that hardly makes me a unique character.

A much more interesting scenario would be a character, searching for the cure, who was already infected—and who was dealing with an even more powerful desire for brain salad. Or, even better, she’s a gourmand obsessed with finding a very specific and exotic type of brain. Yum.

A 6-Part Checklist on Your Quest for Better Character Goals

There is a specific kind of character writers dream of writing. This character isn’t someone we create so much as someone we birth, Athena-like, as a fully grown, fully sovereign being. We just turn these characters loose on the page and watch as they take over, effortlessly creating plot through their own dynamic and charismatic actions.

We dream about these characters because actually finding them on the page often seems like ineffable alchemy—it just happens. These characters come to the page with powerfully undeniable desires. They want things so bad—often things they really shouldn’t want—that they tear down kingdoms to get at them.

Sounds like a good story just waiting to happen, doesn’t it?

Let’s take a look at six qualities needed to create the the kind of character desire that will power a blah plot into a potently dimensional story.

1. Better Character Goals Are… Specific

Better character goals are always specific goals. They’re not abstract (love), and they’re not general (falling in love with any ol’ body). In some stories, in which the motive isn’t solidified until late in the First Act or early in the Second Act, the character’s desire may start out abstract and general, but the sooner it gets down to business, the better.

Failing to hammer out specific goals is a surprisingly common problem, particularly in what are frequently called “plot-driven stories.” The hero wants to be heroic; the bad guy wants to do bad stuff. They may even have pretty decent motives for their respective intentions. The problem is that their actions within the plot often seem rote simply because the only thing they seem to want is something much bigger than their own lives. (Can any of us really grasp the concept of world peace?)

This is one reason the foot soldier on the ground often makes a more compelling character than the general up at headquarters. Not only is the soldier actually in the action, but his goals are much more specific. “Win the war” is admirable, but pretty boring; “take the enemy base” is better; and “protect your high-ranking prisoner at all costs” is better still.

In stories that do choose to fall back on heroic heroes with admirable-but-broad goals, we usually see more specific goals showing up as scene goals. That’s good. But you can notch up your whole plot if your scenes are also driven by every single character wanting something specific on his or her own account.

Example: In Saving Private Ryan, the goal isn’t “defeat the Nazis and win World War II.” Rather, the goal is “save just one man and deliver him back to peace.”

Saving Private Ryan Tom Hanks Matt Damon

2. Better Character Goals Are… Small

Inherent within the idea of specificity is the idea of “small” goals. Specificity necessarily narrows a character’s choices, tightening up abstract generality into shockingly realistic cause and effect.

Writers often think bigger is better when the reverse is almost always true. Huge explosions and massive stakes are only as interesting as the individual person who is affected. Same goes for a character’s ambitions. Even (especially) when the character is caught within a larger drama, the scenes that are most interesting are almost always the small human dramas—a child thieving to feed a wounded spy, that zombie foodie trying to hide her gourmet proclivities, a politician trying to retcon a family secret.

Example: In Star Wars: A New Hope, what Luke wants isn’t to “defeat the Empire.” What he wants isn’t even really “save Princess Leia.” What he wants is “to escape his mundane farmer’s life.” (Wanting to “learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father” starts out as a pretty abstract goal in the first movie, but it plants the seeds for more specific goals in later movies—such as wanting to track down Yoda and convincing him to be his mentor.)

luke skywalker tatooine star wars new hope

3. Better Character Goals Are… Personal

Although it should be self-evident that your character’s deepest desire is intensely personal, it must still be said since so many stories rely on deeply impersonal goals to move their characters through the story.

Don’t miss the part about these impersonal goals “moving the characters” through the plot—rather than the other way around. A good rule of thumb is that if the goal is bigger than the character, the plot is in control. And vice versa: if the character is bigger than (or at least as big as) the goal, then the character is the one moving the plot.

This is exactly why smart authors use extremely personal goals to ground characters within larger-than-life plots. One of the most-used versions has the protagonist taking on an arch-baddie only after a loved one is murdered or kidnapped.

Gifting characters with inherently personal desires is often more instinctive in smaller dramas, but not always. Too many romances seem to believe the characters’ real goals are “fall in love.” But if the characters’ don’t have passionate personal goals distracting them from and probably directly interfering with their love lives, then what’s keeping these people apart in the first place?

Particularly if you’re writing a story that takes place on a bigger stage—such as epic dramas, political thrillers, and action stories—stop right now and ask yourself if your character has a personal desire other than winning the fight just because winning is a better option than losing.

Example: In The Bourne Identity, Bourne’s goal isn’t “destroy the immoral black ops agency Treadstone.” That he ends up destroying them is almost incidental and only happens because his true desire is “to regain his memory.”

Matt Damon Bourne Identity Final Battle

4. Better Character Goals Are… Intrinsic

When giving your character a specific, small, personal desire, you must also make sure the desire is intrinsic to the plot and/or the theme. Action and romance stories often try to supplement their main conflict with a contrasting subplot in which the protagonist also falls in love or also deals with a dangerous situation.

These annexed subplots are rarely as satisfying as more streamlined stories in which the so-called “A Story” and “B-Story” are really two intrinsic sides of the same coin. Trying to shoehorn a contrasting subplot into your story too often creates a precarious scenario in which the story becomes a pitched battle to decide which subplot the audiences will enjoy more (usually, the storyline with the “smaller” goal wins).

When you start your story by first determining your characters’ most personal and specific desires, you’ll often find an entry to the plot that will organically bring all the important elements together into a seamless whole.

For Example: In Brent Weeks’s Black Prism, the protagonist’s suppressed desire for the woman he loves and the reasons he can’t be with her are intrinsic to his larger political gambit and his even larger role in staving off an apocalyptic imbalance in his world. Because his “small” and “large” desires are in constant (and potentially disastrous) tension with each other, they inform each other in every scene.

5. Better Character Goals Are… Self-Destructive

The most interesting character desires are never straightforward. If they were, they’d find fulfillment in the first chapter. This is why, of all the many ways to use a character’s desires to create conflict, one of the most powerful is choosing a desire that is inherently, or at least potentially, self-destructive.

Not only is this the starting place of all character arcs, it’s also just “good TV” as they say. When a character wants something dangerous—and wants it for good reasons—the audience is hooked.

A simple example is a man wanting to go to war to defend his country. We understand his reasons, but we also know he may just have signed his own death warrant. Another easily recognizable example would falling in love with “the bad boy.” We get the attraction, but we know this is probably going to end in tears.

It’s important to note that if the character is balancing on the razor’s edge of a possibly self-destructive choice, readers must empathize. If they feel the character is just too stupid to make a better choice, they’re not going be sucked into the ensuing drama. Rather, they must understand, at every step, why the character is willing to take such incredible risks in pursuit of this desire.

For Example: In Emily Brontë’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff notoriously rains down misery and destruction on, not just the lives of his enemies, but also his own life and that of his true love Cathy. Although readers are likely often repulsed by Heathcliff’s actions, we always understand the deep pain and loneliness that drives his devastatingly obsessive relationship with his childhood sweetheart.

Wuthering Heights BBC Tom Hardy Charlotte Riley Heathcliff Cathy Linton

6. Better Character Goals Are… Lie-Driven

The Lie the Character Believes is the heart of both theme and character arc—whether that arc ends up changing the story positively or negatively. At the core of that Lie is the Thing the Character Wants, which is almost always in conflict with the Thing the Character Needs (i.e., the Truth) at some level.

This presents so many chewy opportunities for plot-pushing goals. Indeed, the reason we love watching a character doggedly pursue potentially self-destructive desires is because these desires always point to pressure points deeper within the character. Those pressure points are the nodes of change. If punched hard enough, transformation erupts. And that is always the stuff of good stories.

When looking for the self-destructive aspects of your characters’ desires, look harder still. What underlying Lie might be fueling your character’s motivation and/or the goal itself? Will the character overcome this Lie—allowing her to either avoid destruction or at least rise from the rubble? Or will he succumb to the latent ruin within his own desires?

Whatever your answer, what’s found within in the grist of great themes.

For Example: In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey comes within seconds of destroying his own life because he believes it is worth less than his insurance policy. This is a direct product of his story-long soul-rotting dissatisfaction with his narrow life in a “crummy little town.”

The Hardest Part of Writing Good Character Arcs—and How You Can Make It Look Easy!

***

Now. Quick. Tell me what your characters want.

If their desires and goals fulfill all six parts of this checklist, then congrats! You’re on your way to creating compelling characters in a compelling plot. It’s just as easy—and hard—as that.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Which of the six requirements of better character goals do you think your protagonist’s desires fulfills? Tell me in the comments!

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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. Chris Derby says

    My character, a lonely barn Brownie, after accidentally triggering a fire that destroys his home, wants to prove that he can be the best barn brownie, ever, even if it means isolating himself from the human companionship he so desperately craves.

  2. In *The High Road*?

    Mark wants to protect Angie– but mostly he wants to be worthy of her, when his own life was always a mess, and when everything that goes wrong only show what he always knew, that she’s always been more capable than him. What could go wrong?

  3. My MC (who may be getting a name change) just wants his former friend, who turned on him, to admit that their past relationship meant something. That HE means something, that he isn’t worthless.

  4. I am writing historical fiction and have been researching my characters for the last nine years (thinking I was originally going to do a bio). The main character is with me day and night. When I read your list I thought to myself, “Hah! I know my character well.” Ticked off everything on the list. This list was a great help for someone switching from non-fiction to fiction, and having never written fiction before. Let the adventure continue!

  5. Mary George says

    Katie.
    Your knack of nailing the elements of story is, yet again, brilliant . . . . I printed it out and made notes relevant to my novel, and saw that my protag has a specific, personal and lie-driven goal. And, given the people – and society – who trip her up, your sidebars (so nicely woven in) nudged me to “Don’t Forget to Make Every Scene Relevant and Plot-Driven.”
    I tripped up, however, with this: “When you start your story by first determining your characters’ most personal and specific desires, you’ll often find an entry to the plot that will organically bring all the important elements together into a seamless whole.”
    As a first-time novelist, this was not the case. Let me repeat. Not. . . . I made a lot of mistakes, missed the mark of good story and engaging plot, and deviated needlessly – boringly – and basically drew up a mess of narrative that has taken over a year to take apart and put back together again. But. Having lived through it, I have to say that if there were ever a time to learn from my mistakes, this would be it. Having licked my pride and re-fluffed my ego, all that excess writing made me much more aware of the finer points of moving a story along, and leaving the filler out – that goal is on a Post-It on my forehead.
    Again, thanks for this truthful, salient post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Every story is its own adventure–and every story is complex weave of multiple nodes, themes, and techniques. If there was a single door marked “The Way That Works,” there’d be a queue a million people long. :p Good for you for persevering!

      • Mary George says

        Yep. It has is never been more true than, “This is NOT how to do it:”

        “You have to make mistakes to find out who you aren’t. You take the action, and the insight follows: You don’t think your way into becoming yourself.” – Anne Lamott

        Gotta love her advice on that “*&!#[email protected] first draft.”

  6. My character started with a small goal—just to pay rent. Then she met a lost man at her new job, and added another small goal—to reunite him with his family. The more she tried, the more she found out, the more she realized doing that one thing was going to cost her more than she thought, but she kept stepping over her own boundary lines, one by one. Her goal became self destructive but also ended up being the making of her, when she realized her ideas about how life could be were too small.

  7. I know you enjoy the storytelling in the Marvel Universe. If I may be so bold, may I ask what are Thor’s smaller, personal goals in Ragnarok? Obviously, he wants to save the people of Asgard from destruction. I’m trying to learn by the example of Thor because you have referenced it on occasion. I know you didn’t mention Thor: Ragnarok just because it stars Chris Hemsworth. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      His main goal for most of the movie is to escape the planet he’s stranded on (can’t remember the name).

  8. Oooh. I’m copying this article for when I get around to revisions.

  9. Christine Hammar says

    My character (protagonist) wants to get rid of her feeling of guilt and get on w her life. She’s been believing the lie that she’s guilty of the drowning of her little sister 3 decades ago. That’s what she wants. What she needs is validation.

  10. Dennis Michael Montgomery says

    In my story my MC is lazy and lacks ambition. Against his better wishes for two reasons he goes on a quest. One is to help his religious sect to be better esteemed in his countrry and two is to protect and keep his business.

    Can these two wants be equal and be more important the quest?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hmm, sounds like potentially a very interesting conglomeration. The latter motivation is very self-motivated (and, honestly, the more interest-piquing), so it could potentially generate some interesting conflict/growth with the other goal.

  11. One of your best posts, Katie. Great information that every novelist should review every day they write, especially when formulating plots and characters.

    Chris

  12. Let’s see here. My protagonist’s desire is to escape having to go trial for a crime she didn’t commit. My weakness when coming up with goals is making sure they’re not too vague and not too big. As Truby says, the desire should be so specific that the audience knows the moment the character has achieved it (or has lost it for good). I like to think the desire is specific enough for the latter, but not the former. I’ve been playing with ideas of going to a specific place for refuge, but I’m definitely open to other ideas.
    I would also like to pat pat myself on the back for requirements 3-6.
    Personal: yeah, I think escaping trial out of fear of being falsely convicted of murder is a pretty personal stake.
    Intrinsic: my theme for the book is going to deal with what the purpose of suffering/hardships are and injustice is going to be a specific example of suffering. More specifically, I’m using the book of Ecclesiastes as my sort of “thematic/mental journey” road map and that definitely has themes of injustice.
    Self-destructive: This desire drives to escape from prison actually, so it does incite danger at least on that level and I’m trying to think of ways for her to run into more physical danger, in addition to the mental pangs of having to run away from home as a false convict and thus corroding her to be more hardened and selfish.
    Lie-driven: Again, the theme of the book is asking what the purpose of hardships are and is there an escape/hope from them. The lie of the protagonist (who will go through a positive-arc) is that suffering has no purpose- it’s just a nuisance- and thus should be avoided by any means necessary.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “The desire should be so specific that the audience knows the moment the character has achieved it (or has lost it for good).”

      Dead on. Truby’s always great.

      • Agreed! Thank you for reading! I really enjoyed your book, Wayfarer, and was wondering how you did your Georgian-era research. I, I promise by coincidence, was planning to put my book in the early 1800s, as well, and figured I need some solid sites/books to at least get a feel for what Georgian England life was like in comparison to today and even the Victorian era.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Here’s a list of some of the more useful references I used:

          What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Poole
          The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes
          Georgette Heyer’s Regency World by Jennifer Kloester
          Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen by Sarah Downing
          Georgian and Regency Houses Explained by Trevor Yorke
          Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners by Josephine Ross
          The Jane Austen Handbook by Margaret C. Sullivan
          Jane Austen’s England by Roy & Lesley Adkins
          A Dance With Jane Austen by Susannah Fullerton
          A Short History of Parliament edited by Clive Jones
          Our Tempestuous Day by Carolly Erickson
          The First English Detectives by J.M. Beattie
          Jane Austen’s England by Maggie Lane
          London by Edward Rutherford

          • Thank you!

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Sure thing!

          • Alexa Santi says

            Be cautious with any non-fiction book written by Carrolly Erickson. She is an entertaining writer but a VERY sloppy researcher. In “Our Tempestuous Day” she mixes up several people of different generations who happened to have the same name (especially father/son and mother/daughter pairs).

            Her biography of Bonnie Prince Charlie is particularly embarrassing since she completely dismisses anything that doesn’t fit her pre-conceived image despite the existing evidence, including his alcoholism and his daughter’s 3 illegitimate children.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Whoa, haven’t read her book about Bonnie Prince Charlies. But, yikes.

  13. Madelina’s goal was to bring the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles to the forefront of her art gallery and lift their artists from poverty. Her weakness was her competition with her ex who forced her to move her brother and mother back to Oaxaca, Mexico. She’s ashamed of this. Now obsessed with competing to best him at every move. Her obsession lead to the purchase of a lost masterpiece she’d coveted to sell and add to her wins. But she cannot part with it because it replaced the child she would never have, her most personal goal. When a young archaeologist wanders into the gallery one day describing hidden gold in the Desert, she signs on, and pays dearly for an adventure that changes everything.

  14. Nehemiah Feliciano says

    I have a question. If you are writing a flat character arc for the protagonist, is it okay to make their goals Self-Destructive as long as they posses the main truth of the story?

    • Good question I would love to see Weiland reply to, but my two-cents would be that either the goal could be a self-destructive means for a larger good end or the character is being inconsistent in the truth they believe and the goal is a manifestation of that. Darkest Hour is a movie that does an interesting blend of positive and flat-arc and I think is the closest thing to that former answer I was talking about. The latter is actually straight-up from Toy Story 2 and, one of my all-time favorite examples of character arcs, the video game, Ace Attorney: Justice for All.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, although their goals shouldn’t generally be destructive to the Truth. A broad example might be a character who is willing to sacrifice/destroy himself in service to a greater Truth.

  15. My character wants to step out of the shadows of her mentor. All her skills are “second hand” but she wants to develop her own and make her mark as a Medarion (a physician that uses magic). But in that attempt, she goes after a source of power (which drives the main plot) that is elusive and dangerous to use.

  16. Not only is your mini-class valuable and especially affordable, the Q&A afterword is especially useful. Thanks for all you do!

  17. Jennifer B says

    Wow — Great information! I am working on my first novel and your blog and books have been extremely helpful. (I really poured over the one on story structure, Structuring Your Novel.) This article is a good checklist to make sure the protagonist’s goal is worthy of 200 or more pages.

    But, I am new at this, so I still have a question. Can my protagonist’s goal change, say after the 3rd plot point? Her goal shifts but it is closely tied to the original goal, more like the truth she must face and underlying reason for the goal. The goal is specific and personal and fits all the criteria you listed. It just changes when the 3rd plot point hits. Her big transformation is most evident after this point which involves a shift in her desires.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I prefer the word “evolve” when it comes to goals. Sometimes goals shift radically over the course of the story, but the idea is that should “evolve” along a thematic throughline.

      • Jennifer B says

        Ahh…that makes more sense. I like the idea of thinking of it as evolving because it allows character growth in a more natural progressive way. After really looking at my character’s change, I now realize she is shifting at this point in the story from what she wants (the man she loves and to keep her illness a secret from him) to what she really needs (receive painful but potentially life-saving medical treatment). However, her longing for the desire is still there making her decision to do what she must even more painful. So, I guess in this case her goal changes from her desire to what she must do. I hope I’m on the right track with this! Thanks!

  18. Once again, you have provided invaluable expertise in creating deep characters. I am about to finish the rough draft of my first historical novel. There will be many changes in the revision. My main character is Fawn Jackson. Her mother has been killed. She is filled with regret, believing that her Native American mother never really loved her. She wants to avenge her mother’s death, but she needs to understand her mother’s love language, which will gradually be revealed through her grandmother, her only remaining relative.

  19. ingmarhek says

    My character Brigid is obsessed with royalty and desperately wants to meet a royal in person. When she hears a baron is visiting the town, she finds a way to crash the dinner. However, the visiting royal may not be the kind she was hoping to meet. Not all royals are of this world.

  20. My main character’s sole desire is to receive back her birth right, her father’s Imperial Throne, which had been stolen from her at the birth of her step brother. This is something she wanted so bad that she attempted to sale her brother off into slavery in order to better her claim; resulting in his death. This is back story. My Character spends the main story trying to redeem herself and regain her father’s trust by trying (and failing) to save the empire from a mysterious invading force.

  21. Joan Kessler says

    Really helpful checklist. I got stuck on the specific and small aspects of his goal, which then forced me to identify his immediate goal rather than his big-picture goal. That helped a lot! Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I write mostly epic fantasy, so I often find myself lost in the “big” goals. Usually what pulls me back is a realization that I’m bored. Small goals are much more interesting!

  22. something I realized, again, as you finished up is that I need a place to keep all my notes (or do I?). Right now they are scattered in several different notebooks, not all of them dedicated: a page here, a few more over there.

    My first note while listening is to be sure the antagonist wants to do good… as she sees it. Maybe her actions aren’t for revenge or jealousy, but something else.

    Meanwhile, I’d better set some “office hours.” My writing is more like seasonal work, but now that “writing season” is starting again, I don’t want to waste it on computer games or other distractions. I learned last year that, once settled in, writing my story really is all I want to do.

    I’ll be going through the list of 6 presently. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I hear you. I’m still struggling with major plot block and am beginning to feel I need to just take a break to get some objective space. But–I. just. want. to. write. :p

  23. Fantastic info, as always. I appreciate all that you do to help others to make their dreams of writing come true.

    I’m in between stories after quitting writing a couple years ago to pursue other goals. I’m hoping to get started again soon. Your words are always a source of inspiration and invaluable guidance.

    One of the comments got me thinking about a story I was working on years ago and may take another shot at. The main character was a loser, in his, and almost everyone else’s opinion. He loses his job, and he is losing his wife, too. But, when she’s kidnapped he has risk his own life to save her, and ends up proving he’s not a loser after all. Kind of a rom/com with some danger thrown in.

  24. My MC believes independence is isolation. She wants to escape her life at home and sees going off to college as the answer, but she becomes pregnant. The bulk of the story is her dealing with the consequence of being pregnant.

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