Your main character must have a goal; otherwise there is no backbone to your story. Their goal(s) form the heart of the entire story, they form part of the reason your character embarks on their journey in the first place. This could be anything from saving someone’s life, averting a disaster, solving a crime, uncovering the truth about something or someone, rescuing the girl (or boy), finding love, getting revenge or even saving the world etc. All of these are goals for which characters strive.
There is one thing that must always happen in a story, whatever the goal - the character must achieve his or her goal by the end of the story. If they don’t, you will leave your reader feeling short-changed, and your character will have achieved little or nothing at all, because by achieving their goals – what they set out to do at the beginning of a story – is their personal journey which will ultimately change them by the end of the story.
Characters with goals make for an interesting story. Characters without goals, however, make little or no story. If we think of real life, we all have goals in one form or another, whether they are the small day-to-day goals, or the grand life-changing goals. The only difference is that we don’t have 85,000 words in which to accomplish them.
One of the main reasons for giving your characters goals is that you are giving them motivation, and without motivation, there is no movement within your story, and ultimately, no conflict.
Goal = motivation = conflict = overcoming problems = resolution, goal achievement and character change.
This shows that your character has to change in some way by the end of their journey, so upon achieving his or her goal - whether they have learned something about themselves, learned about other people, their environs, or whether they have fundamentally changed because of what has happened to them – they must be seen by the reader to have changed in some way.
As the writer, you have to show the reader how and why your character has changed as they have strived to achieve their goals. This is their personal development – just like ours in real life.
And just like real life, they can have more than one goal within the story, large or small, as long as they are realistic and relate to the story (avoid wildly unrealistic ones).
But why must a character have a goal in the first place?
- It gives the character something to strive for – the story has to be about something. Having an ultimate goal forms the backbone of the story.
- It provides motivation – to achieve the goal the character must embark on his or her journey forward and forms part of the story. Without motivation, there isn’t much point to the story.
- It’s a driving factor to move the story forward – the fact that your character has to reach the goal – be it to save the girl or find the serial killer etc – it moves the story forward to its conclusion.
- It acts as a catalyst for subplot development – the character’s journey towards his or her goal(s) might provide subplot opportunities and further goals and subsequent barrier/conflicts to overcome.
- It gives the characters and story purpose – just as in real life, without goals to strive for, then there is no personal development taking place, and the same is true of your characters.
So, the answer to the question - does a character really need goals? Yes, always. They need purpose, they need to strive to achieve something, they need to personally develop and they need motivation, because without all these you won’t achieve a satisfactory resolution or conclusion to the story.
Next week: How to use subtext.