Character Goals and Stakes

For the past few weeks I’ve been setting new goals and dealing with high stakes. Thanks to all of you who have been understanding and patient with me as I’ve taken a few weeks’ off to deal with my husband’s recent stroke. I’ve learned all sorts of interesting stuff about how strokes impact people and I’ve also done a lot of appointment-setting and transporting to the appointments.

Writing Tip for Today: As I walked through all this stroke stuff, one thing that stood out was that stroke victims can deal with more than physical changes. Impulsivity, depression and other personality changes also come with stroke aftereffects. Let’s examine how our fictional characters need specific goals and high stakes too.

Clear Goal

Unlike real life, at the opening of stories our characters should have goals. Many of us wander through life, vaguely dissatisfied with our circumstances, but unable to tell ourselves or the world what we really want or need. Putting a character in motion only to seek a nebulous or unspoken goal is risky. Young people tend to focus on different goals than older people, but most of us want some variation on love, acceptance and/or security.

Middle age especially finds us reevaluating what we thought we wanted. But if we combine this general malaise (no goal) with no clear consequences (stakes), readers will likely wonder why they are reading—there is no clear path to follow. Vague goals, such as to find happiness or to true love; to find out who the character really is or to become successful, leave readers even more confused. What does it mean to be happy or successful, anyway?

Better fictional goals almost always state specifics. Character A only wants to find peace at last. Huh? Instead, A wants to avenge his father’s brutal murder and bring the killer to justice. Now that’s peace of mind.

High Stakes

If you can state your character’s goal with specifics, you’re ahead. Readers will easily see what direction the story follows (even if the character’s goal changes). Character A wants to avenge his father’s murder. Can this story goal pass the So What? test?

This test can help you determine if the stakes are high enough. If Character A cannot avenge his father’s murder, so what? List actual possible consequences. In this example, the killer might go free, might kill again, even might hunt down and try to harm Character A.

But if the story goal is that Character B wants to win a blue ribbon at the county fair, if she doesn’t, then what? She goes home and cries? If the stakes aren’t going to do much more than disappoint a character, I’d say the stakes should be higher.

Goals and Stakes

As you draft your story, work on filling in a simple statement that sums up both goal and stakes for your Main Character. When you begin querying or submitting, you’ll have a much better chance of attracting attention (the good kind) if you can be specific. If you self-publish, you’ll have a head start on a solid back-cover blurb.

Start by naming three attributes (modifiers) of your character, followed by a time/place to orient readers. Next (and be specific here too) state the complicating incident that starts the character toward the GOAL (what she wants) and finally, the obstacles (a villain, nature, etc) she must overcome in order to reach that goal.

As you craft this statement, use words that illustrate a high level of desperation or determination. As in, she must battle, he’s desperate to overcome, she’s struggling to win. Dialing up the tension will go a long way toward creating a do or die, must-win feeling. By laying this groundwork of specific goals and high stakes, you’ll be able to write a more readable and entertaining character.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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