Jilly: Girls, Guys and Gainsaid Goals

Guys, Girls and Gainsaid GoalsWe know that a character with a negative goal usually makes for a boring read. What about a character with a strong, positive goal that’s clearly destined to fail?

When I curl up on the sofa with a romance novel, two things are a given (and if not delivered there will be major Book Sulk). One is that the relationship between the hero and heroine will be front and center. Their love story will provide the spine of the book and all the major turning points; all subplots will feed this central story in some way. The other cast-iron guarantee is that no matter how dark matters become, everything will turn out beautifully in the end. Our Girl and Our Guy will make a commitment to one another and will live happily ever after.

I expect that Our Girl and Our Guy will both have a goal, and a motivation that drives them tirelessly towards that goal. The story will get its juice from the clash of those goals, which must be so important to them that neither can give up, so they push and challenge and change each other in an escalating battle that most likely ends with a victory for one and a psychic death and reinvention for the other.

Which brings me to my question.

If Our Girl has a goal that’s incompatible with her attraction to Our Guy, then no matter how credible that goal is, we kind-of-sort-of know that by the end of the story she’s not going to get it (or want it). Does that detract from the story? And if not, given that we know what’s going to happen to that goal, how much attention do you pay to it? It has to be real, it has to make sense, and it has to be important enough to sustain a whole story, but how much is that? Do you need lots of information to give the goal power and establish it as a credible obstacle to the love story, or would you prefer a deft sketch with minimal details?

For example:

In Tessa Dare’s most recent book Say Yes to the Marquess, the heroine, Clio, has been waiting years for her fiancé to come home and marry her. It’s beyond embarrassing. When she inherits a castle (as you do!), she gains the means to support herself and decides she’d rather start a brewery than marry a highly eligible man who obviously doesn’t care about her. She asks her fiancé’s brother (Rafe, the hero) to sign the paperwork bringing the engagement to an end. Instead, Rafe decides to persuade Clio to go ahead with the wedding, even though he’s had the hots for her since forever.

Very fun setup. We know what’s going to happen, and we can sit back and enjoy watching it unfold. How much do we learn about the heroine’s brewery goal? Just enough to flavor the story and show us she actually does know how to make beer and has a realistic plan for her new business. Would you want more than that? Personally, I’m happy that Clio has a goal that has launched the story and that I’ve had enough details to satisfy myself that she’s on a mission and the mission isn’t completely token. I don’t really care about hops or brewing or light ale or dark, and honestly I don’t give much of a damn whether she ends up making beer or not. And by the by, I don’t need too many deets about Piers-the-fiancé either. I want to see Clio wrangling with Rafe over flowers, dresses and cake, and I’m glad to say that’s exactly what I get. Yay!

Or, in the fabulous Oscar-winning movie Moonstruck, Cher is engaged to marry Nicholas Cage’s older brother, Danny Aiello. It’s a match that’s all about security and community, not love, and it’s clearly doomed from the moment Danny makes his cringe-worthy marriage proposal. Fortunately, he disappears to Sicily immediately afterwards and stays there for almost the entire movie, leaving the stage clear for Cher to discover passion and true love with Nick. Works for me 🙂 .

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot over the last few days after an email exchange I had with regular 8LW visitor Rachel Beecroft (hi, Rachel!) about my recently-finished manuscript Dealing With McKenzie. A comment she made prompted me to go back and look in more detail at the very different ways individual beta readers had responded to my heroine’s goal.

So where do you stand on this? As long as a character’s goal makes sense and sets up a good story, do you care if it’s clearly destined to fail? And if it’s doomed from the start, does that make a difference to how much you want to know about it?

16 thoughts on “Jilly: Girls, Guys and Gainsaid Goals

  1. In romance and women’s fiction, I’m less concerned about the protagonist’s goal than I am about their character arc. Their goal needs to set them up to learn whatever it is they need to learn to achieve happiness or become a better person. That’s less true when I’m reading suspense or action/adventure.

    Or is it? Now I’m thinking about maguffins and realizing that whatever fuels the plot may just be a device, as long as it gets the characters moving is a clear direction.

    • Their goal needs to set them up to learn whatever it is they need to learn to achieve happiness or become a better person – exactly where I got to after a couple of days of head-scratching, except I didn’t express it so neatly. Thanks, Jeanne.

  2. Hi back to you Jilly! Interesting question – I’m going to think about this and get back to you later. The totally off the top of my head thought is that if the H/H goals clash (hurray, conflict), then changing goals (in line with character arc) must be an integral part of the story. If I remember correctly, in Castles Ever After, one of the excellent things was that there were aspects of Rafe that meant that he would be perfect to be part of the beer goals.

    Must dash – due home in one minute!

    • Actually, you’re right that Clio gets to keep her beer goal – it’s Rafe’s goal of getting Clio safely married off to his brother that’s doomed from the outset. I suppose the brewery felt like a way to get the story started and set up Clio’s character but then it mostly faded into the background and I didn’t really notice or mind. It did come into play again at the end, but for me that felt more like a tidy finish than an important aspect of the story.

      • So we know that Rafe’s goal is doomed but it’s the how it’s going to be doomed that’s interesting. In that case, we do need to know a goodly amount about Rafe’s motivation because that it’s what underpins all of this actions for most of the story.

        Agree about the beer sub-plot – just added colour and depth to her character and – big plus – strengthened the feeling that these two are perfect for each other (look, they can make beer together!).

        • Yes. Rafe’s goal is directly relevant to the romance plot, so we need to know much more about it. I liked the beer because it strengthened the impression of compatibility and also because it gave the impression of Clio as a girl who wanted to become self-sufficient, not a ninny who exchanged one man for another. I didn’t feel it drove her actions, though, just gave her a nice flavour of independence.

  3. Well . . . somebody’s got to die the psychic death (they say). Or die for real, if it’s that kind of story.

    A lot of people with interesting stories don’t know what their goal is, or they have misguided goals. The goal changes along the way as circumstances change.

    But I agree with you that for a satisfying ending, they have to get something, through their own efforts/agency, and they have to be happy about it. Other people may be able to accept tragic ends, but there has to be something else amazing going on for me to be satisfied with a tragic ending.

    One problem that I often have with romances is that the heroine (rarely the hero) has to give up something in order to get the love interest. And I don’t think the love interest is really enough to make up for what the other person lost. It’s a problem I have with His Girl Friday (I’m glad she got her newspaper career back — not so impressed that he comes with the package), and to some extent, It Happened One Night. The silly misunderstanding right before the end makes me wonder if he’s really such a catch.

    This is NOT a problem with your story, IMO. The heroine does give up something, but she gains in that same area, as well as winning the love of her life. (Whoops, was that a spoiler? LOL, romance genre — that’s a given.)

    That’s the strange alchemy of romance though — by giving up his/her goal, the protagonist dies a psychic death, but gains something even greater and more wonderful. (Lord of Scoundrels — the guy must give up his arrogant, lonely ways, but it’s all for the best, really.)

  4. Oh, no, Micki – spoiler – you gave away the ending of my book 😉 .

    Actually, I think my girl’s goal doesn’t really change; she gets what she always wanted, she was just looking for it in the wrong place and – because reasons – didn’t recognize it when it was right under her nose. And a bonus Highland hottie doesn’t hurt, either.

    • Yes, I think sometimes even the writer can be blinded by the goal of the ultimate goal of the character. We think SHE wants XXZ, because when we are in her head, that’s all she’s thinking about. And then she discovers she wants XYZ, and we’re like, “Oh, that’s perfect!”

      LOL, can you tell I’m character-led when I write? I can try plotting, but if I go the wrong way, the characters sit down and strike . . . . But anyway, back to your point — I see. The goal isn’t really changing, but the character’s definition of the goal changes.

  5. I guess I’m in the minority that I want something of that outside plot—more than window dressing. I wouldn’t have to know about how to grow hops, either, but I would want to see how having this brewery establishes her as an independent person, what about it makes her want it, what she gets out of it, why that and not something else. And I do care if the goal fails. For me, the storytelling has to be exceptional for me to buy that a long-held goal can be rendered pointless by story’s end because the guy shows up. Didn’t we talk in McD about how the goal had to be something you’d struggle to the death for? If the goal is something like “establish an independent income by working the land,” then I think changing the goal from beer brewing to sheep raising doesn’t much matter. But if it switches from beer brewing to latching onto a new hero who lives in the country, I’m much less enthusiastic.

    • Thanks, Kay. Off the top of your head, can you (or anyone else) think of an excellent story where the heroine’s long-held goal fails but the story still works for you? Would Moonstruck count?

      • Hello – just flicked through kindle library to see if I could find a story that fitted the bill – was interested to find that I couldn’t. Though I could find things that linked to Justine’s point below – i.e. the external goal changed because of the relationship with hero but the internal motivation/internal goal didn’t. (This thought occurred to me when I noticed Faro’s Daughter on the list. If I remember correctly, Debs abandons her external goal – run successful gaming house – but her internal goal (keep family afloat) remains very much intact. I know that’s not a brilliant example because obviously we know she doesn’t really want to be running a gaming house.)

        Also, still thinking about earlier point re the amount of information about the goal – I don’t mind whether it’s less or more (depends on the story) but the issue here is that I have to understand the goal. Or rather I have to understand the goal through the character’s eyes.

        So, to take both of these points specifically to Dealing with McKenzie, I would say: a) this makes me realise that my problem with Rose and Terramar is that I didn’t really understand her deep down motivation here. We knew that she’s always wanted to live in Terramar, but why? Is it because of her father? Her childhood? The she wants to be an artistic recluse? That she wants to be part of a dynamic commercial community?

        b) If I could perhaps see (briefly) Terramar through Rose’s eyes, I might understand why she wants it so much. (One example – what would her life be like there? How would her life be different there from here?).

      • I’m not sure Moonstruck counts, because Loretta wants to marry the “right” guy, right? Would we say that’s the goal? And then her idea of who the right guy is changes. Initially she thinks it’s the guy who represents security, and then later, it’s the guy who’d chew his foot off to get away from the wrong woman. Yowza.

        Rachel pointed out Faro’s Daughter, and I love that book. Rachel’s right that Deb doesn’t really want to run a gambling establishment, but she does want to protect her family. That’s probably her goal. And she had considered marrying very unsuitably and horribly just for the money, to achieve that goal. By marrying Ravenscar, she protects her family and gets her HEA, too. That is such a great book.

        It’s maybe not the best example of a heroine changing long-held goals, but I can think of Jenny’s “Faking It.” For decades, Tilda lied to and hid from the world to protect herself and her family, too, by hiding the counterfeit paintings and paying off—what was it? The mortgage? (This about a book I’ve read I bet a dozen times. It just shows you how some of this stuff is just McGuffins.) And at first she’s all about hiding who and what she and her family are (forgers), but at the end, they’re going to sell the paintings—yay! That was tough for Tilda to accept. But then, Davy was a thief, so it all worked out. 🙂

        • There’s gotta be a real term for this. I agree so much with what you’ve said, Kay. There’s a deep goal, and then there are the surface goals. The deep goal doesn’t change. (Safety, security, enough to eat, someone to love), but the surface goals can change quite dramatically as long as they still reflect getting what the deep goal was.

          My girl needs safety and security. Right now, she interprets that as setting up her own photo studio and making enough money to avoid the hard-scrabble life her mother had to lead as a widow. (-: She’s a little bit deluded, since photography isn’t always a real profitable business. But she’s a good photographer, and she doesn’t want to throw that away, either.

          I wonder how “using one’s gifts” fits into the entire equation? Some gifts are driven gifts — we feel compelled to use them. Other gifts, we take for granted. My daughters do great art, but neither of them feel like they want to become artists or designers. And my youngest neglects the talents she has in those directions — I fear part of it is because she doesn’t feel as good at it as her older sister. What do we name that rivalry sort of motivation? It’s not really a safety or other Maslow motivation, I don’t think. But it is very powerful, too.

    • Yeah, but there are the goals of the main plot (which should be a struggle to the death), and there are the goals of the subplot (which can vary in intensity, but should be still quite intense). In a romance, the woman’s journey is going to be a subplot, and gaining the stated goals are negotiable. But if she doesn’t get the Love of Her Life, romance readers will go away disappointed.

      Women’s journey is the opposite — there might be a romantic sub-plot, and it’s OK if he’s just a For-Now kind of guy. The important thing is that if the woman doesn’t Establish Her Independence, it’s disappointing.

      Of course, in the best of all worlds, the protag’s struggle is intense on all fronts, but s/he gets both Love and Independence. (-: And good luck reconciling the two so that Independence doesn’t just mean freedom from X and dependence upon the love interest.

      What else are the Big Goals of fiction? Save the World. Although, I think that may be a surface goal, not a deep goal. Establishing Interdependence (building community) could also be one.

  6. This makes me think a lot about Susannah’s goal. It doesn’t change, really…she still wants to help her sister, but her sister ends up taking a back seat to the love of her life, for a time. She’s no longer solely focused on getting her $$ and getting out of England, she detours to save Nate’s life.

    Does she achieve her goal? No. She doesn’t. At least in this book. But when we get to Isabelle’s book (if I ever get there…sheesh), Susannah will be front-and-center with her sister to ensure she gets the freedom and happiness Susannah feels she deserves.

    So, will Susannah not achieving her goal put a reader off? I’m not sure. Guess I’ll find out. 🙂 What I can say, though, is that part of Susannah’s goal is driven by her distrust of men, and that’s definitely part of her character arc.

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