In real life, we spend our lives striving towards goals – some achievable, some not so, but most of the goals we set ourselves are attainable, whether that’s saving to buy a new car, planning a dream house, getting married, saving for the future, planning a dream holiday or a family...or perhaps learning a new language, or gaining a degree. They are all goals.
Just as in real life, your characters also need affirming goals. And once they have those goals, it’s then down to how you get your character to reach them that actually makes the narrative captivating.
But what exactly are goals?
Your character needs objectives in order to proceed to the story’s denouement, the climax, because without these objectives there will be no obstacles, and without obstacles there will be no conflict or tension, and without conflict or tension you don’t really have a story.
This is shown in the following simple method:
Character Goal/objective → a purpose → the obstacle → overcoming obstacle = fulfilment of goal
Try to set your character’s goals early on – they may change during story writing, so you need to allow for those changes, because if a character’s goal does change then so will the outcome.
Goals don’t have to be overcomplicated either. They can be small or they can be on a grand scale, as long as there are enough of them to create enough tension and atmosphere. They can be nail biting, terrifying, sad, or even happy. But it’s how the character fulfils the goal that’s important.
By giving your character a goal or two to reach, you are giving them a purpose. It’s their whole raison d’être. It’s the reason why your characters put themselves through the story in the first place.
Every goal needs obstacles. There must be a barrier for your character to overcome, and again this forms the tense thread that you weave through your story.
Let's take a simple example. One of your characters (character B) falls overboard from a yacht and needs rescuing, but your protagonist (character A) is terrified of the water and is frozen with fear at the thought of diving into the deep. The question is, can he or she overcome the fear to rescue their loved one? Or will character B drown needlessly?
Here, the goal of character A is to rescue character B, the purpose is to save the character and sail off into the sunset together, but the obstacle is character A’s deep-set fear of water. This creates tension and atmosphere for the reader. It also creates conflict - inner conflict.
Character A must overcome that irrational fear and dive in to save character B – a heroic and selfless feat – and thus fulfil his or her goal.
Perhaps the goal of a character is to find a missing person, but there are several obstacles in the way – lack of evidence, uncooperative witnesses, a bothersome, nosey journalist...all these can form barriers for your protagonist to overcome, one way or another.
Character motivation will determine what they do to try to solve the particular problems you set them. They will have a goal, a purpose, and they will need to reach that goal, whatever happens.
How they reach their goals is entirely down to the writer, and how well they write their twists and turns.
There are no set rules, so a writer can be as gentle or as callous as they like with their characters. Don’t be afraid to give your characters a hard time – this makes the conflict and tension all the more enjoyable for the reader.
One important note - your characters should not sail through your story without a care or a problem in the world. Real life is tough. The same is true for your characters. They must face problems during their journey and they must always reach their goal.