Friday, February 4

Running on Autopilot: Working With Unconscious Goals

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Goals are what drives a character (and a plot), but it's a bit more challenging when the character isn't aware of what they really want. With no concrete need, there's nothing external for them to focus on and a story can easily stall. So how do you keep the plot moving forward? By looking at what lies beneath.

Clues for the Clueless
Try approaching unconscious goals from a different angle, since it's impossible for a character to act on something they don't realize they want. The goal itself becomes more of a motivator, nudging the character toward choices that will satisfy that need, even when they aren't fully aware of it. They'll act in ways that could fill that unconscious desire, but the end goal isn't to get that desire.

If your characters have unconscious goals, think about...

1. What emotion that goal taps into and how it might affect their actions
It's been well documented that teens sometimes act out and get into trouble trying to "get attention," but what they really want is to know that their parents actually care. They don't stay out past curfew or slug back that beer because they want to party on. They're desperate to know if Mom or Dad cares enough to yell. Getting yelled at proves they do care, which satisfies the need to be loved. How might your character do the same thing with their goal? What outward action would bring about a result they're unconsciously after?

2. What they might mistake that unconscious goal for
It's easy to mistake a desire as something else, and act to try and fill that need. So your protag might act in ways that only makes things worse. Like craving something you can't quite figure out, but nothing you snack on really satisfies. But you know that sweet treat really isn't what you want, and the more saltier things you eat, the closer you get to what you do want. What acts are similar to, but not quite what they unconsciously want?

3. What they might do that is the exact opposite of what they want?
Sometimes we don't know what we want until we're presented with what we don't want. Like the person who seeks out intimacy but instead goes from physical relationship to relationship. They want to "be close" to another person, but try to get that in a way that makes them feel even more alone. It isn't until they realize their actions are making things worse that they start to focus in one what they really need. What can they do that pushes them in the direction they really need to go?

Unconscious goals can be great motivators for your protag's actions, but the goals themselves won't be driving the plot. Think of them like story goals, where resolving that issue is important, but it's the steps leading to it that actually create the plot. At some point the unconscious will become conscious, and then you can have your protag actively pursue that need. And maybe even have to undo the mistakes they made getting there.


  1. Janice, Sorry I'm asking this in your comments, but do you have a subscribe by email option? I can't find it.

  2. There was, but I think it's down at the moment. I tried to turn it back on and I got an error. I'm about to launch a massive blog redesign, and some things are being turned off and rearranged to prepare for that. I'll check with my tech-guru and see if I can get the subscription link back on.

  3. Unconscious goals are fun, but hard to realize, I think (as a writer.) Usually I don't figure out what my characters want until after a first draft is done. If I try to plan it out ahead of time, I'm usually wrong!

  4. I love this blog! I've never seen anyone approach this topic before and it's something I struggle with often. My main characters tend not to know themselves well enough to know what they want until the end. Great tips! Thank you!

  5. Chicory: They really are tough, especially if yo want that to be the core conflict of the novel. I may not always know the internal want at the start of the story, but I HAVE to know the external or I can't plot it.

    Mallory: Thanks!