The importance of character goals

In my opinion, one of the most important things a writer needs to do is to make sure the reader understands a character’s goals. This means the character’s overall story goal, as well as each sub-goal in each scene.

At its most basic level, a story is a sequence of related events. This happened, causing this to happen, making this happen, etc. But a causal chain of events will quickly get tiring if each new event seems arbitrary. The reader still needs a way to relate to each event.

This is done with character goals. Now a story becomes a causal chain of events driven by a character in pursuit of a goal. Bob wanted X, so he did this, and this happened, then he did this, and this happened, then he did this, and he finally got what he wanted! In this way, we have a way to relate to everything Bob does and everything that happens to him. We can see that everything that happens either brings Bob closer to his goal or sets him back.

Thus, without knowing a character’s goal, everything he does and everything that happens to him is arbitrary and meaningless.

Now this doesn’t mean any old goal will necessarily do.

Make the goal concrete

Firstly, the goal must be concrete. An intangible goal is vague, and a reader will not be able to relate story events to it. For example, if the character’s goal is to be happy. Or if the characters wants to “be somebody!” Or if the character wants to stop being afraid. These are fine motivations, but they are terrible as story goals, because we have no way know when the character achieves his goal. What will make him happy? What will make him feel safe? Only the character can answer this, so we need his goal to be more specific, more concrete.

The goal must be physically defined so that readers will know without a doubt whether or not a character has achieved it. This doesn’t mean the character must want a physical object itself, simply that a character must want something that can manifest itself physically. For example, a character might want another character to live. A character might want to blow up a building. A character might want to kill another character. A character might want to stop another character from stealing a diamond. Etc, etc. The point is simply that the goal must be something concrete, something specific that has a physical manifestation.

Of course, the character may change his values by the story’s end, and thus change his goal. We’ll get to that in a minute.

What’s at stake?

Secondly, the character has to care about the goal enough to pursue it for the length of a story. This is done with stakes. What happens if the character doesn’t achieve his goal? Something terrible must happen. Otherwise, who cares? For example, Bob’s goal might be to win a prestigious singing contest. But what happens if he fails? If he goes home and life goes on as normal, who cares? So we’ve got to raise the stakes. Perhaps Bob needs the reward money to pay the medical bills for his dying wife. Perhaps Bob must stop an evil singer from winning the contest because the evil singer will enslave the human race somehow. (Hey, I’m brainstorming.) Perhaps Bob thinks winning the contest will get him a date with his old girlfriend. (A really bad romantic comedy?) Again, the point is simply that something terrible will happen if the character doesn’t achieve his goal.

On a side note, “the world will be destroyed” is generally not a very strong stake. We humans usually don’t care about the world in and of itself. It’s too big to relate to. We care about individuals in the world. We care about relationships, about people we love. This is why most stories with such big stakes will have a “stakes character.” The stakes character is a certain character that personalizes the big end-of-the-world stakes. If the world is destroyed, the stakes character will surely die. This might be the hero’s love interest. It might be a child who looks up to the hero. The stake character represents what’s at stake for the hero. If the hero does not achieve his goal, the stakes character will surely die or suffer in some way. Now the hero must achieve his goal for the sake of a loved one.

Sub-goals

A hero’s overall goal will probably not be achievable in one easy step. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a story. The hero probably needs to achieve his goal in steps. He needs to do Y before he can do Z, and he needs to do X before he can do Y. In this way, chains of sub-goals are created. As writers, we need to make sure the reader always understands how each sub-goal relates back to the character’s over-arching story goal.

For example, perhaps our hero is Sir Tisgood, a brave knight. His goal is to defeat the evil wizard Wickedsly, and thwart his plan to take over the kingdom. If he doesn’t, Wickedsly will surely kill Sir Tisgood’s son, little seven-year-old Hillipme, whom he has kidnapped. To defeat the evil wizard, Tisgood must first find an ancient magical sword, the only thing that can kill Wickedsly. To get the sword, he’ll need to travel to the mysterious town of Foggysmoke. To get to Foggysmoke, he needs a secret map. To get his hands on the secret map, he needs to steal it from a cranky shopkeeper. To steal it, he needs to get the shopkeeper to step away from his desk for a short while. To do so, he knocks over a shelf of glass bottles.

Although that’s a rather long chain of goals and sub-goals, one can easily so how each relates to the next. So when readers are reading about Tisgood knocking over a shelf and stealing the shopkeeper’s map, they’ll hopefully care about whether or not he succeeds because they understand that his ultimate goal is to kill the evil wizard to save his son. If we began the story with Tisgood knocking over a shelf and stealing the map without understanding why he is doing these things, readers probably wouldn’t care much whether or not he succeeds.

Of course, Tisgood might not want to steal anything; that may be against his code of ethics. He may do something else to get the map. The decisions the hero makes in pursuit of his ultimate goal will define his character.

And, of course, the hero will sometimes fail at achieving a sub-goal and will have to create a new one. For example, Sir Tisgood might get caught stealing the map and be arrested. Now he needs to create a new sub-goal to get out of jail. Perhaps he’ll escape with another prisoner. Perhaps he’ll bribe a guard. Perhaps he’ll fake his own death. The point is that the story is not just composed of the hero’s goals, but also the world working against him. His own goals backfire, or other characters get in his way. In other words, the character faces conflicts, things that stop him from achieving his goals so easily. Similarly to how goals and sub-goals should relate to one another, I think it’s usually a good idea to have the hero’s conflicts somehow relate to his own actions. Being imprisoned for stealing is a logical consequence. Getting caught in a flood that comes out of nowhere is random and will come across as silly. Conflicts are often either generated by other characters with their own set of opposing goals, or by the hero making decisions that backfire on him.

Goal changing

When the stakes change, the hero’s goals must change in response. This usually happens at key points in a story. It will usually happen in Act 1, when the story begins, half-way through the story in Act 2, and sometimes one more time near the climax in Act 3.

For example, perhaps Tisgood’s goal in the beginning of his story is something very simple: to teach his son swordfighting. They get in a fight and his son runs away. Now Tisgood’s goal is to find his son and give him a gift to make him feel better. But then Wickedsly appears and kidnaps his son along with other village children. This is the “catalyst”, the life-changing event that sets the story in motion. Now Tisgood sets out to defeat Wickedsly; it is in Act 1 that his over-arching story goal is established.

Sometimes at the half-way point (but not always), something big will change that will make a clear division between the first half and the second half of the story. Usually the hero’s over-arching goal or a major sub-goal will change. For example, in the movie Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs begin escaping at the half-way mark. Dr. Grant’s goal goes from simply touring the park to surviving it (and keeping the stakes children safe). In the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, it is at the half-way mark that Frodo proclaims: “I will take it! I will take the ring to Mordor!” His goal goes from simply keeping the ring safe for Gandalf to taking it all the way to Mordor. The half-way mark often sees a raising of the stakes and the character adjusting his goals accordingly.

With our Tisgood, his stakes are already pretty high, but perhaps we can raise them further by introducing a time limit. Perhaps Tisgood will finally gain the mystical sword, but learns that Wickedsly will kill the children in seven nights, when the moons will align or something. Now Tisgood has to hurry. The clock is ticking. In this way, though his overall goal is the same, his sub-goals will certainly change now that he has the sword and a time limit.

Finally, character goals often change in the final act, near the climax. Perhaps the character achieves his goal, only to realize it doesn’t save the stakes character, or is not actually what he wants, or the cost is too high. Perhaps the character realizes the philosophy he used to create his sub-goals will no longer help him, and he must have a change of heart to create the appropriate sub-goals.

Perhaps our Tisgood corners Wickedsly with his sword, but realizes he cannot kill the evil wizard with his son so close; he does not want his son to see such death. Instead, he lets Wickedsly torture him, but in doing so prevents Wickedsly from killing the children when the moons align. Meanwhile, Tisgood’s son is able to grab the sword and free himself and the other children. So Tisgood ends up saving his son, but not in the manner he thought he had to. His overall goal of defeating Wickedsly is fulfilled, but his sub-goal of killing Wickedsly with the sword was, in fact, not the best way to defeat him.

Conclusion

In conclusion, make sure your readers can always understand your hero’s goals. It is how readers relate to what is happening in your story. It is why readers care about what your characters do, and why they have emotional reactions when things get in your character’s way. A story is not just a sequence of events with characters doing whatever they arbitrarily feel like at some moment; it is a progression of events driven by over-arching character goals with high stakes. Make sure your hero wants something specific and make sure the reader knows why he should care.

Hope this helps! Happy writing!

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