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The #1 Thing Every Character Must Have

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AimingForGoalHeaderDo you ever sit down to the blank page and your characters do nothing? You get in the zone, but still, the scene goes nowhere? Are ideas dried up and the story has no place to go? Do your characters get into conflict (as they should) or do they just do things with no meaning? If any of these dreaded things happen to you (and trust me, they happen to us all) consider this: your character needs a goal. A character without a goal is a character without a story. That’s right. They need a goal, or in other words, you need to discover what your character wants.

Don’t Just Sit There…Get Ideas

The goal drives the story as your character goes after it. The goal also drives story conflict as the antagonist gets in the way and keeps your protagonist from getting what he wants. After all, the antagonist has a goal of their own—one in opposition to your protagonist’s. An antagonist doesn’t have to be the bad guy. She can want the best for the lead character but has a different idea of what that should be…like a mother who wants her daughter to be happy so fixes her up with the next door neighbor’s son who is a doctor but a jerk. If you want to find out more about antagonists, read Ten Tips for a Terrific Antagonist.

Launch Your Story with Power

The goal also launches the story. Katniss wants to survive The Hunger Games. In The Help Skeeter wants to write a book. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander want to find out what happened to Harriet Vanger. In 11-22-63 A Novel, Jake Epping travels in time because he wants to stop the assassination of President Kennedy. These goal examples are apparent. Sometimes a character’s goal is not so clear to the reader, but the goal will still be there, no matter how subtly stated. One exercise I like to do after I read a book is to figure out what the protagonist’s goal was in the book. It’s a great way to deepen your understanding of goals and how they work. For more on this and other ways to learn from your favorite books, see Ten Steps to Deconstructing A Novel (or How to Learn from Great Authors).

Pantser or Plotter—You Can Do It

But what if you are a by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer and don’t plan your story before you write? Then write to discover your character and his or her goal, but once you do find out what it is, you will see what a difference it makes to your story. Go back and fix what you need to. Once you get your hands around the protagonist’s goal, you won’t run out of ideas. Your character won’t let you.

Elements of a Kick-Ass Goal

To make sure the character goal does all it should for your story, there are several aspects to it. It must be urgent. A goal that will take years isn’t very exciting and you’ll lose your reader by diffusing the worry and tension. Placing it close in time will rivet the reader. The character wants that thing NOW! Which takes us to our second aspect of the character goal: make sure it is important. If it’s just a loaf of bread, who cares about that? But if the loaf of bread is the difference between starvation or life for the protagonist’s children, that changes everything. And make the goal tangible. The reader needs to see when the protagonist gets (or doesn’t get) the goal. Taking our above examples, whether it’s Katniss alive at the end of the games, or Skeeter’s book in the bookstore window, there is a moment when the reader knows the outcome. The final piece is to make the goal personal. This will also rivet your reader, and make your protagonist determined to get his goal. If it’s not personal—for example, a detective solving a murder case—make it personal. Does the victim have to be someone the detective knows? Nope, there are a myriad of ways to make a goal personal. Connect the detective emotionally to the crime. In Tana French’s Broken Harbor, a family’s murder happens in a sub-development built near the beach where detective Mick Kennedy’s mother committed suicide years ago when he was a teenager. He still carries guilt from that terrible time in his life. Although Mick never met the family before the murders, the entire investigation becomes very personal, especially when his sister, Dina, begins drifting in and out of psychotic states. He is the only person who can take care of her. Considering all the family responsibility issues he’s had from his teenage years, the story becomes deeply personal to Mick, and the reader is riveted.

Break the Rules

Can a character’s goal change as the story progresses? Sure! Goals can multiply too, as the character learns and grows. Take Katniss again. At the start of the games, it’s about survival. But that changes—she still wants to survive, but the cost of surviving becomes more and more complicated. Can a character have more than one goal? Absolutely. Katniss meets Rue (and of course, befriends Peeta) and then her goals include keeping them alive. But the games can only have one survivor. Her goals clash and we read on to see what will happen. I’ll talk more in my next article about the second thing a character must have—which is their need. If two goals, or the goal and the need clash within the character, you have character dilemma and that is a ten on the conflict scale!

Make your protagonist active by thinking through his goal as you write. The goal doesn’t have to be stated in so many words, but you, the author, will be steps ahead with your story and your protagonist will leap into action on the page.

Kathy Steffen is an award-winning novelist and author of the “Spirit of the River Series:” “First, There is a River,” “Jasper Mountain,” and “Theater of Illusion,” available online and in bookstores everywhere. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, “Between the Lines.” She writes from a log home in the woods of southwestern Wisconsin that she shares with her husband and three cats. Find out more at www.kathysteffen.com
  1. I love to hear that goals can be layered or change during a story. It gives the character the chance to grow. My characters don’t always achieve this, but when they do, I can tell the difference. Thanks for a very thought provoking post.

  2. Greg, you are very welcome. I too find when my characters learn and their goals change, it makes for some wonderful character development and as a bonus, my storyline takes a nice twist! Good luck with your writing:)

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