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Friday, July 3

Oh, Woe Is Me: Giving Your Characters a Goal

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I've talked before about a few key elements in plotting, and one of them was characters. Characters drive plot, because they want something badly enough to act to get it.

What they choose to do is going to create the plot. Why they choose to do it will create the stakes. Together, characters, 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.

Look at your problem and your character and ask, "How would they react to this problem?" Gut instinct reaction.

What do they do?

They'll what to do based on how you designed them as a character (who they are and what their worldview is). Flaws and emotional baggage will make them act in a certain way. They'll have motivating factors and reasons to want what they want. All these things will determine what that action is.

Then it's another character's turn to act, based on what the first character does (action and reaction). Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

How do you decide what that character does in the first place? 

Whatever will advance the story and raise the stakes.

And this is why talking about plot is hard. Because I can't tell you what that is. Every story and every character will be different. The best I can do is suggest things you can look for to help you determine what will advance the story and raise the stakes.

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

Conflict breeds conflict, which gives you more options in determining plot events. Look into your character's history. Were they ever in a situation that scarred them that this problem can touch on? Can you give them a traumatic event that works to influence this situation? Sometimes using these moments is a great way to further flesh out a character and add new backstory (to the character not necessarily to the story). 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 developing 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. So 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.

(Here's more on how 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 the reader knows about but the character doesn't works too, and they can worry the whole time knowing something bad is coming.

(Here are seven ways to raise the stakes in your novel)

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. What are they willing to give up now that they weren't before, and why?

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.

(Here's more on mirroring to deepen your novel)

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

Is there anything the character is afraid of that 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 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).

(Here's more on adding character flaws)

Like all plots, what you choose to have happen depends on your story. But if you look at the character, deciding what to do and how you can use that choice to further another aspect of the story gets a lot easier. And you just might find the perfect next step in the plot.

How do you decide character goals? 

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
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
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:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
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!