Character Desires versus Character Goals
The difference between a character with a desire and a character with a goal is the difference between a passive character and an active (read: more interesting) character. Characters without goals are naturally more passive – they don’t specifically know what they need to do, so they don’t do anything at all.
Giving your character a goal gives them the chance to be active – the chance to do something to better their situation. Even if a character chooses not to achieve a goal, the choice is still an active one. It just moves the plot along in a different direction.
Characters without goals are, at best, reactive to the things happening around them. They lack agency.
Character motivation and writer’s block
If you’ve ever twiddled your thumbs in front of a blank computer screen and thought, so… what happens next?, it is very likely that your character lacks an immediate goal, especially on the scene-level. You’re trying to think of an external, plot-relevant stimulus to prod your character into action (see the above statement about reactive characters), but what you really need is a string of events that tie your character’s arc to the story’s ending.
If you have a Big-picture goal, but aren’t sure how to get there from where you are, try breaking it into smaller parts, or scene goals. Write a single sentence for each scene goal (Example: In order to escape the evil tree people, Frank first needs to find a car, Fix his chainsaw, get to the lumber mill, etc. ). and use these as working titles for each scene. You know – to keep yourself on track.
So, having a clear goal is obviously important…but many people think they have a goal for their character, but what they really have is a desire. How can you tell if your character has a desire or a goal? Read on to find out!
Characteristics of a desire
-not easy to define concretely and is difficult to verbalize; vague
-not easily achievable
-the character is usually not consciously aware of the desire
-the character does not know how to achieve the desire
Example of a desire:
Frank wants to be a better person.
But what does it mean to be a better person? It’s completely subjective – one person might say that it means not cheating on your tax return anymore, while some might say it’s actively doing more good, like volunteering at the local animal shelter. Both of these things are goals – they’re vaguer than we’d like – but at least we know what our character is working towards.
Plus, there’s no point where we can say Frank actually achieves his goal, because you can always be better.
Now, let’s contrast that with the characteristics of a goal:
Characteristics of a goal:
– easily defined and understood
– achievable in the short-term (or can be broken down into steps that are achievable in the short term)
-the character (and the reader) is consciously aware of the goal
-the character (and the reader) knows how to achieve the goal
Example of a goal: Frank needs to escape from the evil tree people.
See how much more defined that is? Even though we don’t know exactly how Frank is going to escape, we know what the parameters of the goal are, and where Frank will be once his achieved his goal – away from the clutches of whatever humanoid-trees have him in their clutches.
Scene-level goals vs. Big Picture Goals
Big picture goals are large-scale, and encompass the entire story. The main plot of the story follows the protagonist trying to achieve the goal. When the big picture goal is achieved, the story ends.
Example: Mario wants to save Princess Peach from Bowser; In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry must destroy every horcrux in order to defeat Voldemort.
Here is a quick breakdown of how the goal progresses throughout the story:
Problem arises (story begins) > Goal is developed > Character tries to achieve goal > Character either fails or succeeds (story ends)
Notice that the character does not necessarily achieve their goal – failure is an option. In fact, many characters will not succeed as they perceived success at the start – either new developments in the story create an alternative ending, or the character arcs sufficiently that they realize the original goal wasn’t that important after all.
Scene level goals are the smaller goals that make up the big goal. Mario can’t just stroll up and save Peach right away – if it was that easy, there wouldn’t be any tension or investment in the characters – there wouldn’t be any story. Each new goal starts a new scene, and the scene ends when the character succeeds or (more likely) fails.
Examples: All the little ‘levels’ Mario must beat before he can rescue Peach; Destroying every horcrux in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Each new scene should build off the preceding scenes and raise the stakes – otherwise you’re dealing with a String of Pearls. Things need to get harder.
Also, it’s not necessary that the character knows all of the scene-goals there will be before he can accomplish the Big-picture goal – there is room for mystery and suspense!
Motivation is goal-fuel
Now, this doesn’t mean that your character doesn’t need to have motivations. In fact, the goals your character has should stem from their motivations – He wants to achieve the concrete goal because it somehow relates to his desires. This is the reason he doesn’t give up when the going gets tough, even though most other people would in that situation. Having a character desire that somehow relates to the goal in this way automatically makes your plot more character-driven.