Friday, March 30, 2012

Goals: Does Every Character Need the Same One?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I got an interesting question the other day on my post about writing multiple points of view. I said, “make sure your cast of characters are all working toward the same goal (even if one of them is working to stop that goal).” Commenter Sam asked...
Does this mean each POV character must have the same story goal?
It's a question worthy of a post all its own.

Short answer: No.

Long answer (and probably a much more helpful one):

Characters will have multiple goals in a novel. They'll have scene goals, story goals, conscious goals, unconscious goals, story arc goals, the list goes on. But what will be at the heart of all those goals is the core conflict.

The core conflict is basically the reason the book exists. This is the problem driving the entire story. If it wasn't for this conflict, everyone could go their own separate ways and live happily ever after.

Because it's so vital to the plot, pretty much every other goal in the book is going to relate to the core conflict in some way. Even if it's a small subplot, odds are that subplot can be traced back to it. It's outcome will affect something that will affect that core conflict.

If a character has a goal that doesn't in some way work toward/against this core conflict, it probably doesn't need to be in the book. It doesn't drive the plot, and that's the whole point of goals. It might help show other things, like flesh out a character or provide backstory, but if it's not moving that plot forward odds are it's hurting the pacing and bogging the story down.

For example, let's look at The Lord of the Rings.

The core conflict there: Sauron wants to get the ring and enslave Middle Earth. Everyone else wants to stop Sauron from getting the ring and enslaving Middle Earth. It seems simplistic, but that's the heart of the story. That's what's driving the entire trilogy.

Frodo and his gang wants to destroy it, so they set off on a quest. Strider wants to protect Frodo so he can destroy the ring. Other characters show up to help Frodo. Some of them even get their minds warped and want to take the ring they can use it to stop Sauron! Even when they're not acting specifically to "destroy the ring" they're still working to resolve the core conflict. Stopping the bad guy.

Some goals will be subtle, and they might not be as clearly connected as others, but what happens during the resolution of that goal will affect the core conflict in some way. If it doesn't, that's a red flag the subplot or scene isn't connected to the rest of the story and could be leading the story astray.

It never hurts to do a goal check from time to time to ensure your goals are all working together to tell the whole story. You might be surprised how often a solid-feeling goal winds up being something that doesn't actually move the story at all.

Can you pinpoint your core conflict? Are your goals all working together to drive the plot toward this resolution? If not, where do you think you're getting lost?


  1. Great post! Thanks for the tip. When I write I often go wherever the characters take me. Sometimes this helps to create more tenstion and conflist, other times its a blind alley - a darling that needs to be euthenazed.

    Keeping the goal/ core conflict in mind prevents the work from blowing out into an uncontrollable mess.

    Maybe I should write the core conflict in large letters and place it somewhere prominent - like above my desk where I write.

  2. This is exactly why I had to take a step back before finishing my current wip. Only one character really had a goal, and although it was a good one, there wasn't enough conflict. I thought my antagonist had a goal, but it just wasn't working.

    Now both main protagonists have a goal and they are at odds with each other. Yay for conflict and a much better read! It's better than the conflict with the antagonist. Hm, wonder if I even need him anymore? Time to go look at that. ;)

    Thanks for posting such great topics, Janice.

  3. A thousand word critique sounds AWESOME!

    But as to goals. This has been a struggle. In my YA adventure/romance WIP, sometimes the emphasis is on the romance and sometimes on the adventure. But as I worked on the climax, I ended up having several layers of resolution.

    I wrapped up the major adventure conflict: the hero's inheritance is reclaimed. Soon after, the hero and heroine are reunited. Then just before they can live happily ever after, the true villain behind the scenes reveals himself. He has been the heroine's bete noir, root of her greatest weakness. She defeats him. Then they finally have the romantic resolution and live happily ever after.

    But this can get soooo very confusing as I'm braiding things together throughout the book. I want to simplify, but not too much. Crazy hard, sometimes!

  4. Excited about the chance for a critique!

    Re: goals. I love it when characters have different goals, because it ratchets up the tension. In my WIP, everyone wants to help a little boy get past the death of his father, but they disagree on how to do it, and that creates a lot of conflict.

  5. I know plotting and pantsing are both viable paths to the same goal, but my goodness! Pantsers must have a powerful instinct for story structure if they're able to include character, scene, story arc, and story goals without planning or extensive rewriting. (You can tell which kind of writer I am. :-) )

    By the way, many thanks for offering the critique. I hope you get as much from the "real life diagnostics" as the writers you help.

  6. Judy Migliori3/30/2012 11:42 AM

    I love how you described the core conflict of Lord of the Rings, this epic classic, with a minimum of words. After reading today's post my story's core conflict now seems too meek and uninspiring for my other cast of characters. Today as I write I am going to pretend you are going to choose my manuscript to critique. I would be so honored.

  7. At first glance, I think the characters in my WIP are all working toward the same goal. BUT, when I stop and really give it a look I think there are a couple of scenes that might need to be reworked or....God forbid....trashed, because the characters aren't necessarily moving toward the same goal as the MC.
    And thanks for your always helpful example! And the offer of a critique.

  8. So I have a question. I understand your point about having even seemingly contrary goals work toward the same core conflict. But what about the characters whose goals/values get so warped that they decide they want to work for themselves rather than toward the core conflict?

    For example, in my WIP I have three characters who are working to retrieve a McGuffin to destroy the bad guy (core conflict). But one decides he'd rather take the power in the McGuffin and use it for himself. It creates a very powerful conflict between him and my protagonist, but he is no longer working to resolve the core conflict. Is there a problem with this setup?

    Thanks as always for your wonderful insight!

  9. Thanks, great advice to keep in mind when putting together the main plot and subplots.

  10. Remembering the core goals are so important. Whenever I'm stuck in a scene, I can almost always find the right path by asking "what are the characters of this scene trying to do?"

    It helps me to check the realism of my dialogue as well. No matter how important the information seems to the story, if it isn't something the character needs to say in order to acheive the goal, they can't say it. :)

  11. Good advice, as usual. Plus, any time LOTR is mentioned I'm happy.

    I've been doing some out of sequence writing lately, and while the process has helped me tighten and hone in on scene and character goals, I'm also more apt to lose sight of the story goal.

  12. Jo-Ann, that would totally help, LOL. I actually do that. Little notes are great reminders :)

    Charity, ooo fun. Conflict without a clear bad guy is so much fun, cause there's no "villain." Glad your story's coming along so well!

    Amelia, I know exactly what you mean. I'm doing a romance/adventure myself, and balancing the two story lines can be a pain. Sound like you have your ending worked out though, grats!

    Melissa, another great conflict. Conflict through love is so heartbreaking. And fun to write! We writers can be so evil, can't we?

    Molten, I don't know how those pantsers do it. I have a pantser friend who also writes out of chronological order. I'd lose my mind but it works for her. I find the RLD very helpful, thanks for asking. It's a nice way to gauge what my readers might want me to write about. I see where folks are struggling. And it's also fun to read snippets of everyone's stories :)

    Judy, I struggled with a lot of stories until I figured out the core conflict thing. These days I don't start anything until I have that nailed down. So much easier!

    Heather, they don't need to necessarily move the goal same as the MC, as long as it affects it in some way. Maybe they're working against it, or will cause it problems down the road. But if those scenes jumps out at you, odds are there's something there your writer's instinct it sensing.

    Brenda, all three want the McGuffin, so you're good. Why they want it is all part of their motivation and story arc. By wanting it for himself, he becomes an obstacle for the others and an obstacle for the core conflict (to destroy it). No problems there :) It's a nice complication actually.

    R.E. Hunter, most welcome!

    Sarah, same here. What's the point? also helps when I'm stuck.

    Deb, it can, but if you have the kind of mind that works that way it can work. I just mentioned my friend who writes out out order. She doesn't think linearly, and works best in a free-form style. Maybe you're like that too :)

  13. I'm in love with my current WIP, but can't seem to move it forward, and then I read your post today and thought, "Duh. What's your MC's goal? I mean, she's interesting an all, but..."
    So thank you for helping me diagnose my little problem. I know the other day you did a post about your struggle to balance your different brands, and I for one would miss them if your how-to posts went away. You have a knack for stating things clearly and getting to the point.

  14. I"ve had some trouble with my book and deciding the core conflict; it appears to be one thing, but is really another. Talk about making a query and synopsis hard on myself! It's hard to put the twist in there and make it understandable, but still clearly a reveal. It's too easy to come across as coy when it's not communicated well.

    Giveaway sounds exciting! Thanks

  15. One of my favorite shows ever, The Great Queen SeonDeok, uses varying character goals brilliantly. There's loads of politics going on, and I *love* that a person who might side with the lead heroine over one issue might be against her on another. It's not just Team A vs. Team B. People have their own convictions and goals. And, sometimes the person who's willing to help the heroine is the antagonist. I guess kind of like Prof. X and Magneto teaming up from time to time, for a more commonly-known example.

  16. (Haven't read the other comments yet.) This post made me think of `Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.' The two leads, Will Turner and Jack Sparrow, are after different things. Will doesn't trust Jack because Jack ISN'T there to rescue Elizabeth; he has his own agenda. The lack of trust causes all sorts of lovely complications.

    The story still ties together because the goals are connected, but they're not technically the same, and I think that really adds to the story.

  17. Thanks for such a great post. It cleared up some issues I was having.

    To be honest, I felt a little dumb asking the question. But after reading through the comments, it seems others have similar problems, so it makes me feel like I'm focusing on good areas.

  18. Yay, I think I'm doing the conflict part right. I love figuring out character goals.

    Wow, good thing I decided to read the emails in my inbox today even though I just returned from spring break. Otherwise I never would have known about the 1,000 word crit.

  19. I am always amazed by how timely your posts are. I have literally spent the last week analyzing character goals, and this helped me identify some weak spots. Thank you!

  20. Great post!! This is something valuable to me as I realized each character needed their own goals, but they must work together (or against) the resolution. I've had goals for them previously, but I'll have to take a look and make sure they're headed in the right direction. Yay on the surprise crit!!

  21. Liv, most welcome! So glad the post helped :) I love when that happens. And thanks. The blog isn't going anywhere. I love doing it and helping my fellow writers. :)

    Angelica, queries are so good at showing you there's a problem with your core conflict. I always write a query before I write the book just to make sure I have my conflict straight. Sounds like yours is doubly hard, so good luck there :)

    MK, Magneto is one of my favorite bad guys ever. His conflict is so human and real and layered. He's trying to help people! Okay, so maybe his methods aren't so good to non-mutants. They gray area is my favorite place to write.

    Chicory, exactly. They both want to find the Pearl, but for different reasons. Great example of same goal, different details.

    Sam, don't feel dumb at all, it was a great question. And it obviously needed more discussion :)

    Stina, good to hear!

    Jess, aw, thanks! I do get lucky with these. Glad it helped!

    Traci, it's the working together part than can throw a lot of writers. You spend time giving them goals, then discover those goals send the story in a million places. There's a lot more focus to a novel than it often appears. Hmm...that might be another good post. Thanks!

  22. Hopped over from Stina's blog! Great post!

    I like to think of those ancillary goals, the ones that dance around the main goal, as reflecting the debate of the story goal in some way - they become permutations that mirror (fun house or otherwise) the central conflict. I think it makes the debate richer.

  23. Susan, welcome! Oo I love that. Reflecting the debate. It's like using your theme to tie it all together. Great tip, thanks!