Character Goals: What do They Want and Why?
Bijgewerkt op: 1 sep.
Who wants to read a story about a character who doesn’t want anything and doesn’t do anything?
That would be quite boring, wouldn’t it?
Character goals are crucial elements within your story. When your character wants something, the reader will want them to get it.
If a character doesn’t have a goal, they don’t really have a purpose. Why would the story matter?
In this article, we’ll discuss character goals, internal and external goals, how to create your goals, and more.
For other information on goals and an example, watch the video below (or watch it here).
What are character goals?
According to the dictionary, “Goals are the end toward which effort is directed.”
In other words, a goal is something that you want to reach. Thus, you act. You take action to reach this goal.
Within your story, all characters have a specific goal—they all want something. But for the sake of brevity, we’ll focus on your protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals.
Both your protagonist and your antagonist should have a clear overarching goal. What do they want to achieve within this story?
These goals can change or adapt throughout the story. Because, of course, they experience certain challenges and obstacles along the way.
Their goal might remain the same or very similar, but it can change in how they're going about it.
For instance, at the start of the story, a protagonist wants to earn enough money to pay off their debt. Once the protagonist hears of a big reward being given to the one who can rescue the princess, this goal could change. Now, the protagonist wants to save the princess and strike up the reward to pay off their debt.
Further along in the story, the goal can change again when, for instance, the protagonist falls in love with the princess. Their goal might become to get the princess home safe, and the reward and their debt are all second to that.
Wants and Needs
When it comes to character goals, you can distinguish two different types: external goals and internal goals. These are the wants and needs.
The want or external goal is the outward objective. It’s what they consciously know they want to achieve.
For instance, in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo’s external goal is to go to Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring in its fire.
In The Witcher, Geralt’s goal is to protect Ciri.
A need or internal goal is a character’s motivation. It’s what they desire deep inside, often something subconscious. It’s what unknowingly drives their actions. Characters often think that getting the external goal will give them what they subconsciously need.
In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo’s need is to resist the influence of the One Ring—he wants to do the right thing without becoming corrupted. In a greater sense, his need is to continue Bilbo’s legacy. It’s what drives his actions to volunteer to destroy the ring.
In The Witcher, Geralt’s internal goal is to have a family—it’s what he subconsciously longs for.
How to create your character’s goals
1. Determine your character’s external goal first.
This is often the easiest step, as it’s related to what your story is about. For instance, if you’re writing a crime story with a detective, your protagonist’s goal will be to catch the killer. As said, the goal can change as the story progresses, but the overall direction tends to stay the same.
2. Determine your character’s need.
What drives their external want? What is their underlying motivation? It can help to consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Do they want to survive, be safe, find love, feel like they belong, gain self-esteem, gain status, have freedom, or self-actualize?
3. Tie their want and need to their character arc.
The most powerful story has a character’s journey that follows their arc. This arc is your character’s inner conflict: they have a certain flaw or false belief that prevents them from truly becoming who they’re supposed to be. This conflict leads them to think that their want will give them what they need.
For instance, Frodo believes destroying the One Ring in Mount Doom by himself is what’s needed to fulfill Bilbo’s legacy. As a consequence, he often rejects help from his friends and chooses to go the road alone (although his friends ignore that and still come along). He feels he alone should bear the burden—the Ring came to him.
As a result, he’s slowly succumbing to its power. But because his friends, Sam, in particular, remain steadfast, the One Ring is destroyed. He couldn’t have done it alone, which he realizes at the end.
To tie your character’s goals to their internal arc, consider the following:
What false belief may lead them to think their want will give them what they need?
What false belief would lead them to make the wrong choices to get their want?
If you know the theme of your story, how does that translate to the protagonist’s want, need, and character arc?
Don’t forget the antagonist
Once you understand what your protagonist wants and needs, don’t forget to do the same for your antagonist.
Too often this part is forgotten. Which is a shame, as the antagonist plays a huge role in your story. And you want an antagonist that’s as believable as your protagonist.
And one part of making your antagonist believable is by giving them a clear external goal and motivation. Antagonists don’t necessarily need an internal character arc—most villains remain static and don’t change. But if you want to write an antagonist who does show change, also tie their want and need to their arc.
What’s important to consider here, is that you want your protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals to clash.
For instance, Frodo wants to go to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring, Sauron wants to retrieve the Ring to use it. So, of course, Sauron will try to stop Frodo.
In The Eye of the World, Rand wants to resist and destroy the Dark One. The Dark One wants Rand to succumb and do his bidding. So, the Dark One targets Rand to find him and break his resolve.
Geralt wants to protect Ciri, the Hunt wants to use Ciri to bring forth the prophesized child (there are other antagonists, all with the intent of either killing or using Ciri for their own ends).
A protagonist and antagonist have goals that don’t mesh well. Either they want opposite things, or they want the same thing but have different ways of going about it. For instance, the antagonist may be willing to go a lot farther, like cheating to win a game or killing others to gain an artifact.
Go from story goal to scene goals
Your character shouldn’t just have one global goal. They should have a goal within every scene. This will keep your reader engaged as they watch your character pursue their goals.
Of course, your scene goals should in some way be related to their overarching goal.
For instance, to catch the killer, some scene goals could be getting the forensic details to know the murder weapon, questioning witnesses, questioning acquaintances of the victim, and so on.
Of course, sometimes unexpected things happen. Some obstacle or opportunity might be in their way. In that case, the scene goal is still related to the overall goal. They want to get past the obstacle, so they can continue getting what they want.
Your scene goals can focus on their want, their external goal, or their need, their internal goal. For instance, their internal goal could be to redeem themselves from a past case, where they caught the killer only after they killed another victim, a child.
Some internal scene goals could then be to avoid outside distractions, go out in search of clues alone, work late as not to waste any time, and so on.
Brainstorm your goals
Having character goals is vital to your story. You don’t want a character who’s just passively going along with the motion. You want them to want something. It’s what makes them take action.
If your character wants something, your reader is more likely to care about your character and root for them to get what they want.