Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Character Goals: Why they are Essential to any Good Book

Hi everyone! Today I want to talk about character goals and why they are absolutely vital to your story. This is an important edit because most writers nonchalantly believe that their characters have goals in general, so they do not need to focus on this area of their book. However, many writers do not realize how prevalent these goals must continuously be throughout your story.

So today I will discuss what character goals are, why they’re important, which characters should have goals, how to figure out whether your characters continuously have goals, and how to insert these goals into the text.

What are Character Goals?
Character goals are those things that drive the character’s role in the story. This can also be considered character motivation. The genre where this is most prevalent is Mystery, where the main character spends the entire book trying to figure out a murder, disappearances, kidnapping, etc. But, every fictional novel must contain characters with goals. For instance, in The Count of Monte Cristo Edmund Dant├Ęs’s main goal was revenge; In The Hunger Games, Catniss’s main goal was survival.

Where Should Character Goals be Present?
Everywhere. I mean, not literally—that would be a bit repetitive—but the character must always be on task in nearly every scene in the book. This is where most writers veer off course. Most writers find it hard to pull together why their character needs to do this or that, so they just kind of throw their characters into situations that will further the plot. It pains me to read scenes like this, because many times the situation is implausible, and the simple solution to fixing this scene is inserting some character goals.

Why are They Important?

1. They Tighten your Plot line
Think of those books where you’ve asked yourself, “Where are they going with this?” This question suggests that a plot line is weak, and the writer has not sufficiently done his or her job. (A reader should only ever rightfully ask that question if your intention was to misguide them.) A weak plot line can lead to confusion and frustration, which is bad news for your book.

Keeping your character goal-oriented means that your book won’t have those frivolous scenes that slow down many books; there will be no place where readers can take a break. And if readers cannot take a break, then your book is successful—you’ve crafted a story that readers care about too much to leave.

2. Character Goals Keep Books Logically Sound and Believable
I recently found a story that I wrote when I was in junior high. It was hilariously bad, in part because my main character literally stumbled into conflict over and over again. She never sought it out; it only ever came for her. This was because she had no goals, nothing to hold the story together. And as you might imagine, the story got ridiculous quick.

The one flaw in my example is the assumption that only childish writing lacks goals. I’m betting most first drafts contain a lot of goalless scenes, and this is nothing to be embarrassed about. However, it should be fixed, because goals keep the book logically sound and believable. For instance, if your book is about treasure hunters, and their goal is to find treasure, then each character should be pursuing that goal. This is much more believably than the goalless alternative: that your treasure hunter(s) stumble across clue after clue. After a while, these piling coincidences can become unbelievable and illogical if there is no underlying reason for them.

3. Character Goals Can Reduce your Work
Yes, inserting goals will reduce your work in the long run. This conclusion is really quite simple when you think about it. Character goals simply keep your characters on task because they’re thinking about the problem they need to solve, not chatting with their friends about their favorite color of nail polish.

It’s much more difficult for a writer to come up with a plausible reason why the character is coincidentally in the right place at the right time, over and over again. Inserting character goals alleviates some of that stress. You get to cut out all that fruitless work of figuring out how to create a plausible coincidence because your character is taking the initiative and pursuing their goals.

Which Characters Should Have Goals?
There are two primary characters that must have goals. The first is (not surprisingly) your main character. The second is the book’s antagonist, and this antagonist’s goals should conflict with those of your main character.

How Can I Tell if my Characters have Goals?
Go through your book scene by scene, and ask yourself in each scene what your main character’s goal(s) is/are. This is a great exercise because if you cannot answer this question, the scene may not be important in pushing the plot forward.

How Should I Correct This?
Alter your character’s thoughts, actions, observations, and/or dialogue to reflect these character goals. Like I said at the beginning of the post, you do not need to throw your character’s goals in the reader’s face; it can be subtle and indirect, but it should always be present to some extent. Readers like having direction and knowing roughly where you the author are going with a story.

The Exception
Books are full of way more coincidences than real life; it’s part of what makes books magical. In addition, there are inevitably areas of the book where the character is not focused on their goals that are nonetheless important. Don’t stress over these scenes. Whether you are a new writer or a seasoned one, I’m sure you all know that writing rules have exceptions—we learned that in grammar school. This edit cannot be applied uniformly throughout your novel; instead it’s aimed to make you think critically about how you’ve presented your novel.

Character goals, those things that propel a character through the story, should be present (although not always obvious) throughout your novel. Including character goals in your story is important for three reasons: one, they tighten your plot line; two, they make your story more logical and believable; and three, character goals reduce your work. Your protagonist and antagonist should both have goals and these should be opposing. You can edit for character goals by asking yourself in each scene what goal the character seeks to further or accomplish. But lastly, remember that like most of my content edits there are always exceptions to this rule.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. Great post! It's something I always try to keep in mind.


  2. Great post, and generally good advice, but I would add one reservation. I have only one reader's review for my ebook "Troubles", and it criticized one of the characters for refusing to act and hence who seemingly had no goal. According to the advice above, I had to be wrong. However, I had a reason in writing like that: the character did not want to do what everyone thought he should do, but he had no alternative. Hamlet had the same problem, and while I guess I could be labeled incompetent, I do not believe Shakespeare can be so labeled.