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.

12 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.

    • I’m curious as to why the hero isn’t part (or can’t be part) of the heroine’s goal? Can they not work together? Can he be an impediment to her goal? That would make for some super-juicy conflict, if he’s getting in the way of what she wants to achieve (and she’s attracted to him, too).

      • Hi, I am trying to figure out how to get him on board with her goal. She wants to divorce her husband and create a new life for herself and her son and the hero wants to get her into bed. I’d like to have him fall for her and want to help her with her goal but I thought this might be too sappy. Your thoughts?

        • So my first question is what is his goal? Besides getting her into bed? Doesn’t he have something that he’s trying to achieve as well? Each of your characters should have a goal, even the “bad guys.”

        • I’ve been thinking about your comment more and should probably add to mine…I think what makes many books good reads are when both the hero and heroine are out to achieve something unique for themselves, but their paths either cross or they run parallel, but face other challenges. Think of their goals like corduroy…when you rub it one way, it feels great (easy goal). Rub it another way, and it chafes a bit (more challenging goal). But rub two pieces of corduroy together (i.e., two people’s goals), and it creates friction. That’s what your objective should be when writing.

          Having a singular goal of getting a girl into bed is a bit shallow, IMO. What happens when he achieves the goal? Does he move on? Is his life over? Does he whip up a new goal? Why is that his goal anyway? Is she eye candy? Does she have a lot of money? What does he appreciate about her? What does he gain when he wins her?

          What would be more fun to read, I think, and what would create more conflict (do read the posts on conflict, because it’s a necessary ingredient in good fiction), is if he has to AVOID getting her in bed. Say she takes a new job and he’s her boss or supervisor? That would create some wonderful conflict. He’s starting a new project that he needs to succeed or he’s out on the street, but perhaps her child is sick and she’s absent a lot and that puts the project at risk? On the flip side, she’s struggling with single life, making ends meet, paying the doctor’s bills, and not losing her job…and all the while, these two co-workers are magnetically attracted to each other and yet they can’t go there…he respects the rules of the office and she’s not emotionally ready for a new relationship.

          GMC (goals, motivation, and conflict) are the building blocks of good fiction. Conflict is not simply two people disagreeing or one person saying “No.” It’s when one person’s goals run counter to another person’s goals. By giving your characters strong external goals, you set them up for great conflict. 🙂

        • This may be stupid, but do you know what her specific goal is? You don’t have to share it if you don’t want to, but you need to know it. “Create a new life for herself” is too vague. I’m trying to think of good fictional examples, but am blanking. But, say, she decides that her volunteer work at the pet shelter has been successful, so now she’s going to leave her husband and become a pet trimmer to support herself and her son. There’s a solid goal. But something blocks it — maybe an evil landlord? That’s always a good bet. If you also put your hero in conflict with the Evil Landlord, then your pair can work together, and find themselves falling in love.

          We learned a lot about conflict blocks from Jennifer Crusie, but I’m not always sure how they work in a real romance. I think a big problem in our modern day is that there aren’t that many blocks to romance. We’re not told we can’t marry or even date anyone, really. Possibly, the son is the main consideration/obstacle. She doesn’t want to date Hero because she’s afraid he’ll turn out to be just like the Ex. Hero doesn’t care — he’ll take her, kid and all. But then the story can become quite dark if you aren’t careful. Or a “romancing the kid” story, which I haven’t seen done in a sexy fashion (although, I will admit, I haven’t read a lot of things in that category).

          It’s easier to treat the pair as a protagonist against a big-bad outside force antagonist, IMO.

        • In response to Micki’s comments, I actually think there are lots of great conflicts in modern contemporary romances. He’s just taken a new job and it’s on the other side of the world, but she can’t leave because she’s caring for her ailing mother/sister/best friend. She’s the boss, he’s the hire. She owns a little bookstore that’s being challenged by the big-box store opening up the street, run by Mr. Hunky Bookdude. She’s just out of a relationship and trying to start a catering business and he’s the investigator on a murder that happened on her property. He takes a bet and asks a girl out and she learns about it and swears she’ll have nothing to do with him.

          I think you just have to look at the common contemporary tropes to see what’s popular (I know someone did a poll recently on some FB group I belong to in order to see what the favorite tropes in historicals are — I think the arranged marriage won by a long shot). It’d be interesting to see if anyone has done a poll for contemporary tropes.

  3. I was thinking about the conflict in Bet Me after I posted, and that’s one way of looking at it. I think it’s very much about Min wanting to create a new life for herself (well, actually, she doesn’t even know she wants to create a new life for herself! Her friends are pushing her to do it, Fate is pushing her to do it, but her mother wants to hold her back). Cal makes it seem possible that she can make changes! He introduces butter back into her life, for goodness sakes, and makes it possible for her to challenge her mother’s narrative. But it is an important block that she can’t date Cal because he’s the kind of guy who would make a bet on a date. (Of course, it’s all a Giant Misunderstanding, which can backfire, but Crusie really does a great job with making the Giant Misunderstanding not be a stupid misunderstanding.)

    I really like it when authors pull an old trope into the 21st century. Marriage of convenience — marriage for visa purposes. The very old rich person/poor person trope — reverse the gender, or make it more about wealth rather than social status. Even the poor duke/wealthy commoner trope can be brought into the 21st century if the guy’s wealth is on paper or tied up, and the lady is in some sort of business that doesn’t get any respect, like maybe a Cardi B sort of character who has a lot of business acumen and talent.

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