The Truth About Goals in Storytelling (Hint: Your Character Should Have One)

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. Beta reading, manuscript reading, book reading (damn you and your trilogies, Chuck Wendig!), and I’m noticing something interesting.

It is easy for writers, even really good, talented writers, to write 250 pages about a character with no real goal or motivation. And hot damn, is it easy for a reader to be distracted by great writing! But it’s hard to escape the feeling that something is wrong, that something isn’t clicking. That the main character’s actions aren’t making sense, or meander. Maybe halfway through the writer realized his character had no true purpose, and so created one on a flimsy premise.

I think that, for me, that novel would be incredibly difficult to write. How, how do you get that far into your story before realizing you don’t know what your character wants? Knowing the goal, knowing the purpose, and why, is the only thing that keeps me going, even through bouts of writer’s block (read: procrastination). Knowing the goal, and therefore the ending, for me, determines the entire course of my stories. And of course along with having a goal, you have to have stakes – what happens if your MC does not attain his/her goal? What happens if he/she does? Is there a moral dilemma in reaching it? What about his/her friends, family, coworkers?

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This is the biggest and most basic building block for your plot.

The only exceptions to this I’ve seen are stories that actively, consciously lack a character goal. A character whose goal is to do nothing, and therefore brings a rain of hellfire onto his/her head and must decide whether they are okay with the hellfire, or whether they will be called to action and do something. This strategy works, if done well, but only once – you cannot have every book in a series follow this, it’s just too frustrating for the reader.

Character goal and stakes are integral to your story – do not skip out on them, or your story will suffer.

That was my PSA for the day. You may continue with your regularly scheduled life.

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