Develop Your Characters’ Goals And Discover Your Story

Your characters' goals

Understanding your hero’s goals will help you plan your plot line and develop the engaging, motivated characters your readers will love to follow. Here are three easy steps to get you on your way to developing your characters’ goals.

As you prepare to write your book, for NaNoWriMo or whatever your motivation for writing, many authors start to struggle once the premise is stated and the characters introduced. You were full of enthusiasm at the start, but some days it can feel like a slog to get through the word count goals you’ve set.

It’s the same for any writing project, whether it’s a novel or even a short story. There are times when you just don’t see where the plot is going any more or what these characters are going to do next.

One great way to give your story boost, even before you’ve started, is to consider your characters’ goals. After all, if your characters don’t have goals, they’d only be standing around on the page going nowhere, doing nothing. And that’s not much of a plot.

Even Oblomov, the man who stayed in bed for most of his story, had a goal: he wanted to stay in bed. And he worked hard to do it. That was pretty much his story.

Your characters’ goals are essential for determining your plot. And, if you already have a basic plot, you can develop it in greater detail by working out what your characters’ goals will be along the way.

The best place to start is to find out what really motivates your characters. Once you’ve determined exactly what drives them through the story, you can work out the specifics of what they’ll face along the way. Characters’ motivations, their values, provide a direction for your story, while the goals are the road map. Once you’ve decided which direction you’re going in, you can work out exactly how to get there.

Suppose your hardened cop is driven by a sense of justice. That’s his moral compass. It’s what drives him to catch bad guys. His goal is to make sure criminals get what they deserve. That could even be his goal throughout an entire series of novels, with each novel focusing on a specific criminal. You can then break that main goal down into smaller ones to determine your plot. Here’s how:

Step 1: Remove all barriers

Imagine your characters could live their lives by their values, without anything standing in their way. What would your characters choose to do?

The cop would fulfill his sense of justice by catching bad guys.

Here’s another example: if your character values freedom, she could choose to break free of her domineering parents and finally make her own decisions. If she values power, her ultimate goal could be to become president.

Be bold and be imaginative, but be realistic – at least realistic within your genre. If the character who wants to be president is an 80-year-old retired janitor, that might not work as a serious, realistic novel, but it could make for a satirical comedy.

Step 2: Break the journey into smaller steps

Once you’ve decided what your character’s main goal should be, think about all the steps that person would need to take to achieve that final goal. Write down these steps as they enter your mind. Nothing is too ridiculous at this stage. Anything and everything your character might have to do to achieve that ultimate goal is fine.

To achieve the freedom she craves, the character with the domineering parents, would have to: leave home, find a new apartment, pack a bag, leave a note, decide where to go, take a bus.

Step 3: Create a timeline

Now put those steps, those smaller goals, into a timeline. It helps to draw a line on a piece of paper too. One end is the start, of course, and at the other end you can already write the main goal: “become president,” for example.

Add the other goals in chronological order along the timeline:
decide where to go – pack a bag – leave a note – leave home – take a bus – find a new apartment

You can then break down each of these steps into smaller steps. For example, between leaving home and taking a bus, this character might have to call a cab, get to the bus station, and buy a ticket.

Break down each step into small logical goals and you’ll soon have a basic outline for your plot. You’ll also have a character who is always moving toward something, always aiming for her ultimate goal, and acting consistently because she is acting according to her values. That’s the kind of character readers like to follow.

Go through the same process for your antagonist to find out where and how he or she will get in your hero’s way.

You can also try these exercises on yourself if you go through a dip during NaNoWriMo or any writing project. Work out the values that drive you to write, and then set yourself short-, mid-, and long-term goals to get you through each stage of even the toughest novel writing times.

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