How to Define Your Character's Story Goal
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Are you ready to get your plot rolling?
The first step to creating epic conflict for your story is to define your characters’ goals. When you know what your characters want, you know what action they’ll take. And if you craft your protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals with purpose in mind, the actions they take are sure to lead to some pretty awesome conflict.
Not sure what your characters want to achieve? Let’s dive into today’s lesson!
Don’t make this common character goal mistake!
All too often, writers mistake their character's ambition with a powerful story goal. You see, a character's ambition is simply something they desire, something they believe will quell the dissatisfaction they feel in their lives. What it isn’t, however, is a specific and actionable goal that will lead your character into your story's juicy conflict.
Take a look at how your character is dissatisfied with their life. Are they, for example, bored with their daily routine? Do they crave adventure? If so, your character’s ambition may be to travel the world.
But, as many of us know from firsthand experience, wanting to do something and actually taking the necessary action to do said thing are two completely different beasts. All too often, doubts, fears, insecurities, or regrets hold us back from jumping the hurdle between want and will. (But more on that in a future article!)
Fortunately, taking your character’s ambition and turning it into a powerful story goal is simple. All you need to do is consider what definitive action your character can take to work toward making their ambition their reality.
Using our example above, your main character may decide that they are going to begin their life of travel by visiting the seven wonders of the world. It's their goal, and they are committed to making it happen. They've already bought the plane ticket, so let the adventure begin!
How to Choose Your Character’s Goal
Crafting powerful character goals is integral to creating strong, relatable characters that will drive your story's plot forward by promoting thrilling conflict. With so much at stake, choosing the right goal for your character is, in many ways, the key to a successful story. But where do you begin?
Here are a few key questions you can ask yourself to begin defining your characters' goals today:
1. How is my character dissatisfied with their life? What is keeping them from feeling fully happy or content?
2. What does my character believe will bring them true happiness or contentment? This is your character’s ambition.
3. What definitive step could my character take to turn their dream into a reality? This is your character’s story goal.
4. What has kept my character from taking this action already? This is what will create the initial conflict in your story’s first act. (Note: Some characters may already be in the midst of pursuing their goal. If this is the case, why hasn't your character achieved their goal yet?)
5. What would it take for my character to finally make the decision to pursue their goal? This is what will launch your character into the second act of your book. (Note: If your character is already in the midst of pursuing their goal, what major change will they make to their approach in an attempt to heighten their chances of achieving it?)
See how simply your character’s goal can begin to define your story’s plot? Finding your characters’ story goals may not always be easy, but the effort is well worth your time!
Strengthening Your Character’s Story Goal
You’ve laid the groundwork for your characters’ goals, but there’s still more work to be done.
Oftentimes, what our characters want (a.k.a. their ambition) isn’t what they actually need to find true happiness or contentment in their lives. Just think of the many stories you’ve heard of celebrities or CEOs who’ve fought their way to the top — sure that wealth and fame were going to bring them happiness — only to discover that their lives were more empty than ever.
We humans don’t always know what’s best for us. Fortunately, we’re often pretty good at learning from our mistakes. And so your characters may be as well.
As your story progresses, you may discover that your character won’t truly be happy if they achieve their original story goal, and so their goal shifts. This doesn’t mean you’ve chosen the wrong goal for your character; it means your character is developing, coming fully into their own. Huzzah!
Not every character will experience a change in goal over time, but if your character fits that bill, make sure to spend some extra time getting to know your character’s Lie. It’s the crux upon which their development will be built!
An easy exercise in goal-centered plotting...
For many writers, plotting is one of the most difficult parts of the writing process. If you’ve ever struggled to come up with exciting events to fill the middle act of your story, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
In most cases, Sagging Middle Syndrome (as this struggle is oh-so lovingly known) is caused by a lack of strong goal-driven action. Events may be taking place — there may be explosions or kidnappings or car crashes or sword fights — but if there’s no driving force behind that action, it's going to fall flat.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to circumvent this phenomenon!
Take a look at your protagonist’s goal. In an ideal world, what steps would they take to achieve it? For example, if your character wants to become a full-time musician, here are a few steps they might take:
1. Write an EP.
2. Rent studio space and record the EP.
3. Launch the EP and begin playing shows.
4. Network with fellow musicians and producers while continuing to play shows.
5. Record their debut album.
That is, of course, a very simplistic step-by-step plan to achieve that particular goal, but you get the gist.
Now, take a look at your story’s antagonist — whoever it is that will create the most resistance as your protagonist strives to become a rockstar. What is your antagonist’s goal? Once you’ve defined this goal, lay out the steps your antagonist would take to achieve it, just as you did with your protagonist.
Once you have your two characters' goals and action plans laid out, it’s time to compare and contrast.
Where do these two characters’ action plans clash? How will this cause conflict between the characters? After the initial conflict takes place, consider how each of your characters will course-correct their disrupted plans. Where will they come into conflict again? How will this conflict play out?
Rinse and repeat this process to build your story’s plot, increasing tension and raising the stakes until your characters’ conflict finally comes to a head at your story’s climax. And voila! By simply defining your characters’ goals, you’ve created a basic outline for your story's plot. Congratulations!
What if my story doesn’t call for character goals?
Every story features two types of conflict: external and internal. External conflict occurs between a character and an outside force, whether that be another character, nature, or some element of society or technology. This kind of conflict breeds physical action.
Internal conflict, on the other hand, occurs between character and self. It’s a character’s struggle to overcome a doubt or fear, to stay true to their beliefs, or to become a better person despite struggle. This kind of conflict may breed physical action, but it more often forces a character to look within themselves or to build a dialogue with others.
When a story predominantly features external conflict, it is known as a plot-driven story. Most plot-driven stories can be found within the fantasy, science fiction, dystopian, mystery, and thriller genres, and it's these kinds of stories in which crafting strong character goals is essential.
But when a story more heavily features internal conflict, it's what is known as character-driven. These stories are often romances, contemporary novels, or literary fiction, and in many cases, the characters within these stories don’t have strong external goals. And that's perfectly normal.
Rather than featuring conflict against a tangible antagonist, character-driven stories thrive on their characters' Lies. They don’t need an internal reason to change their lives (i.e. a goal and reason to attain it). Change is coming, whether they want it or not.
So, if you’re writing a character-driven story, don’t stress over your character’s external goal in an effort to build conflict. Instead, focus on figuring out the Lie your character believes and what person, event, or unexpected life change will force your character to confront that Lie.
Give your character strong reasons to resist doing the emotional work of confronting their Lie, and before you know it, you’ll have all the conflict in the world — lack of story goal notwithstanding.