Creating conflict is one of the biggest steps an author can take to get their plot rolling, but oftentimes one important factor is overlooked in favor of cutting right to the chase: character goals.
If you want to create conflict that is both thrilling and purposeful, you must give each of the characters involved a strong goal that gives meaning to their actions.
When characters take relatable, if not admirable, action, readers are drawn into the story. When you allow your characters to run free, readers will have a hard time making those necessary connections.
But what is a character goal anyway? In essence, a character goal is the one thing that your character is ultimately striving to attain or defeat throughout their journey. A powerful goal will strengthen your story's character and plot development, reveal character motivations, and promote tension and conflict.
But how do you choose your character's goal? And how can you make that goal as powerful as can be? Let's first take a look at the two types of action:
Internal Action. Internal action occurs when a character knowingly creates conflict or willingly walks themselves into it. In other words, the character is consciously moving the plot forward through the decisions they have chosen to make.
External Action. On the other hand, external action occurs when things keep happening to your character and they are left to react and regroup. The character may willingly or unwillingly face the consequences of these events, but nevertheless the action is being done unto them rather than them consciously choosing to partake in it.
Internal action is definitely the most purposeful and powerful type of action you can create in your story. If your story's hero is constantly dealing with the after effects of action they didn't see coming, little room is left for tension or character development to blossom.
However, when a character chooses to take action because they have a particular goal in mind, you as the author give yourself a huge opportunity to create a wealth of rich and realistic character and plot developments.
(Side note: Have you ever read a story where you feel like nothing has occurred even though you've read several hundred pages? That's what happens when a book lacks internal action!)
Spoiler Alert: there's a whole lot of information coming your way. Grab the free Character Goal workbook below to craft a killer character goal for your hero as you read!
To wrap it up in one sentence, crafting killer character goals is an integral factor in creating strong, relatable characters that will drive your story's plot forward by promoting thrilling conflict.
Hey, I never said it was a short sentence. Well, let's hop to it, shall we?
Finding your hero's character goal can be a tricky thing. I was recently doing some editing on my own WIP when I discovered that one of my main characters completely lacked any goal.
As a result, her motivations were weak, the conflict was lacking, and her storyline just felt dizzying to read. I had to go back to the drawing board to get things right, when I should have taken the time to give her a powerful goal in the first place.
Learn from my mistake and ask yourself the following questions now:
1. What does my character want? What is the one thing in the world that your hero is striving for? Is there a promise they must keep? A truth they want to come to light? A relationship they want to rebuild? Now is the time to decide what your character will fight for.
2. What does my character actually need? Sometimes our character's goals are born out of unpleasant emotions like anger, fear, desperation, vanity, and pride. What the character wants may not actually be what they need. You need to figure out what will ultimately fulfill your hero versus what they think will fulfill them.
Keep in mind, your hero's character goal may shift throughout the story as they come to realize that what they want isn't exactly what they need. This is actually a great thing! Why? Because a change in perspective, motivation, or action indicates growth. And every good writer knows that nothing hooks readers like great character development.
Goals should be very specific. Your character should know exactly what they want and how they plan to get it, even if they don't understand what they truly need in the first place. Here are a few ways that you can strengthen any goal and give it the purpose it needs to keep your plot line moving forward.
1. Consider their fears. Is your character acting out of fear? They may seek to attain their goal to appease an enemy, to secure their safety, or to dispel the ghosts that haunt them. This fear may be skewing their perception of what they really need.
2. Consider their flaws. What less-than-pleasant personality traits hold your character back from understanding their true needs? Do they have a tragic flaw that haunts them in their most dire circumstances? Imperfection is a symbol of humanity, so don't be afraid to include it. It will give your readers something to identify with.
3. Consider their desires. Is your character dismissing what they truly need because they are beguiled by desire? Your character may be blinded by love, lust, power, fame, or any other number of desires that keep them from recognizing their true path to fulfillment.
4. Consider their motivations. What, other than fears, flaws, and desires, is driving your character to take up their goal? Did they make a promise to themselves that they now must keep? Is an emotion like grief or regret encouraging them to make changes? What is motivating your character to take up this course of action?
Identifying the root cause of your character's goal will help you craft a well-rounded, intensely-human character than readers will be able to relate to and love.
Even if two characters share the same goal, they may arrive at it from different places. Life is full of different paths. The one your hero chooses will determine where they go. Here are a few factors to consider when shaping your character's goal:
1. Values. Whether your character is religious or not, everyone develops a set of morals as they grow up. This may be directly related to their parents' beliefs or it may be something they came to on their own. Whatever the case, your character's values will affect the way in which they choose to achieve their goal.
2. Upbringing. Speaking of parents, the way in which your character was raised will affect the way in which they act. This could be a positive or negative reflection of their parents' skills, but it is a reflection nonetheless. Your character's upbringing will shape their goal.
3. Beliefs. Slightly different than values, your character's beliefs extend beyond morals and into personal preferences. Beliefs encompass significant preferences like political and social decisions, as well as less-significant preferences like fashion choices, sub-cultures, speech, and interests. Like your character's values, their beliefs may or may not have been formed as a direct result of their upbringing.
Just as your character can shape their goal, their goal can shape your character.
If you're treating your plot as character-driven, then your character will undergo personal development. They may experience a profound change of heart or a simple shift in perspective, but either way your character has grown.
Here are some things to consider when thinking about how your character's goal affects them:
1. Who were they? Before you can begin unraveling your character's development, you must have a firm grasp on who your character was at the beginning of the story. What was their everyday normal? How did they act and what did they believe? Who were they in personality, morals, and preferences?
2. Who are they? If your story has conflict, then your character will face defeat. This failure will have a huge affect on who they are. Will your character let their defeat shape them for the better or the worse? How your character handles these tough situations will determine the true nature of their spirit. A character with a strong goal should be able to take their failures in stride and move on with their journey.
3. Who will they become? Your character has faced trials and tribulations. They have run the gauntlet and fought the good fight. Now it is time to consider who your character has become over the course of their journey. How have the events of the story shaped their perspective, beliefs, morals, etc.? Have they grown for the better or the worse, and did their goal change as they slowly became their new selves?
Related: Are you ready to take your characters to the next level? Check out The Essential Guide to Character Creation, and learn how to craft spectacularly memorable characters your reader will adore!
Every goal is technically fair game to you, but that doesn't make every goal worthwhile for your story. There are certain goals that should be avoided by all authors, at all costs, and they all share one common problem. Here are a few examples:
- Goal: The character wants to be happy.
- Goal: The character wants to be loved.
- Goal: The character wants to be powerful.
- Goal: The character wants to be famous.
- Goal: The character wants to be wealthy.
And so on. These goals may seem like great options for creating all those elements of a juicy plot (you know...tension, suspense, foreshadowing, etc.). But in truth, these goals are too shallow and too generic to serve much of a purpose in your story.
In fact, I wouldn't call them goals at all. Desires like love, power, wealth, and fame are more like ambitions rather than goals.
These ambitions are good for your character to have, but they don't actually promote a clear-cut course of action. And that is exactly what your character needs to create that internal action that will drive your plot forward with crazy success.
So go ahead and give your character one of these ambitions, but don't forget to also give them an attainable goal. Feeling a little lost? Let's talk it out...
So let's say that your character wants to be famous. That is their ambition. But how are they going to do that? What is their plan for making that ambition a reality? Let's say that your character wants to be the lead singer in a multi-platinum, best-selling rock band. That, my friends, is your character's goal.
You can easily expand that goal into action steps that will serve as plot points for your story.
Using our example, let's say that your character uses his savings to buy his band some studio time. That's plot point #1. Your character then records a demo and sends it in to several labels. That's more rising action and another plot point.
A label then signs your character's band. Plot point. But after a month, the label goes belly up and your character loses his dream opportunity. Plot point. A band member then suggests that the band tries out for this new reality band competition. They audition and get on the show. Plot point.
They almost get eliminated in the middle of the show. You guessed it...plot point. Then they end up winning the whole thing and getting a legit record deal with a label that's signed bands with millions of adoring fans. Climax and resolution.
Boom! One ambition and one plan of action. Suddenly, your character's goal has laid out a clear plot that will be rife with conflict as soon as you find your villain and give them their own opposing goal.
Congratulations on crafting a killer character goal! You're such a rock star.
Do you have any more tips for creating strong goals for your characters? Tell me how your own character's goal affects the plot of your story. Have a lovely week!
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!