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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!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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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. Thanks. Great advice as always and focuses the mind. My character’s goal is

    Erica WANTS to save Lizzie (who reminds her of her dead sister) from a life threatening situation but Erica NEEDS to come to term with her sister’s death and the part she played in it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ooh, I like that–trying to put a Band-aid on the problem instead of letting it actually heal.

  2. Thanks for the post! I read through it trying to apply it to my characters, and, for once when reading your stuff, I was (mostly) spot on with what I’d already written! The only problem is the self-destructive part, that depends on the circumstances, really.

    Tiffany is (effectively) a time-traveler, and she wants to keep her best friend from dying in a war. At the same time, her side of the war, which said friend leads, holds her loyalty and devotion (as does said friend), and she isn’t about to stop the war, because the threat will destroy the world and she is the second-in-command under the friend that is in danger.

    So, it’s personal – stop friend from dying.

    It’s also intrinsic, mostly because the center of the book is this war (and the one preceding it and the one after it), and Tiffany wants her friend to not die while leading the Pact against the big-O threat.

    It is definitely Lie-driven, because she’s also from a different world (this whole thing takes place in a video-game world) and subconsciously – subconsciously is important, because she denies it a million times – believes she’s still the Player Character and that the world kind of revolves around her. This also gives her a ton of responsibility that she accepts (thinking it comes from her knowing the future and being responsible for what happens now), and makes some problems that she isn’t quite realizing yet. But the reason it’s subconscious is because when her friend died in the game, she didn’t like thinking it was a game (she’s kind of typical obsessed teen) and told herself it was real. So when it turned out it actually IS real, the part about it actually being a game had been whacked on and beat up inside her subconscious and it’s actually still there, affecting her. Anyway, so her friend dying is tied into her Lie (it’s actually her Ghost/Wound) and stopping him from dying is her Want. I’m still trying to figure out what exactly her Truth is gonna be, but in the meantime the story-center is preventing him from dying.

    But my whole point is that it is not really self-destructive, this character goal. I mean, she’s taking part in a war and trying to stop people from dying, but… it’s not tied in. She could have EASILY stopped him from leading her side of the war if she wanted to. She could have stopped her side of the war from starting at all if she wanted to. But she didn’t, because the war is mostly self-defense and she is almost literally the only one with the key to start-up crank to get the defense going.

    But it’s not self-destructive. My story’s arcs and stuff are mostly internal and relationship-oriented. Being mean to Tiffany (as the author should) comes in the form of mental blows – her friends leave, she worries about them dying, she thinks they reject her, she worries its her fault – as oppose to physical injury. So, most likely, this Character Goal is going to be ‘self-destructive’ in an internal sense, not an external one, and I’m not sure how that is supposed to work out. How does wanting to protect her friend from dying in these circumstances work against her psychologically?

    I can think of a bunch of undeveloped examples, but those are brainstorm ideas, not seriously-considering ones (like the whole thing being a dream and she is still at home in the other world). Any suggestions?

    ~~Tiffany (yes, my MC is named after me, lol)

  3. David Snyder says:

    Katie,

    Reading these posts is like participating in a really cool master class while you are writing. It’s really awesome. I am feeling some massive synchronicity here.

    Case in point for this week, related to this post:

    I am at the 65% mark on the first draft of a novel.

    I like most of the stuff I have as a rough draft, but when I read this latest post I was hit with some inspiration to go back and rewrite my hook. (Well, actually I have back-to-back hooks, and this was the intro of hook number two, involving the two main characters who really drive the story. It starts on page 3.)

    The advice in this post prompted me to see the story afresh through the eyes of these characters and I realized that I had to let THEM set the stage. I was able to stitch together some relatively simple but weighty actions and dialogue in the opening set-up that tell us exactly who they are, how they are hurting, and what they are fighting for—really fast, in down-to-earth terms. It is a young woman and a young man. Not a stereotype anywhere to be found in the drama that ensues now. Neither one acts the way you would expect them to under the circumstances.

    When I was done (in 2,700 words) I saw that I had also foreshadowed the plot for the entire book to come. I had not expected this.

    Way cool.

    Also, I saw there was “no need to panic” and that I was glad to have already written the first 65%, because at least I knew where the story was going.
    So it wasn’t a bad thing to go back to the beginning and tighten the screws on the dialogue, character initiation and plot, and tone.

    Key take-away for me: just keep writing, keep paying attention, and don’t be afraid to work on different parts at the same time, as long as you are constantly tweaking the quality.

    And—don’t panic. You can do it this!

    Great post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s great! Nothing beats that moment when you realized you were subconsciously foreshadowing all along.

  4. Once again you’ve hit it out of the park! What’s more you’ve _really_ helped me clarify the focus of a sprawling teen romance novel set in Japan that I am in the process of re-writing as a short series of novellas.

    Focusing on character goals and the *internal* conflicts in which they are rooted–specifically that space between The Truth and The Lie–has allowed me to strengthen the spine of each act and grow them into full fledged stories in themselves.

    Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As someone who’s battling some sprawl of her own, I say that’s awesome! 😀

  5. GOAL
    The Thing the Character Wants
    Jack: to avoid trouble by “flying under the radar” unnoticed and disconnected
    Miko: to be perfect at _everything_ even if it kills her

    MOTIVATION
    The Lie the Character Believes
    Jack: You can’t fight social expectations–especially as a gaijin (outsider) in Japan. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
    Miko: You can’t be accepted if you disappoint others. Unfortunately with great success comes even greater expectations.

    The Truth the Character Needs
    Jack: A deep intimate connection with others is important enough to fight for.
    Miko: Love doesn’t require perfection.

    CONFLICT
    Part 1
    Jack: desire to avoid conflict by avoiding attention vs his desire to date the most popular girl in the school.
    Miko: desire to fulfill everyone’s expectations for her vs her desire to be happy

    Part 2
    Jack: desire to maintain their relationship vs his desire to avoid confronting an increasingly hostile student body.
    Miko: desire to keep Jack at all costs vs her desire to conform to others’ expectations.

    Part 3
    Jack: desire to preserve his relationship with Miko by finding time to be with her vs desire to find acceptance through an increasingly successful music career.
    Miko: desire to pursue her own rising acting/modeling career and increasing fame vs desire to be free of the strict behavioral standards (such as keeping their quasi-legal marriage a secret) and the crushing anxiety of fearing she is losing Jack.

    Part 4
    Jack & Miko: desire to be together vs desire to not enrage their fans by throwing away their careers.

  6. This was SUCH a good list, and I especially feel “personal” is often missed and it’s SO important (also Bourne is a great example). I’m drafting something right now and I think I’m going to have to take a look at this list for my characters

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always important to know why *this* character is in *this* plot. If the plot could be explored by any old character, then we know we’re seeing several problems.

  7. The Lie is a fascinating concept – I’ve come up with a reasonable one for my main character.

  8. I don’t know if I’m a wordplayer but here’s my fix on it.
    Eva wants to become a member of the canine squad of the police department where she’s an officer.
    The underflying reason: If she’s part of a hero-team, she’s worthwhile and valued.
    The Lie: Everything that goes wrong is her fault (this was instilled in her by her father) so she needs to do “right” to make up for all the negative that happened in her family and prove her worth.

  9. Bryson gAmbld says:

    I have a character Names Aby, who long story short is infected by a monstrous object that turned half her body into that,of a,beasts. she has spending years hiding in the,shadows of her town and deal omg with hatred and discrimination from the,townsfolk and just overall wants to be accepted into the world for how,she is. But the,years of,abuse left her with a resentment for those,that bullied her, and she begins doing cruel acts to said townsfolk, believing they must pay for how,they treated her

  10. Carol Painter says:

    This podcast almost caused me to leap off the cross trainer, throw my workout to the winds and rush back to my MS. All through listening my brain was going ping, piing, ping and occasionally there needed to be a massive drum roll. Ok, so listening to this has led me to make the following action list: revise my protagonist’s too general and abstract goal into something very specific. I can already see that this is going to solve another challenge – make her much more 3D by having her act in a number of sound and potentially risky/unsound ways to achieve the goal. I will also bring the major character of the subplot into the story earlier to heighten action, tension and insights into the protagonist’s wants and needs. This means I can integrate the subplot which BTW I am now much clearer about how it works witg main story line and turn passages of exposition which I’ve been unhappy with into action. More showing less telling huh…got to be good. That’s just for starters…Thanks for such a punchy timely episode.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds awesome! 😀 These are the most exciting kind of edits–when you have a clear plan for making the story definably better.

  11. Snežinka says:

    Dear Katie,
    Your posts are great – pure inspiration! During my first novel I fallowed every single hint that you share with us. Thanks a lot. And here comes readers praise: they are asking me who are my characters. ‘What do you mean?’ They want to know who are they in their real lives!?! That is something! Readers believe that my fiction characters have their real lives. YES! Sincerely yours, Lili

  12. In “FROM WHERE YOU DREAM” Robert Olen Butler doesn’t ask what does your character want? Or what is their goal? He uses the word “yearn”, as in “What is your character yearning for?” This hit a nerve for me, because I had felt that my MC’s goal was too flat — sure, she wants to become a part of her daughter’s life again after screwing up. But as soon as I saw how badly she yearned to have that love back, the plot and scenes began to fall into place. If I can add to that something destructive — say, by coming back into her daughter’s life, she may risk having her daughter find out what really happened when she screwed up, and how the girl’s father really died! And this is a subplot to solving the murder of the girl’s best friend. I’m cooking now! Thanks!

  13. I really enjoyed reading this post. It’s easy to create a character goal but you have to make it interesting and stand out to the reader.
    Fantastic post 🙂🙂

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