In a continuation of our look at GMC (Goal, Motivation, & Conflict), today I am focusing on an in-depth look at character goals. At the end, I will leave you with some guiding questions to help you develop your own character goals.
Last week we defined a goal as answering two questions. What does the character want? What is compelling them to take action?
Everyone has goals in life. Today my personal goal is to overcome this sinus infection, however, I do not believe you would want to read a story centered around that goal. Why not? For one, it is gross. Secondly, it is not a compelling story that grips at your heart and soul to keep you turning pages.
So what makes a compelling goal?
Think about the stories you love to watch and read. I can guarantee you the main character’s goal is one that is life altering. The consequence of not reaching their goal will negatively affect them in a serious manner. It is for this reason they take action.
For example, in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s goal is to save her father from dying in the Beast’s tower room. If she does not save him, her only remaining family member will be lost to her forever. She would be left to live alone and possibly accept Gaston’s proposal. Horror of horrors. These consequences compel her to action. Achieving her goal is worth any sacrifice.
A novel example would be from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet has the goal of marrying for nothing less than love. When the very rich and arrogant Mr. Darcy first proposes, she is compelled to refuse him. Why? Because money would not be worth the life of misery.
The previous examples were external goals. (An external goal is something tangible.) According to Debra Dixon, author of Goal, Motivation, & Conflict, you characters should not want something they already have or want more of it.
To develop a strong character, you must create a goal in which they desperately need what they do not have. Mrs. Dixon describes it best:
Dangle a carrot just out of their reach and make sure they haven’t had a bite in weeks.
– from Goal, Motivation, & Conflict by Debra Dixon
Not only should they desperately want it, they should also urgently need it. The more urgent, the better.
In the interest of achieving their goal in time, they will make choices they would not have previously considered. Urgency will push them to make choices that go against their own best interest.
Internal goals reach down into the emotional soul of the main character. It is what they feel. I find that usually the character arc, or what the character learns, goes hand in hand with the internal goals.
One of my characters will learn that real love is not based on what she does, but who she is. Therefore, I have made her internal goal to be feel worthy of love and attention. In the beginning she feels she must earn the love of her inattentive caregiver and subsequently the love of the man she hopes to marry.
This, combined with her external goal, forces her to make decisions which she would never had made before. Some of the choices she makes will have dire consequences. You want to keep the reader wondering if they will ever learn their lesson and achieve their goal, all the way to the black moment a the end.
- What is your main character’s goal?
- What is the consequence of not achieving their goal?
- How can you make them more dire?
- How can you make the goal more urgent?
- What choices would your character have to make that go against their best interest?
- What do you want your character to learn throughout the story?
- What could be their internal goal?
- What makes them desperate for this feeling?
- What will be the consequences if they do not achieve this internal goal?
Share some of your answers in the comments below. I would love to hear your thoughts. Are there any other guiding questions you would add?