Are Your Character’s Goals Golden?

Last week you read your story without altering one single typo, didn’t you? This week you will need to review the notes you wrote about how your story made you feel. And you will need your story sentence and your scene sentences. Do each of your sentences include a hook, a protagonist with a need versus an antagonist with a need in an interesting setting? If they do, good job! But perhaps you had difficulty writing your story sentence or a particular scene’s sentence. If so, it may be that you did not establish clear character goals. Are your character’s goals golden?  If not, read on.

Lesson 2: The second installment in my “Re-vision Your Story” series.

Are Your Character's Goals Golden? Lesson 2 in Re-visioning your story discusses character goals.

A Goal Is

Whether this is the first story you’ve written or the ninety-first, you are most likely aware that your story and your characters should have goals. Goals are what drive your plot. Goals are what make your characters strong or weak, sympathetic or not, and finally, goals in opposition create conflict.

According to The American Heritage Dictionary, a goal is “the purpose toward which an endeavor is directed, an objective.” Notice, the definition says the purpose, an objective, toward which an endeavor is directed. In other words for it to be a goal, there must be an endeavor, an action taken, that moves one toward a single definable objective.

But, my characters’ have complex goals, you say. They have many goals and those goals change in the course of the story.

In his book, The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass refers to goals as character needs.

‘Most authors would like their characters’ needs to emerge more artfully, to infuse the action of the scene rather than squat atop it like an elephant on an egg. . . . . But this restraint is too often a convenient excuse for not working out what a character wants or needs at this particular moment.
“Working that out is essential to shaping a scene in which everything that happens has a meaning. At the end of a scene, we want to feel that something important occurred. . . . We won’t get that feeling unless we get, in some way, a prior sense of what we’re hoping for — a hope that in the scene is either fulfilled or dashed or delayed.”

Readers want to feel that spending hours of their time reading a novel was worth it. So you, the writer must know . . .

What Your Story Is About.

Have you identified your story’s central theme? What is your character’s primary goal? Does your story sentence convey those things? If it doesn’t, your story goal needs to be clarified. Ask yourself: Why did you write this story? What is it about this story makes your heart sing? Be specific. Don’t say, it’s a story about a fisherman and the honor of struggle, defeat, and death. That’s too vague. Instead use specific nouns, action verbs, and defining adjectives or adverbs. If I were to write a story sentence for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, it would be something like ‘Eighty-one days fishless, an old Cuban fisherman battles a magnificent marlin to exhaustion and then must fight off sharks attracted to his kill, finally arriving ashore with a sixteen-foot carcass and his honor as a fisherman restored.’

Types of Goals

Goals can be internal, external, short-term, long-term and somewhere in the middle.

Internal goals may or may not be something your character understands and is able to articulate. But you, the author, must know it. The internal goal shows what motivates your character and frequently this goal is a long-term goal.

In the Old Man and the Sea, the old man has an outer goal and an inner goal: to catch a fish and to restore his honor as a fisherman. The character is not able to completely articulate his inner goals. Hemingway hints at the internal goals with references to how the old man is considered unlucky and that the old man’s sail resembles “a flag of permanent defeat.” Other hints are in the old man’s observations of how it didn’t matter if you were a marlin or a shark, onshore each was gutted and prepared to eat.

The old man’s long-term goal was to prove, to himself as much as to the others, that he was a fisherman, that he was not bad luck.

Goals Must Be Actionable

If your character has goals but only sits and worries about them or about how something else will affect his goals, your reader will not care.

Hemingway takes care to show us the old man’s desperation in his interactions with the boy. The old man’s pride drives him to refuse to accept defeat but he does accept a beer and some sardines. These situations set the reader up to feel sympathy for the old man. Then he acts. He takes his skiff far out into the Gulf. He does it alone because his longer-term goal is to restore his own honor. The marlin takes his bait and the battle begins. The old man’s battle is physical and internal. He battles the fish for days, testing his physical strength and his determination, but he also battles his pride when he fears no one will be worthy of eating the fish.

One way to make goals actionable is to make goals that are opposites.

In The Old Man and the Sea, the main character’s internal and external goals could be called oppositional. He needs to catch a fish successfully but instead of fishing with the others, he goes out beyond them, alone. The distance and the fact that he has no one to help with his battle are due to his pride.

If that kind of opposition of goals isn’t clear to you consider these: Greg must trust his girlfriend with his life, but he also must protect himself from getting hurt by getting too close to her; Sally has no job or money and she needs food for her kids but she has a moral objection to stealing and taking charity; or Charlie needs to feel worthy and thinks to do so he must exact revenge for a wrong done to him but he must keep his enemy alive in order to prove he is deserving of his birthright. Goals can also be in opposition between two people: Joe must win the race because he needs the prize money to pay for his mother’s operation but Tom must win the race in order to qualify for the championship race so he can pay off his bookie.

Goals must be Meaningful

The reader feels the old man’s struggle as worthy because the reader identifies with the old man. We identify with the old man because we’ve all suffered one defeat or another. We understand the need to restore one’s honor, pride, and dignity. He’s heroic because he is determined and he takes action despite being defeated.

Another thing that gives goals meaning is that they must be large scale. Large-scale does not have to mean that if your character does not achieve his goal the world will end. It means that it is not easily solved. It will cost something to pursue it. The old man’s battle is large scale (life or death), it’s immediate (the battle is present on the page), and it is not easily solved (he battles the marlin for days and the sharks through the night). And there is a cost to him. He is physically tested and injured. And in a sense, he loses because he loses all the marlin’ meat to the sharks.

Ultimately the old man acknowledges his pride, the strength, and dignity of his opponent, the marlin, and the natural behavior of the sharks. And although he comes home without a fish to sell, he has restored his honor as a fisherman.

Do Your Character and Story Goals Jive?

Villain or heroine, your primary characters must have goals. Every scene must have goals. In order for your story to have depth, to have a deeper meaning, every scene’s goal must have something to do with your characters’ goals and with the overall story goal. In order for the goals to matter, there must be opposition. The only way successfully weave those together is to create clear, actionable goals that matter.

After you have identified your overall story goal, review you sentences for your scenes. Does every scene fulfill, dash, or delay achievement of the short-term goal? Does the scene’s resolution move toward fulfilling, dashing, or delaying achievement of your long-term story goal?

Your Assignment

Again, this week you want to identify things that are working and things that are not working. Reach for the Golden Goals that will make your story well integrated. Identify if the goals are internal, external, long term or short term. Indicate which ones are oppositional. Make notes on how to make them more oppositional, more meaningful and immediate. Make notes on 2-3 different actions your character could take to achieve this goal. And write down 2-3 possible outcomes of this attempt: reached the goal, didn’t reach the goal, or delayed that goal. Do not attempt to rewrite. Let your muse chew on what you’ve learned. Make notes as you need to, but do not rewrite.

I’d love to hear from you. Won’t you share your story sentence? What do you find difficult about goals? Is there something that helps you identify them? Do you have more external or internal goals in your story and characters?

Lesson 1: Re-Visioning Your Story

Lesson 2: above

Lesson 3: Twist the Knife Slowly

Lesson 4: Do Your Characters Play Well With Others?

Lesson 5: As the Plot Turns

Lesson 6: Is There a Time and Place in Your Story?

Lesson 7: From the End to the Beginning

Lesson 8: Putting the Pieces Together


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