Writing: How to Define Character Goals

Fiction and memoir writers everywhere grapple with the all-important story question: What does my character want more than anything?

Writing Tip for Today: Here are a few tips for defining your character’s main goal:

Be the Character

Most good actors say they must learn to be inside a character’s skin to be convincing to the audience. The same is true for fiction or memoir. While you may not gain a hundred pounds or take a year to study bank heists, you’ll undoubtedly have more success by giving your character a goal you can relate to in some way.

How do you set this goal? First, don’t try to give your character too many different goals. I find it useful to apply a saying my grandmother once taught me: Do I need something, or do I only want it? A want can be delayed but a need can’t be ignored. If your character has a couple of subplot goals, that’s fine, but your scenes’ driver must still be that overarching need.

Your main character must want the goal more than anything. Yet in going about trying to achieve that goal, I often see student work that focuses more on scenic procedures and allows the goal to shrink back. If you think of your character’s goal as the inner flame that keeps her going, it will be easier to keep the goal front and center.

Dig Out Secret Longings

A great blog post by Nathan Bransford compares fiction goal-setting with the princesses of Disney animated films. In every example he gives, from Ariel (Little Mermaid) to Moana, the character sings a song that identifies a deep-seated longing or need. These aren’t surface “wants.”  These are the longings of the heart.

Many of us keep our own heart longings a secret from others—we’re too shy or afraid or whatever to sing them out loud. Your character may not sing, either, but you can locate that deep heart-need by delving into her secrets. Ask yourself what deep-secret need the character is hiding. Some characters even hide their most important need (goal) from themselves.

To tease out the character’s most longed-for need, you might try writing letters from the character to you, free-writing a bit where your character rants or complains, and by understanding your character’s inner motivation. Motivations are often found in back story, so be careful. Write the back story separately and insert only the key parts for your actual manuscript.

Try writing a letter from your character to learn their secrets.

Wed Action with Emotions

If you’ve tapped into your character’s deepest need and understand the goal, how do you translate that to the story? I think the best method is to infuse every line of dialogue, every action and reaction with your character’s attitude and perspective. Another old saying is that people who don’t care about something don’t have “a horse in the race.” That is, they have no interest because for them nothing is at stake.

When you marry your character’s desperate need (goal) with every thought, dialogue bit, action and reaction, your readers should be able to feel what the character feels. Think of how two characters would react to an action—one with a “horse in the race,” and the other without. The one with a stake will think, speak, act and react with passion and desperation compared to the non-interested party.

Without this marriage of emotional need and action, characters tend to be shallow and readers have difficulty rooting for the character. We all want our characters to hook readers and never let them go. When you write a scene, it may help you to envision your character singing a song about what they really really want. Otherwise, your story goal may get lost or your readers may fail to sign on for the whole story.

Announcement! I will be posting classic writing tips while I recover from major shoulder surgery. Wish me fast healing!

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.

4 comments on “Writing: How to Define Character Goals

  1. Linda –you are a devoted writer passing on valuable information. I’m sure your surgery recovery will not cease your imagination and ability. Thank you, again!
    (By the way, I have been subscribed to your intelligent postings for years. Keep it up.)

  2. Hi Robert,
    Thank you for the kind words. I’m not sure how long it’ll be before I can type again, but I’ll be back as soon as possible.
    Meanwhile, keep writing!

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