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Why Are Character Goals Important?
A character needs a clear goal in order to keep them driven and help move the story forward. While in fiction it always seems like the main characters want many things or have various ambitions, there is always a primary goal.
For example, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry gets dragged into multiple subplots, including conflicts with his best friend, romantic entanglements, and incidents with secondary characters—however, his main goal is always to defeat Voldemort. Regardless of his journey, the audience will be holding out to see when and if he ever reaches his goal—to defeat the ultimate bad guy and save the people of this world. If Harry Potter didn’t want anything aside from learning how to do magic, he would’ve made a boring protagonist.
External vs. Internal Character Goals
During the writing process, you’ll have to establish what your protagonist wants—figure out their character desires and decide if these are internal goals or external goals. A character’s goals are integral to their character development and play a large part in how they contribute to the story structure and flow.
- External goals: An external goal is one that involves forces or motivations that exist outside of the character themselves. It could be an object they’re searching for, or a destination they must reach, but this character’s goal is an external conflict that is out there for the world to see, and it’s one of the things that keeps them motivated until the end of the story. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novel Lord of the Rings, the protagonist’s goal is to cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom. We know that despite whatever else happens to Frodo throughout his journey, that is his main, specific goal.
- Internal goals: An internal goal is your character’s motivation beneath what they outwardly express that can be unbeknownst to the other characters, or even the reader. For instance, the character’s goal on the exterior could be to get elected as student body president, but the true goal of the protagonist could be to immediately dismantle their school’s system of government. Having a character’s wants driving them beneath the surface gives them a multifaceted quality that allows for added complex layers to your character’s life and personality.
5 Tips for Creating Goals for Your Characters
If during your novel writing you’re finding your character motivation lacking or your character arcs weak, it’s likely because the character’s goal isn’t strong enough in your overall story. Here are some tips for creating strong goals:
- Establish goals at the beginning of the story. We should know relatively early on what your main character wants. While every single detail does not have to be readily apparent (goals can start out abstract but become more specific as more characters are introduced or setting is explored), they should have a powerful story motivation that is always driving them forward. A goal for a character can also change as the story progresses, but it’s important that the audience understands the direction the character is heading in.
- Establish inner conflict. Your character’s goals should be clear, but not immediately attainable. Even when Frodo finally has his chance to destroy the ring, he succumbs to its power. This internal conflict—wanting to be powerful versus needing to do the right thing—sets up another struggle that the hero must overcome. These machinations of the mind allow us to view the particular point of view of a character, adding yet another layer of complexity to the overall story goal.
- Establish a goal in each scene. Scene goals keep characters active and make them feel like they function as they would in real life. Readers want to see characters working towards something and always pushing the narrative forward. Characters should not feel stagnant, and each scene goal functions as a step towards your overall goal.
- Establish what’s important. What do your characters value? Does their backstory inform what their motivations are? What do they need in their life to feel content? By thoroughly understanding who your characters are, you can better understand what they want. Is saving the world important? Or is it saving themselves? Finding out what matters to them will give your audience an indication of what they’ll be fighting for.
- Establish a timeline. Writing out a timeline of when your character accomplishes specific parts of their goal can help you pace your story and spread out the conflict enough so that it remains engaging to readers. If a protagonist’s goal is to finally meet their birth mother but it doesn’t happen until chapter eight, plot out each of the main steps in the chapters leading up to that moment—maybe chapter one is finding out her name, and chapter three is getting her on the phone. Figuring out how to pace major moments in your character’s quest to achieve their goals can give you a better idea of when certain events should happen.
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