What Does Your Character Want?

photo by piovasco

photo by piovasco

Here’s the thing about plots–without characters they don’t work. Without Cinderella there’s no one to go to the ball or lose a slipper. The evil stepmother has no one to subjugate. And the prince has no one to send his Duke after.

Here’s the thing about characters–without something to do, they fall flat. If Cinderella doesn’t want to break free from her evil stepmother’s manipulation or find her happily every after, she’d never go to the ball, and there would be no story to tell.

An example from my best friend. Last weekend we went on a road trip so I could write and she could take some yoga classes. She asked about the book I’m currently writing, so I explained my heroine’s dilemma and all the reasons she couldn’t end up with the man that she’s falling in love with as he’s trying to protect her from a stalker. My friend looked at me, shook her head, and said, “If I were writing that book, it would go something like, ‘Jack and Jill got some coffee and went to a yoga class. The end.'”

She was joking, but she makes a good point. (And I should point out that she’s a fabulous writer–just not a novelist.) Good fiction writers distinguish themselves by having both interesting characters and an enticing plot. So how does a writer find them and put them together?

Ray Bradbury said, “First, find out what your hero wants. Then just follow him.”

That sounds easy enough. What does your character want? That’s her goal. Without a goal, your character has nothing to do but twiddle his thumbs. His world is just fine. He doesn’t want or need change. He’s on no journey. And without his goal, you have no story.

Your character should have a strong desire at the beginning of your story, and he should always be working toward it in some way. It could be any number of things?

  • To go home.
  • To kill the beast.
  • To find the diamonds.
  • To stop the crime.
  • To solve the mystery.
  • To get a date.
  • To rescue the girl.
  • To rescue himself.

But it’s not enough to have just any old goal. The goal needs to be concrete. There needs to be some physical manifestation of the goal, something concrete enough to drive your character.

I love Randy Ingermanson’s example. He asks what every Miss America contestant wants: world peace, of course. But that’s an abstract, nebulous concept. Who or what defines the achievement of world peace? However, if Miss America says, “We’ll have world peace when all nuclear weapons are abolished,” now we know what her concrete goal is. Specifics not only help your character to come alive, they help you as a writer keep the story always heading in the right direction. When the goal is clear, the track may be windy, but at least you’ll know where the finish line is.

And as readers, we root for the character to reach her goal. This helps us invest not only in the character but also in the story as a whole.

Once the goal is clear, then we have to ask another question that is equally as important. Why does the character want what he wants? What’s his motivation? What drives him toward that identified goal?

For Matt, the hero of my book A Promise to Protect, his goal is to protect his best friend’s little sister, Ashley. And what motivates him to do that? What causes him to be willing to risk his own life for hers? He tells her early on in the book: “Your brother asked me for a favor. We’ve been watching out for each other since day one of BUD/S, and I’m not going to let him down. He’s the only family I’ve got.”

In a nutshell, Matt considers Ashley family. Her brother is his closest friend, so when the story starts, he views her almost like a sister. And we can dig a little deeper into what drives that commitment to family. Matt grew up an unwanted, unloved boy, forgotten in an unfair foster care system. At fifteen, he was finally placed in a foster home with loving parents, and once he’d tasted the joy of family, he wasn’t going to ever risk losing it again. He knew the pain of not having a family, and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep the only family he has.

A few tips for identifying your character’s goals:

  1. Keep it specific. Getting from point A to B isn’t enough. Getting from New York to LA to stop your ex-boyfriend’s wedding because you might still love him is.
  2. Make sure there is a tangible manifestation of the goal. To be happy is not clear enough. To fall in love is again too broad. Who does your character want to marry? How does that love manifest itself?
  3. Keep it universal. Make sure that your character’s goal appeals to a broad audience, not just a niche. Let’s consider Finding Nemo. It could be said that Nemo’s father Marlin’s goal is to rescue his son from a dentist aquarium. That’s not a very relatable goal for most of us. We don’t have sons who’ve been kidnapped by scuba-diving dentists. But if we dig a little deeper, we see that Marlin’s real goal is to protect his son and keep his family together. That’s a goal that most parents and families can relate to.
  4. Make it distant so your character has to work for it. But keep it attainable. An unattainable goal is no fun for the writer or the reader. No one wants to read about someone who never had a chance.

Without a strong a goal and clear motivation, your characters will fall flat, and your readers will struggle to connect with them. Have that goal in mind—write it down if you want to—and keep it close. Then keep writing toward it.

Happy writing!

What’s your best advice for identifying a character’s goal?

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8 thoughts on “What Does Your Character Want?

  1. jessicarpatch says:

    Excellent tips, Liz! I’m going to bookmark this!

  2. Michelle Lim says:

    This is great, Liz! I’m all about character goals. I think it is a suspense writer thing to love them. That let us mix it all up for everyone and cause conflict in our novels. If I ever get stuck on my character goals, sometimes I ask myself what is the worst thing that could happen to my character right now. Then the opposite is often the goal. Not always, but sometimes it works. A goal can even be how to not make that worst thing happen.

    • Liz Johnson says:

      Michelle, I love the idea of figuring out what the character DOESN’T want to happen. That’s a great idea! Sometimes that is his goal–don’t get caught with the money from the robbery. 🙂

  3. michelle says:

    I keep hearing your voice: “so what?”

    • Liz Johnson says:

      Oh, dear! I don’t know if I should feel honored or a little terrified that my voice is in your head. 🙂 But I hear yours in mine sometimes when I’m writing, too. 🙂

  4. Gail Helgeson says:

    Thanks…bookmarking this. Helps me so much.

  5. Great tips and I’m bookmarking it, too. Yeah, I know about hearing Michelle’s voice…What’s the goal of this chapter? What does your character want that you’re not going to give him. lol

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