16 Character Goals

A little while ago I published a post about character motives which included a fairly lengthy list of the kind of things that might motivate your characters actions. Of course, anyone who has been hanging around this blog for any length of time will know that I am always banging on about how a character’s motives, goals and conflict together form the basis of any good story.

And so, better late than never, I decided it was probably time for me to knock together a little list of character goals.

Unlike motives, a goal is a very specific thing your character has to accomplish (or fail to accomplish) before the story can be truly considered complete. Sometimes characters may have more than one goal, but more often than not there is usually at least one key thing that the protagonist absolutely has to accomplish. For instance, if you were writing a murder/mystery, your protagonist could be motivated by a sense of righteousness or because someone is paying him a lot of money to solve a crime, but his goal would be to find out ‘who dunnit.’

This list is a lot shorter than my list of motives, mainly because I’ve tried to keep these very general even though goals are usually very specific to the story, but I hope you’ll find it helpful.

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Establishing a Daily Writing Routine

I don’t know about you, but for me the only way to get anything written is to work to a very strict routine. If I only write when I feel like I have the energy or, worse yet, the inspiration, I will almost certainly never write. Not only am I unlikely to ever write, but in whenever I do write, I will give up almost straight away because I ‘just wasn’t getting into The Zone today.’

Dear reader, I am not for one second refuting the value of getting into the so-called Zone. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of easily knocking out a couple of thousand really good words words in less than an hour. But for most mortals, that doesn’t really happen every day and that’s why we need to do something about it.

The answer lies, at least partly, in establishing a strong writing routine. By that I mean having both a long-term routine (that is, your regular established writing times) and a short-term one (how do you make the best use of your time each session). I’m not going to harp on too much about the importance of having a long-term routine since I’m pretty sure I’ve already written about it several times. Instead lets talk about what we do when we actually sit down to write.

I often find it tempting to cold start each writing session, especially since I have so very little writing time available between juggling a full time job and a three year old daughter (not to mention this blog) but nine times out of ten, I find cold starting is the single biggest mistake you can make. If you’re coming to your novel tired, uninspired and distracted by other things, you’re not going to suddenly knock out a work of genius in a single hour session. You’ll just end up faffing. You might even catch yourself visiting some of my favourite websites for procrastination (I recommend the Monkey Island sword-fighting game). So even if you find time is short, I would strongly recommend starting off each session with a pre-writing technique.

There are quite a few of these you could try, though free writing is one I find particularly effective (I’ve written about that too!). Try free writing, even just for five or ten minutes about whatever comes to mind, or better yet, free write about your story, even if all you can think to write is ‘I have no idea what I’m doing with this story,’ over and over. You don’t necessarily have to come up with new ideas for your story (although if you do, great). This is just a technique for getting you focused on what you’re about to do, so you could use it to rave about how wonderful your book is going to be or you could write a little story about your antagonist buying his groceries or you could write down your own feelings about writing. It doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that you write, without stopping, about whatever comes to mind. Trust me, it’ll get your juices flowing.

Once you’ve done your pre-writing, it’s time to start work properly. Again, your time is precious. Don’t waste it by just opening up your project and waiting for something to happen. Go to work with a clear and specific goal for this session. If you’re well into the drafting stage, this could be as simple as establishing how many words you have to write in that session, or if you’re still at the planning stage you might decide that you need to complete a chapter outline. Whatever your goal, make sure it is crystal clear in your mind so you aren’t distracted by anything else (such as editing chapter 1 when you should be drafting chapter 2) and also make sure your goal is realistic. If you’ve only got one hour to write, don’t ask yourself to write 100,000 words. You will fail and become despondent. Be realistic about what you can accomplish- then accomplish it.

When you’ve accomplished your goal for the day, allow yourself to save your work and go grab a nice cold drink and put your feet up. It is often tempting to write ourselves into oblivion, until we completely dry up and become despondent because we’ve wasted the last three hours of our day trying to keep up the momentum we established early on in the day. But that is not necessary or helpful. If you have accomplished your daily goal, turn off your computer, feel good about what you’ve accomplished and enjoy the rest of your life. You won’t feel like a failure then because you are establishing and meeting your writing goals every day– and before long, you’ll be holding a completed novel in your hands.


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Creating Conflict Between Your Characters

I’ve often said that good characters are at the heart of every good story. This is true, however there is another crucial element that is required for a compelling story and that is conflict. Of course, as we shall see, a well-written conflict is born of well-written characters. The two elements are not mutually exclusive. Let’s start by trying to define what we mean by conflict.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines conflict as ‘an active disagreement between people with opposing opinions or principles’. This is certainly a good enough definition, however when it comes to the conflict found in any good story, I would take it one step further and suggest that conflict is an active disagreement between people with opposing goals. Alternatively, your central conflict may also revolve around one character’s goals being at odds with a particular circumstance. In any event, your protagonist wants something so badly it was worth writing a novel about it and yet someone or something is preventing him from getting it.

Creating a strong conflict is mandatory in any style or genre of story writing. Your reader will bore quickly without it. Even the most seemingly mild-mannered, light-hearted, inoffensive stories have conflict at their core. My two year old is currently quite obsessed with The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, in which a mouse living in the woods avoids being eaten by various predators by pretending he’s going to meet a particularly ferocious imaginary friend. It’s a children’s picture book, yet at its core we still have this conflict between the cunning but ultimately vulnerable mouse who wishes to avoid being eaten and all the other characters who do want to eat him. Thus we have characters with diametrically opposing goals, thus we have conflict, thus we have a story.

So if you’re writing a story and you feel like it’s lacking that bit of tension needed to keep it interesting, take my advice: go back to your characters. It can be tempting to try and fix a lack of tension by throwing in more fight scenes or adding a pointless romantic subplot, but if your characters’ goals are not at odds with each other or with a particular circumstance, adding extra subplots or intense scenes will only make your story appear bloated.

First, check your characters’ motives. What is that one thing that gets them out of bed in the morning and spurs them on to action? Remember, this will be the basis for whatever goal your character has and it is this that will lend importance to your characters goals and make your audience care about whether or not they achieve them (I’ve spoken a bit about this before here).

Now ask yourself: on the basis of my character’s motive, what are they actually trying to achieve? This is their goal. Success or absolute* failure will mean the end of the story because the conflict will have been resolved. All of your main players should have clearly established motives and goals. If you have a character whose goals are diametrically opposed to another’s, you pretty much have your conflict and a clearly established antagonist [2] into the bargain.

Of course, there are other, less obvious types of conflict than simply pitting two characters against each other. These will still be grounded in your protagonist’s motives and goals, but instead of coming into conflict with another character, they will be brought into conflict with themselves or other external forces, such as God, nature or a socio-political situation which is beyond their control. Even in these cases, the principle remains the same: your character needs to acquire or accomplish something but something external to his or herself is stopping them from doing it.

In addition, there are also internal conflicts, where a character is wrestling with his own contradicting goals and motives. I’ll maybe(!) write a separate post about internal conflict because it can be footery to get right, especially if you’re wanting to write a story where something actually happens (and yes, you do want this). Suffice it to say for now that the issue still concerns a conflict of goals and motives: the main difference being that the protagonist’s goals are in conflict with each other. For my money, however, an internal conflict should not be used as a substitute for an external conflict, but something to go alongside it.

Whatever kind of conflict is at the heart of your story, remember this: it starts with your characters. A character will not throw themselves into danger for no reason. They need to want or need something badly enough that they are willing to struggle against themselves, others and all the forces of nature to get it. Only when your audience understands and cares about their goals and motives will they care about whether or not your protagonist manages to overcome whatever antagonists you throw their way.

Footnote:

*There will usually be an apparent failure halfway through the story. This is not the end, but rather gives the protagonist the final push they need to try again and succeed. You knew that already though.


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

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