Quick. Tell me what your characters want.
Maybe you have an immediate answer. Maybe your protagonist wants to save the world, survive, or live happily ever after.
While those are all legit goals that have powered hundreds of good stories, what I’m talking about is what your characters want.
I’m talking about the one thing your characters want more than anything, want unto obsession, want even unto death. They want this thing, whatever it is, so badly they will chase after it in the face of impossible stakes, sometimes against their better judgment, sometimes at great cost to themselves and people they care about, sometimes even at the risk of saving the world/surviving/living happily ever after.
This powerful desire is at the heart of dynamic characters, complex conflict, and effortless plots. When we talk about the symbiosis of plot and character or characters who “write themselves” (and therefore the story), what we’re usually pointing to is a cast with powerful underlying desires.
This is a secret of good writing. Why a secret? Because it’s so easy for authors to overlook.
We’d all agree that yeah, yeah, characters need goals. Of course they have goals! Just look at them—they want to save the world, survive, live happily ever after. We might even throw in a couple bonus prizes, just cuz we’re cool like that. Our characters want all kinds of big things. Happiness. Self-actualization. World peace.
Those desires don’t count. Those desires are boring. Even if your characters are actively working toward these goals, these things are just too big, abstract, and pedestrian to drive a story. Everybody on earth wants those things—especially when forced into a story situation in which these things are suddenly and legitimately threatened. When the zombie epidemic hits, you can bet I’m going to have a lot invested in finding a cure. But that hardly makes me a unique character.
A much more interesting scenario would be a character, searching for the cure, who was already infected—and who was dealing with an even more powerful desire for brain salad. Or, even better, she’s a gourmand obsessed with finding a very specific and exotic type of brain. Yum.
A 6-Part Checklist on Your Quest for Better Character Goals
There is a specific kind of character writers dream of writing. This character isn’t someone we create so much as someone we birth, Athena-like, as a fully grown, fully sovereign being. We just turn these characters loose on the page and watch as they take over, effortlessly creating plot through their own dynamic and charismatic actions.
We dream about these characters because actually finding them on the page often seems like ineffable alchemy—it just happens. These characters come to the page with powerfully undeniable desires. They want things so bad—often things they really shouldn’t want—that they tear down kingdoms to get at them.
Sounds like a good story just waiting to happen, doesn’t it?
Let’s take a look at six qualities needed to create the the kind of character desire that will power a blah plot into a potently dimensional story.
1. Better Character Goals Are… Specific
Better character goals are always specific goals. They’re not abstract (love), and they’re not general (falling in love with any ol’ body). In some stories, in which the motive isn’t solidified until late in the First Act or early in the Second Act, the character’s desire may start out abstract and general, but the sooner it gets down to business, the better.
Failing to hammer out specific goals is a surprisingly common problem, particularly in what are frequently called “plot-driven stories.” The hero wants to be heroic; the bad guy wants to do bad stuff. They may even have pretty decent motives for their respective intentions. The problem is that their actions within the plot often seem rote simply because the only thing they seem to want is something much bigger than their own lives. (Can any of us really grasp the concept of world peace?)
This is one reason the foot soldier on the ground often makes a more compelling character than the general up at headquarters. Not only is the soldier actually in the action, but his goals are much more specific. “Win the war” is admirable, but pretty boring; “take the enemy base” is better; and “protect your high-ranking prisoner at all costs” is better still.
In stories that do choose to fall back on heroic heroes with admirable-but-broad goals, we usually see more specific goals showing up as scene goals. That’s good. But you can notch up your whole plot if your scenes are also driven by every single character wanting something specific on his or her own account.
Example: In Saving Private Ryan, the goal isn’t “defeat the Nazis and win World War II.” Rather, the goal is “save just one man and deliver him back to peace.”
2. Better Character Goals Are… Small
Inherent within the idea of specificity is the idea of “small” goals. Specificity necessarily narrows a character’s choices, tightening up abstract generality into shockingly realistic cause and effect.
Writers often think bigger is better when the reverse is almost always true. Huge explosions and massive stakes are only as interesting as the individual person who is affected. Same goes for a character’s ambitions. Even (especially) when the character is caught within a larger drama, the scenes that are most interesting are almost always the small human dramas—a child thieving to feed a wounded spy, that zombie foodie trying to hide her gourmet proclivities, a politician trying to retcon a family secret.
Example: In Star Wars: A New Hope, what Luke wants isn’t to “defeat the Empire.” What he wants isn’t even really “save Princess Leia.” What he wants is “to escape his mundane farmer’s life.” (Wanting to “learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father” starts out as a pretty abstract goal in the first movie, but it plants the seeds for more specific goals in later movies—such as wanting to track down Yoda and convincing him to be his mentor.)
3. Better Character Goals Are… Personal
Although it should be self-evident that your character’s deepest desire is intensely personal, it must still be said since so many stories rely on deeply impersonal goals to move their characters through the story.
Don’t miss the part about these impersonal goals “moving the characters” through the plot—rather than the other way around. A good rule of thumb is that if the goal is bigger than the character, the plot is in control. And vice versa: if the character is bigger than (or at least as big as) the goal, then the character is the one moving the plot.
This is exactly why smart authors use extremely personal goals to ground characters within larger-than-life plots. One of the most-used versions has the protagonist taking on an arch-baddie only after a loved one is murdered or kidnapped.
Gifting characters with inherently personal desires is often more instinctive in smaller dramas, but not always. Too many romances seem to believe the characters’ real goals are “fall in love.” But if the characters’ don’t have passionate personal goals distracting them from and probably directly interfering with their love lives, then what’s keeping these people apart in the first place?
Particularly if you’re writing a story that takes place on a bigger stage—such as epic dramas, political thrillers, and action stories—stop right now and ask yourself if your character has a personal desire other than winning the fight just because winning is a better option than losing.
Example: In The Bourne Identity, Bourne’s goal isn’t “destroy the immoral black ops agency Treadstone.” That he ends up destroying them is almost incidental and only happens because his true desire is “to regain his memory.”
4. Better Character Goals Are… Intrinsic
When giving your character a specific, small, personal desire, you must also make sure the desire is intrinsic to the plot and/or the theme. Action and romance stories often try to supplement their main conflict with a contrasting subplot in which the protagonist also falls in love or also deals with a dangerous situation.
These annexed subplots are rarely as satisfying as more streamlined stories in which the so-called “A Story” and “B-Story” are really two intrinsic sides of the same coin. Trying to shoehorn a contrasting subplot into your story too often creates a precarious scenario in which the story becomes a pitched battle to decide which subplot the audiences will enjoy more (usually, the storyline with the “smaller” goal wins).
When you start your story by first determining your characters’ most personal and specific desires, you’ll often find an entry to the plot that will organically bring all the important elements together into a seamless whole.
For Example: In Brent Weeks’s Black Prism, the protagonist’s suppressed desire for the woman he loves and the reasons he can’t be with her are intrinsic to his larger political gambit and his even larger role in staving off an apocalyptic imbalance in his world. Because his “small” and “large” desires are in constant (and potentially disastrous) tension with each other, they inform each other in every scene.
5. Better Character Goals Are… Self-Destructive
The most interesting character desires are never straightforward. If they were, they’d find fulfillment in the first chapter. This is why, of all the many ways to use a character’s desires to create conflict, one of the most powerful is choosing a desire that is inherently, or at least potentially, self-destructive.
Not only is this the starting place of all character arcs, it’s also just “good TV” as they say. When a character wants something dangerous—and wants it for good reasons—the audience is hooked.
A simple example is a man wanting to go to war to defend his country. We understand his reasons, but we also know he may just have signed his own death warrant. Another easily recognizable example would falling in love with “the bad boy.” We get the attraction, but we know this is probably going to end in tears.
It’s important to note that if the character is balancing on the razor’s edge of a possibly self-destructive choice, readers must empathize. If they feel the character is just too stupid to make a better choice, they’re not going be sucked into the ensuing drama. Rather, they must understand, at every step, why the character is willing to take such incredible risks in pursuit of this desire.
For Example: In Emily Brontë’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff notoriously rains down misery and destruction on, not just the lives of his enemies, but also his own life and that of his true love Cathy. Although readers are likely often repulsed by Heathcliff’s actions, we always understand the deep pain and loneliness that drives his devastatingly obsessive relationship with his childhood sweetheart.
6. Better Character Goals Are… Lie-Driven
The Lie the Character Believes is the heart of both theme and character arc—whether that arc ends up changing the story positively or negatively. At the core of that Lie is the Thing the Character Wants, which is almost always in conflict with the Thing the Character Needs (i.e., the Truth) at some level.
This presents so many chewy opportunities for plot-pushing goals. Indeed, the reason we love watching a character doggedly pursue potentially self-destructive desires is because these desires always point to pressure points deeper within the character. Those pressure points are the nodes of change. If punched hard enough, transformation erupts. And that is always the stuff of good stories.
When looking for the self-destructive aspects of your characters’ desires, look harder still. What underlying Lie might be fueling your character’s motivation and/or the goal itself? Will the character overcome this Lie—allowing her to either avoid destruction or at least rise from the rubble? Or will he succumb to the latent ruin within his own desires?
Whatever your answer, what’s found within in the grist of great themes.
For Example: In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey comes within seconds of destroying his own life because he believes it is worth less than his insurance policy. This is a direct product of his story-long soul-rotting dissatisfaction with his narrow life in a “crummy little town.”
Now. Quick. Tell me what your characters want.
If their desires and goals fulfill all six parts of this checklist, then congrats! You’re on your way to creating compelling characters in a compelling plot. It’s just as easy—and hard—as that.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Which of the six requirements of better character goals do you think your protagonist’s desires fulfills? Tell me in the comments!
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