Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Oh, Woe Is Me: Strengthening Character Goals

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Characters drive the plot, because they want something badly enough to act to achieve (or avoid) it. But don't make it easy on them.

When I'm plotting a novel, one of the first things I ask is "What does the protagonist want?" It's a critical question to understand my plot and even my novel, because if I don't know the goal, I can't possibly write a novel that illustrates how the character tries to achieve that goal.

And that's what a novel is at the core: a character trying to have their way and get what they want.

What they choose to do is going to create the plot. Why they choose to do it will create the motivations and stakes. Together, characters, motivations, stakes, and plot make readers want to read on. I've found understanding the why make it's a whole lot easier to figure out the what.

At the start of a scene, the character will be facing a problem. It might be the core of the story idea, or the first in a long line of things planned to resolve that conflict. They'll be facing a choice about that problem, because what they do needs to advance the plot, and choices are a great way to do that.

1. Can you make the character do something they don't want to do?

Conflict breeds conflict, which gives you more options to develop plot events. Look into your character's history. Were they ever in a situation that scarred or hurt them? Maybe you can you give them a traumatic event that works to influence this situation?

Using painful backstory is another great way to further flesh out a character and provide additional plotting options.
  • Can they be faced with an ethical dilemma that can rock their very being? 
  • Can they be forced to act in a way they know is going to be detrimental to someone else? 
  • Can they be forced to act in ways that will be detrimental to their own goals? 
  • Can you make them uncomfortable and push them out of their comfort zone?

(Here's more on What's My Motivation? Tips on Showing Character Motivations)

2. Can you put the character between a rock and hard place?

Easy choices are boring. If the reader can clearly see which choice the character is going to make, the story becomes predictable. Look for ways that aren't so easy to guess (or get out of). Force characters to make impossible choices--neither option is good, but they have to do something. And of course, the option that gets them closer to what they want, is the one with the worse consequences.

Giving them a hard choice makes the goals harder to accomplish.
  • Can you force them to make a bad decision?
  • Can you create an impossible situation with no easy out?
  • Can you force a choice that will haunt them the rest of the novel?

(Here's more on 7 Ways Your Characters Can Screw up Their Decisions)

3. Can you give each option risks or consequences?

Stakes grab readers, so look for ways in which the decision the character makes has consequences and ramification after that choice is made. Give all the options downsides--even if the character doesn't see them. A risk readers know about but the character doesn't works too, and they can worry the whole time knowing something terrible is hurtling toward them.

High stakes and consequences for a character's action gives weight to their choices about what to do next.
  • Do your character choices have consequences?
  • Are there consequences even for the "good" or "safe" choices? Should there be?
  • Do characters have enough information to make the right choice (which isn't always a good thing)?
  • Can they make bad choices based on wrong or incomplete information?

(Here's more on The One-Two Punch: Creating Conflict and Raising the Stakes)

4. Can you demand a sacrifice?

Give the decision a cost, especially if it hurts the story problem and makes it harder for the protagonist to win. Early on in a story they probably won't be willing to make that sacrifice, but later, they'll have little choice. Offering them the same sacrifice at the beginning and end of a story can be an effective technique as well.

Getting what they want shouldn't be easy.
  • What are they willing to give up now that they weren't before, and why?
  • How much will it cost to achieve this goal?
  • Will getting the goal hurt them in other ways?

(Here's more on All Is Lost: Four Kinds of Death in Fiction)

5. Can the action mirror something critical that will come later?

Just like a sacrifice, if there's a theme, or aspect of character growth that needs to occur, maybe you can start the groundwork for it early. If the protagonist will be faced with a similar choice later, perhaps show them making the wrong one early to show growth (or foreshadow failure) for that later moment.

Some goals offer chances to teach the character a lesson.
  • What does the character have to learn for the character arc?
  • What flaws does the character need to overcome?
  • What are the character's bind spots?

(Here's more on Mirroring: An Easy Way to Deepen Your Novel)

6. Can you exploit a fear, flaw, or weakness?

Does the character have a fear you can take advantage of? Maybe it's something they'll need to to overcome to win in the end, or a weakness you need to show early on so you can use it during the dark moment in act three. Maybe it's a flaw that needs to be shown in action so readers can see how that character overcomes that flaw (and probably wins despite it).

Let the goals play to a character's weakness as well as their strengths.
  • What fear will cause the characters to make mistakes?
  • What situations might cause them to make bad choices?
  • How might you push their buttons to get them to act recklessly or foolishly?

(Here's more on Broken, but Still Good: 3 Ways to Create Character Flaws)

Anything can happen in a story, but if you look at the character and consider what they want and what they'll willing to do to get it, your story goals become stronger. They're personal to that character and not just driving plot because plot says X needs to happen now for Y reason.

How do you decide character goals? 

*Originally published May 2010. Last update February 2020.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
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  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
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Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
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Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Any time I get stuck, odds are it's a character issue, not a plot issue. If I can throw something at the character, that will lead the plot in the right direction.

  2. I have no idea how you do it. I mean, characterization is my strong suit, my charcters are always the strongest part of my story. It's not like I have a problem with them. But you, you break everything down in such an easy, comprehensible fashion that all these things that were so instictual (or the things I struggle with) go from being abstract to solid reasons and breakdowns. I don't know how you do it but I'm so thankful I found your blog! I love when I can actually explain things to myself and no longer just have it as "that thing I do."

  3. Melissa is right. You break it down into easy steps. Of course, we need to be sure we apply all the steps to the story.

  4. Wow, this is the best post I've seen yet on the topic. I can't wait to read more on your writing tips.

  5. Another excellent post on the writing craft. Thanks for this.

    P.S. You probably get a lot of these, but I gave you an award on my blog. Cheers!

  6. I love the idea of slamming characters between rocks and hardplaces and then feel the need to drop something heavy on them from above. All and all, I am sometimes truly terrible to my characters. Thanks for sharing such an interesting post with so many great points for us to ponder. Am tweeting this.

  7. Thanks all! Like Melissa said, a lot of the things I do were "things I just did" for a long time. I started trying to find ways to explain what I did when I was doing a lot of critiques and getting involved in writer's groups. Doing crits is great for that, because yo need to be able to articulate how to do something to help someone. I'm glad that's still working :) And it helps me, too!

  8. I haven't read this yet but this is my title A goal for my character? She hasn't got one and I'm 20k into my novel I guess that's what you call great.

  9. Tiffany, I'm not sure what you mean by title as a goal. The goal will be whatever your character wants that she's spending the book trying to get/avoid/stop. (whatever the situation is). In Lord of the Rings, it's about destroying the One Ring. In a mystery, it's solving the mystery and catching the bad guy.

  10. Thanks for reposting this excellent post!

  11. Janice,
    Great advice - I struggled with my latest novel, getting my main character engaged. So - I pushed him to find his goal(s). It works! Thanks.

  12. I'm so glad you reposted this because I missed it the first time. Thanks!

  13. The biggest problem I'm facing at the moment is repetition in my character's responses to changes in the plot. I often like to write about gradual changes in a character - but then the fear settles in that the character's response, though slightly different, is pretty much a rehash of what I've already written.

    1. That's tough. You might try looking for nuances in how they respond that suggest growth. For example, maybe it made them sad the first time, but this time the sadness is lighter, or they're closer to acceptance. Or maybe the still feel something, but it isn't as strong and that shows they're dealing with it better.

      You might also try looking at the steps the character goes through and how they change at every step, then look for ways to describe that. If they're not any different, then maybe you don't need to show that reaction.

  14. Claire Maker3/31/2020 7:29 PM

    Great advice for breaking down characters. I often have issues with trying to figure out how to get a character to move forward, so all these different motivations will be useful. Like to exploit fear, flaw, or weakness. This is a great way to make a character choose the wrong choice, or for them to prove they have a lionheart's and get past that fear. I find characters often do things recklessly without being given a reason to feel so desperate, exploiting them in a more personal way and give good substance to those bad choices.

    I also love 5, because I'm a person who loves laying the groundwork and hints towards latter events that you don't realize until the major event happens. Then when you think back about the plot, you realize that a small moment meant so much more. It's always a great reason for a second read too since it changes how you might perceive those early events.

    1. Thanks! So much of plotting is character motivation, so it's useful to know why our characters are doing what they're doing.

      I love those small hints, too. They make all the big reveals and turning points feel inevitable without telegraphing it.