Nancy: What a Girl Wants – Character Goals

Woman With a Plan

One of things we learned in the McDaniel program was that many of us, to one extent or another, struggle with some of the same writing issues. One of the earliest elements of our manuscripts we addressed was identifying our protagonists’ goals. While a few of our classmates had chosen concrete, positive, workable goals, many of us were in a very different boat. It was leaky boat with a broken paddle. We agonized and strategized and each of us found (or continue to search for) our own paths to creating strong goals for our characters.

In my WIP, I didn’t just have a negative goal; I had three. In some flash of insanity brilliance, I had conceived a plot with three protagonists. I knew for purposes of my story that one of the protagonists would take the lead, and in this post I wrote about the difficulty of figuring out my lead was Eileen Parker. Figuring out this important piece of the puzzle was just the beginning.

Eileen’s goal, early on, was to keep the status quo. As the story opens, she has learned that her abusive ex-husband is getting paroled from prison. He wants to reunite with Eileen, but she wants none of it. In the beginning of the writing process, her goal was to keep her life as-is, as it has been since she got away from Jim. But how does that story end? If the heroine achieves her goal, it means she will be in the same place at the end of the book as she was in the beginning. What’s the point of reading about that?

So I started working on her goal. Something concrete. Something positive. And in fact, I could come up with a number of things that Eileen would want: a safe home (to keep out her ex-husband Jim), her own car restoration business (she loves American classic cars and has restored her own ’67 Mustang convertible), and a dating life (she’s been gun-shy and hasn’t gotten past a first date in the past two years). I went from no concrete, positive goals for Eileen to three of them.

Going back to Debra Dixon’s goal, motivation, and conflict that we’ve discussed on the blog many times before, these three elements of a character’s journey should complement each other. I didn’t yet know Eileen’s goal, and until I knew that I couldn’t know what her antagonist (ex-husband Jim) would do to block her goal and create the conflict. But I did know what motivates Eileen. After a few years of living with a man who controlled her life, Eileen is motivated by being in charge of her own destiny. I also knew other things about Eileen. She’s a former professor, so she is used to writing lesson plans. She’s now a business woman, hoping to launch an entrepreneurial venture, so she understands writing a business plan. In Eileen’s experience, to get from point A to point B, having a plan is a necessity.

That’s when I realized that Eileen has a plan, a three-pronged plan. In her mind, no one piece of it is more important than the others. So her goal isn’t to achieve one of these things; it’s to achieve all three. Finally, I knew Eileen’s goal – to complete her three-pronged plan. The plan can support what truly motivates her, which is to be in charge of her own destiny. Her ex-husband’s goal of winning back her back and re-exerting his control over her is in direct conflict with her goal.

The last step in determining whether accomplishing her plan would be the best goal for Eileen was building a conflict box to see whether I had a conflict lock – in other words, that Jim’s actions based on his goal would block Eileen’s actions based on her goal, and vice versa. I built the box, got the conflict lock, and finally had a positive and concrete goal for Eileen, a goal important enough for her to fight hard, and then to fight harder, and even fight to the point of death (physical or emotional) to achieve it.

Now that the first draft is finished, I’m taking the much-needed break from it before printing it out in hard copy, reading it, and devising my own plan for revising the manuscript. But I already know that one of the most important aspects of the rewrite will be ensuring Eileen’s (and Maddie’s and Sarah’s) goals drive the story. And remain in conflict with their respective antagonists. And intertwine and overlap and bolster each others’ stories. And…and…and… It’s going to be a long revision.

16 thoughts on “Nancy: What a Girl Wants – Character Goals

  1. Congratulations! Still miles to go, but I’ve seen some of the miles you’ve put behind you — you’ve done great!

    For me, my hero always had a clear goal, and it was easy to find motivation and backstory for why he is the way he is. So, I plugged him into the protagonist spot. Now that he’s . . . something else (sideplot antagonist?) . . . I’ve got to figure out what my heroine wants and her motivation. I tend to blow my bangs up in exasperation and think, “Well, wouldn’t everyone want to save the world?” But, I know in my heart of hearts, it really isn’t specific enough.

    • I know you’ve come at Perz’s goals a number of different ways. Did you come at it from the motivation perspective? Frex, maybe she wants to save the world because she saw her parents killed by the big bad (a la Batman), and now someone else she loves is at risk and she can’t let that happen again. Or maybe her sister (iirc she has a sister) has always been the shining star and Perz is driven to prove herself, so she wants to start her own demon-fighting business and dealing with the issue in the book will establish her company as the beat in the business.

      Of course, these might have nothing to do with your story, just thinking out loud here. Whatever method you use to get there, good luck! And if you come here to share your ideas, you know we’ll give you our 2 cents :).


      • I don’t know why, but I’m really afraid to think too hard about Perz’s motivations. I just need to sit down and do it. I do know she’s a problem-solver. She’s not a diplomat, and she’d rather cut through the knot than try and untangle it. I want to say she has some sort of OCD where if people are out of place, she’s not happy.

        I think I have to stop fooling around, and just write her some more, then take a closer look at her motivations.

  2. Awesome, Nancy. Congrats on finishing the 1st draft. Each time one of the 8L annouces their draft is finished I’m inspired and motivated to join the club! You’re over half-way home now. Enjoy your downtime!

    • Thanks Kat! As I was working on my last remaining scenes, I knew there were some things I’d missed, so in some places, I will probably have to write entirely new scenes. Because of that, I don’t completely feel entitled to typing ‘The End’, but I did it anyway :).


      • That’s exactly how I am. I finished the main plot of my book (a la first draft), but my subplots are sorely lacking. There will definitely be new scenes written to support those.

        • I am also way over any kind if reasonable page count ( to be commercially viable) without thise additional scenes, so I will be cutting big chunks as well as adding. But that will be next week’s problem. For now, I’m trying to enjoy the milestone, but it is hard to make my brain stop obsessing over what I know is wrong with the darn thing!


    • Thanks! The NaNo push will either have paid off or left me with a mess on my hands. I’ll find out next week when I print it out and read it!


  3. I’m getting close to finishing the first draft of my first story. I knew, from all the articles and books I’d read that there would be a lot of changes when it came time to revise/edit. However, I wasn’t prepared for the realization that my protagonists’ goals were just too vague to carry a great story. Now I’m struggling to finish my first draft, to get the main idea and basic structure down, knowing that I’ll just have to go back and do some major changes. At least I know now, for my next story, to take the time and really plot it out with in-depth character profiles.

    • Congrats on being so close to finishing your first story! You are right, there are lessons you learned in this one that you will carry through to your next story. And then there will be something totally different that you’ll learn on that one, and every one thereafter. One of our mantras here at 8LW (a mantra we got from our mentor Jenny Crusie) is ‘it’s a process!’, and it’s ever- evolving. It’s part of the frustration of writing, but also part of the joy:).


    • Congratulations on getting so close to the end of your first draft, Darla. That’s a major achievement, so celebrate before you dive in to revision. And double congratulations on accepting that you may need to make significant changes to your story. I wasted a lot of time before I got my head around that idea.

      I swear I’m going to make sure my characters have stronger goals and a clearer conflict next time around, but I’m sure Nancy is right, even if I nail that, the new story will bring new lessons to learn.

      • Thanks 🙂 In hopes of a “smoother” process next time I’ve been researching online and plotting techniques with the help of Pinterest. I’ve found a ton of great techniques and ideas. Now the hard part will be deciding which on to try first. Lol

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