Justine: Fiction Fundamentals Part 1: Goals

Welcome to the first of at least a 10-part series on Fiction Fundamentals (referred to a week ago as Back to Basics, but Elizabeth has already trademarked that!). Over the next several weeks, I and a few guests will be discussing things new writers should consider when writing a novel. While having a great idea is certainly top on the list, there are many other topics writers should work on nailing down to make their novel strong….and salable.

goals arrowThis week’s topic: Goals (not yours…your character’s)

If you’ve attended any writing workshops at all, it’s likely you’ve heard many people talk about your character’s goals. They need to be good. They need to be strong. But how do you know if they are?

Your character’s goal is the very essence of their part of the story. It is why they’re part of it. Each of your major characters (protag, antag, love interest — which may sometimes be one in the same) should have a goal. There are two types of goals to create for your characters:

  • Internal Goals
  • External Goals

The internal goals are the intangible, emotional, spiritual sort of things…like “to be a better person” or “to feel secure.” These are all well and good (and we’ll talk about them more in a second), but they are NOT the drivers for your story. The drivers — the things that make your characters take action — are the external goals, or “outer goals,” as Deb Dixon, author of GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, calls them. (Sidenote: If you haven’t purchased this book yet, you need to…it’s the veritable bible of GMC. You can purchase it here.)

External Goals

Your character’s external goals need to be tangible. Something they can have, see, hold, touch, own, do, experience, etc. Think of your five senses…if you can experience one of your five senses with the goal, then it’s an external goal. Some examples:

  • She wants to go to the ball (Cinderella)
  • He wants to defeat Voldemort (Harry Potter)
  • She wants to return home (The Wizard of Oz)
  • He wants to return to earth after being stranded on Mars (The Martian)
  • She wants to quit being a prostitute (Pretty Woman) (Sidenote: Vivian actually has two goals…the first is to get money to pay rent, which is why she goes with Edward, but she also wants more than the life of a prostitute, which is why she agrees to stay with him for the week)

All of those goals are tangible, external goals. They shouldn’t be subtle. They shouldn’t be difficult for the reader to understand. In fact, Dixon says, “Get out the two-by-four and start whacking your reader over the head [with what your character wants].”

Another thing to consider about external goals is they shouldn’t be more of what a character already has. For example, if your character is a millionaire, their goal shouldn’t be to earn more money. That’s not strong, not interesting enough to keep the reader hooked. Goals should be what the character doesn’t have. And they should want it bad. When goals are strong, super-important to the character, and something they don’t already have, it compels your character into action, and that’s what moves your story forward.

Goals also need to be urgent. Why should the hero or heroine bother to work towards their goal if there’s no real reason to? There’s no threat to others. There’s no threat to their life. There’s no threat of being caught, kicked out, fired, or left behind. That sense of urgency compels your character into action, your reader onto the next page, and perhaps a prospective editor to find your book so riveting they can’t put it down.

Let’s look back at the goals I stated previously…they all have a time crunch to them:

  • Cinderella has to get to the ball before it ends
  • Harry has to defeat Voldemort before he takes over the world
  • Dorothy has to return home because she believes her Aunt Em is in danger
  • Astronaut Mark Watney will run out of food/water
  • Vivian needs money for rent

Be sure when you’re sitting down to write out your character’s goals that you do so for your protagonist, your antagonist, and any other major characters. Sometimes, your character’s goals will change slightly, and this is okay, if it’s part of their character arc (we’ll talk more about that in another installment).

In my WIP, Three Proposals, my heroine, Susannah’s, goal is to claim her inheritance and rescue her sister from a violent marriage. In the current draft, I don’t have her achieving that last goal at the very end of the book, and I’ve gotten some negative feedback about that. Why? Because I’ve broken the story promise. I’ve told the reader my heroine is going to do X, and, it being a romance, the reader expects a Happily Ever After. Throughout the entire book, I’ve dangled this major, external goal in front of the reader, and at the end, she doesn’t even achieve it. (There are reasons for this, namely that the second book is about her sister, but I have to figure out how to at least put Susannah in motion to complete that goal by the story’s end.)

There are two other major characters in Three Proposals (3P), and they also have strong, external goals:

  • Captain Cressingham, Susannah’s uncle and guardian, wants to marry her to his friend so they can split her dowry.
  • Nate, the hero/love interest, wants to find the evidence that proves Susannah’s uncle is a traitor.

If you’re a pantser, it’s all well and good to sit down, start writing, and see what your muse (or The Girls in the Basement, as we refer to them on Eight Ladies Writing) comes up with, but at some point, you need to take stock of your characters and make sure they all have something tangible they’re working towards.

If you’re a plotter, sitting down and writing goals will likely be on of the first things you do. At least I hope. 🙂

Internal Goals

Internal goals typically go hand-in-hand with the external goals. In some cases, the external goals are necessary to achieve the internal goals. Examples of internal goals include feeling secure, wanting to live, finding acceptance, or being a better person.

For each one of these internal goals, there’s something specific the character can do to achieve it (the external goal). Some examples are in the table below.

Sample Internal Goal Sample External Goal to Achieve Internal Goal
Feeling secure Inherit her money (my heroine in 3P)
Wanting to live Returning to earth safely (The Martian)
Finding acceptance Attend the ball with her stepsisters (Cinderella)
Being a better person Quit turning tricks (Vivian in Pretty Woman)

In GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, Deb Dixon gives Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz the internal goal of finding her heart’s desire. But the external goal to help achieve that is returning home.

If you’ve written out your character’s goals and they’re nebulous and perhaps tied to emotions, it’s likely you’ve found their internal goal. Think about what sort of action or event would help measure that and you have your external goal.

Summary

What I’ve touched on here is the very foundation of setting character goals. It’s bare-bones kind of stuff, but if you master this, you’re well on your way to creating some compelling characters that will draw your reader in and make them care.

To recap:

  • Every major character in your story, good and bad, needs external goals.
  • External goals should tangible, ownable, and/or touchable with a clear way to measure whether or not the character is successful.
  • Internal goals are more tied to emotions, less specific.
  • Goals should be urgent, pressing, or should present a threat to the character if not achieved.

Next installment: Motivation. The “Why” for achieving an external goal. After that, putting it all together to create Conflict.

3 thoughts on “Justine: Fiction Fundamentals Part 1: Goals

  1. Good discussion. Something must drive the characters forward. I struggled with this when trying to write a novel for the first time. I had some interesting characters on the page, but I didn’t know what to make them do. As a result, the writing got stale and I abandoned the project. A character can be as interesting and quirky and well described as you like, but without a goal, no one will be reading about them. Look forward to reading more in this series. Happy writing! – Josiah

    • I struggled with this, too. Particularly internal goals, but I found that setting a good, strong external goal often sets up the internal goal quite nicely. The interesting part about writing (I’ve found as I’ve started 3 different WIPs now) is that when you have strong external goals, the story can sometimes write itself. At each major crossroads (which we’ll discuss in the installment on Conflict), you just have to think about what your character has to do next to stay on the path of achieving their goal.

      Thanks for your comment, Josiah! Happy writing to you, too.

  2. I saved this for the weekend, when I’d have time to really read and think about it. The protagonist in my WIP has a clear goal–to regain ownership of her mother’s last painting. It takes 4 chapters before it’s clear that she’s in trouble achieving that goal. Not sure if that’s a problem or not. I’ll have to wait and see what my beta readers think.

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