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Discover Your Characters’ Goals

Working out what your characters’ goals are will help you plan your plotline and develop engaging, motivated characters your readers will love to follow.

Your characters need goals to get them to the next page, and then the next, and on until the end. They need to be going somewhere, trying to achieve something. That will make them the kinds of characters readers will want to spend time with, maybe even for a few hundred pages.

Readers will want to know if your characters achieve those goals, and if they will overcome the inevitable obstacles (you put) in their way [1]. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t. They will have small goals that they can achieve (or not) within a couple of pages, and they will have those overarching goals that will take your heroes right through to the end.

Even Oblomov [2], the man who stayed in bed for most of the story, had a goal: he wanted to stay in bed. And he worked hard to do it. That was pretty much his story.

Your characters’ goals are therefore essential for determining your plot. Work out the goals and you’ll go a long way to having a plot. And, if you already have a basic plot, you can develop it in greater detail by working out what your characters’ goals will be along the way.

The best place to start is to find out what really motivates your characters [3]. Once you’ve determined exactly what drives them through the story, you can work out the specifics of what they’ll need to face along the way. Characters’ motivations, their values, provide a direction for your story, while the goals are the road map. Once you’ve decided which direction they’re going in, you can work out exactly how to get them there.

Suppose your hardened cop is driven by a sense of justice. That’s his moral compass. It’s what drives him to catch bad guys. His goal is to make sure criminals get what they deserve. That could even be his goal throughout an entire series of novels, with each novel focusing on a specific criminal. You can then break that main goal down into smaller ones to determine your plot. Here’s how:

Step 1

Imagine your characters could live their lives by their values, without anything standing in their way. What would your characters choose to do?

The cop would fulfil his sense of justice by catching bad guys.

Here’s another example: if your character values freedom, she could choose to break free of her domineering parents and finally make her own decisions. If, on the other hand, she values power, her ultimate goal could be to become president.

Be bold and be imaginative, but be realistic, at least realistic within your genre. If the character who wants to be president is a 19-year-old high school dropout, that might not work as a serious, realistic novel, but it could make for a fun comedy.

Step 2

Once you’ve decided what your character’s main goal should be, think about all the steps that person would need to take to achieve that final goal. Write down these steps as they enter your mind. Nothing is too ridiculous at this stage. Anything and everything your character might have to do to achieve that ultimate goal is fine.

To achieve the freedom she craves, the character with the domineering parents would have to: leave home, find a new apartment, pack a bag, leave a note, decide where to go, take a bus.

Step 3

Next, puts those steps, those smaller goals, onto a timeline. It can help to draw an actual line on a piece of paper too. One end is the start, of course, and at the other end you can already write the main goal: become president, for example.

Add the other goals in chronological order along the timeline:

decide where to go – pack a bag – leave a note – leave home – take a bus – find a new apartment

You can then break down each of these steps into smaller steps. For example, between leaving home and taking a bus, this character might have to call a cab, get to the bus station, and buy a ticket.

Break down each step into small logical goals and you’ll soon have a basic outline for your plot. You’ll also have a character that is always moving toward something, always aiming for that ultimate goal and acting consistently by following her values. And that’s the kind of character readers like to follow.

Go through the same process for your antagonists too to find out where and how they will get in your hero’s way.

You could even try these exercises on yourself if you hit that struggle. Work out the values that drive you to write, and then set yourself short, mid- and long-term goals to get you through each stage of even the toughest novel writing times.

Do you have any tips on how to discover your characters’ goal? How do you keep readers engaged from page to page till the end of your story?

Do you have a specific concern with your novel? Send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com and I’ll do my best to help. In these monthly columns, I look at different aspects of fiction—character development, plot, story structure, etc.—and use concepts from proven techniques in modern psychotherapy to offer advice and tips. Hence, fiction therapy. You can also visit the website for more ideas: thefictiontherapist.com.

About Jim Dempsey [4]

Jim Dempsey specializes in detailed analysis of novel manuscripts. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist [5] website, where he looks at different aspects of fiction—character development, plot, story structure, etc.—and uses concepts from proven techniques in modern psychotherapy to offer editing advice to authors who want to publish their novels. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit.