Creating Goals for your Characters

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After repeatedly hearing authors extol the virtues of Deb Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, I finally picked the book up. Now I’ve taken workshops on GMC before, so I wasn’t sure if this book would be able to offer anything new. After reading the first few chapters, I will say that while none of the information is new to me, the book was well worth the expense. Ms. Dixon has an expert way of succinctly outlining the concepts of GMC.

One of the first things Ms. Dixon discusses is the concept of goals. Your characters must have goals. Their actions in working toward their goal is what will make your readers keep reading. But it’s not enough to simply give them goals. The goals must be appropriate to the storyline. If you are writing romance, the hero and heroine’s goals must conflict in some way. Otherwise there is no tension, and if there is no tension, there is no story.

Give your character a strong enough goal, and the character will be forced to respond to situations in a certain way, thereby driving the plot forward.
Ms. Dixon discusses two types of goals that each character should have:

  • External Goal

The outward, physical goal of your character: i.e. beat the villain, save the old school house, whatever it may be.

  • Internal Goal

What the character is emotionally looking for. This is usually something he or she does not subconsciously recognize: i.e. looking for love or acceptance, running away from love, trying to assuage feelings of guilt.

For my last novel, I wanted to create immediate tension by writing a woman in jeopardy story. The kicker is that my hero is the one who may have to cause the heroine harm. Since he’s an all-around nice guy, there has to be very strong motivation for this. I knew that the hero’s external goal would be to stop the villain (the hero’s evil father) from taking over Earth. My heroine is instrumental to the villain’s plot, so the easy thing for the hero to do would be to take the heroine out of the equation. If she is killed, the villain cannot succeed in his plot. In order to create tension (and force my characters together), I had to give my hero an internal goal that was at odds with his external goal. Internally, he desires to be a good person and do the right thing, i.e. to be the complete opposite of his evil father. So while it would be easy for him to just kill the heroine, that would be at odds with his internal goals, and he is forced to take alternative action (thereby driving the plot forward).

Characters don’t always achieve their external goals. A good example of this can be found in Jeaniene Frost’s One Foot in the Grave. *Spoiler alert* The heroine’s goal is to find and get revenge on her father, the evil vampire who raped her mother. She finds that she must choose between achieving this goal and keeping her undead lover. That makes for a compelling read because we know just how much she wants revenge. But in the end she finds that her ultimate goals have changed. Revenge is not what she wants most after all.

As a reader, do you feel cheated when characters don’t achieve their goal? When the detective doesn’t get his killer, or the bad guy isn’t stopped? Or is all forgiven as long as a good story is told?

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6 thoughts on “Creating Goals for your Characters

    Bart Palamaro said:
    December 6, 2010 at 9:16 am

    I HATE when the author leaves the goal unatained, and if the goal has changed, that’s called growth. Unless it’s a series, then the larger goal can be left for later. I’m a cockeyed optimist, I like HEA, anything else is nihilism as far as I’m concerned.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      December 6, 2010 at 9:44 am

      Yes, I agree Bart, series can be handled differently. Even then, it gets sort of tiresome when one goal is extended throughout more than 3 books. Then it starts to seem like the author just doesn’t have any better story ideas.

    Rebecca Zanetti said:
    December 6, 2010 at 10:09 am

    I like to see the goal met by the end of the story. At least one goal personal to the hero and heroine in the book. There may be others, and there may be an over-riding series arc, but at some point, I need the big HEA. 🙂

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      December 6, 2010 at 10:18 am

      I agree with you about HEAs, Rebecca. But then, that’s why I read mostly romance. I’ve never understood stories with tragic endings. 😦

    Julia Rachel Barrett said:
    December 6, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    I don’t mind if the hero or heroine falls short of their external goal – what that means to me is that they’ve taken a different path and achieved something other than what they expected when they began their character journey.
    I’m unsatisfied as a reader if inner/emotional goals remain vague and there is no real conclusion or growth – I view an inner goal as character growth and forward movement.
    The lack of forward movement, or a purpose driven life/story – both external and internal – with my current sci fi read, is driving me bonkers. I’ve pretty much called it quits despite all the awards the book has won.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      December 6, 2010 at 4:05 pm

      I guess it’s all about managing reader expectations. Goals can shift as long as readers are left emotionally satisfied. I think that satisfaction must come from the inner growth the character experiences.

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