Creative Writing Advice #6: Character Goals


Today’s Writing Secret comes from author Cynthia Harrison. Cynthia has been blogging daily at A Writer's Diary since 2002. She's a book critic and creative writing teacher. In 2007, Cindy published Your Words, Your Story, a self-help book for aspiring writers.

Character Goals

When revising a manuscript, one of the first things I do is make sure every important character has a clear goal. This is crucial because blocked goals generate conflict, jack up story tension and allow readers to walk in the world of the book. Readers love to see characters attain goals.

A goal can be anything. It can be a deep secret, disclosed only by actions, not by words, like when a married woman who wants to give up her lover stops answering the telephone. Or maybe it’s wide open and obvious, like the goal of a detective in a mystery to identify a murderer. Goals can change and expand over the course of a longer work. They can set up a story question that is only answered just before the story is over. Maybe the married woman is the detective and she thinks her lover is the killer. Is he? That’s the story question.

All stories, not just mysteries, can be beautifully supported by character goals. It’s particularly artful if, in longer works, each character’s goal is related thematically to the others. Maybe every important character in the story of the married woman detective and her possibly murderous lover wants to give something up. The married detective wants to quit having affairs. Her husband wants to stop being so suspicious. Her teenaged son is forced into nicotine withdrawal. Or whatever. The key is they’re all working on stopping some compelling, perhaps compulsive and destructive, behavior.

What about the alleged homicidal maniac? To do her job, the detective is going to need to stay in contact with him, a direct violation of her original goal. This creates conflict, which is good. It also creates a second, increasingly important, goal: To find out if he’s a murderer.

One neat trick is to give opposing characters the same goal. So, what if the suspect lover also wants to end the affair? We don’t have to know his reason. It could be that he senses she’s on to him. It could be that he wants to get married and settle down and stop all the intrigue and deception. Having the same goal, in this case with a twist, sets up barriers, especially if only one person can achieve the goal.

The married detective’s primary goal is to end the affair, but her goal changes when murder enters the picture. She’s forced to go against her own resolve. Her initial goal didn’t change, it just got trumped by work. She has to stay in friendly, even lover-like contact, no matter how disturbing the idea is to her. He also wants to end the affair, and so resists all her attempts at contact, making her even more suspicious.

Goals are not plots; they work in tandem with plots. They help structure a story and add depth to characters. They enmesh readers in the narrative, making them active participants. Goals deliciously string the reader along. And, as writers, isn’t that our goal?

WEbook Writing Secrets

WEbook Writing Secrets is a budding new feature of the blog, featuring practical tips on the craft. WEbookers are invited to submit their writing wisdom by visiting my profile. Send me a message with the subject line: WEbook Writing Secrets. I will collect the best and brightest from my mailbox and publish them here and in the WEbook Toolbox. If your words of wisdom are chosen, you’ll get credit, and a link to your profile, where fellow WEbookers will be encouraged to check out your work.

-- Melissa

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