How to Write a Compelling Goal for Your Protagonist [Novel Boot Camp #1]

Is your character goal oriented? A strong goal is vital in creating a compelling protagonist. In today’s video I offer tips and suggestions to strengthen your protagonist’s goal and to ensure it’s working effectively in the plot.

Video Highlights:

  • A goal is a concrete, definable objective driven by the character’s motivation, which is a desired emotional state. I covered this concept in much more depth in my article: Creating Deep Realistic Characters.
  • When the character is part of a group, he is more likely to suffer from a weak or absent goal. A character in a group must have a personal goal that exists outside or inside of the larger group goal. Just being a “good guy” or doing the right thing is not enough.
  • If the character’s goal changes many times throughout the novel, it becomes problematic when there is not an underlying motivation that ties the goals together. Creating a motivational thread helps to keep the novel cohesive.
  • If readers don’t care about your character or struggle to empathize, it’s usually because the goal is absent, isn’t personal, or has no underlying motivation.

Questions to Ask About Your Novel

The questions below will help you to apply the concepts in the video to your novel.

  1. What is your character trying to achieve?

The answer needs to be concrete enough that the reader will know for certain whether the character achieves this goal. Vague objectives don’t make for effective goals. For example “A date with the hottest guy in school” is a nice concrete goal while “being popular” may be too vague for the reader to have a clear sense of when/if the character achieves it.

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2. Why does your character want to achieve this? What is his/her motivation?

 

The character’s motivation is the emotional drive that leads the character to the goal. The same goal can have a wide variety of underlying motivations. For example, a character could be motivated to become rich because she believes it will buy her love or because she wants the security money provides or because she wants to feel in control. Defining the motivation is just as important as defining the goal.

If you have any questions about writing a goal-oriented character, please post it in the comments below.

Comment Question: Did you know your character’s goal right away or did it take a while for you to discover it?

Workshop #1 critiques will be posted later today and every day this week. If you didn’t get a chance to submit last week, the submission form is still open!

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24 thoughts on “How to Write a Compelling Goal for Your Protagonist [Novel Boot Camp #1]

  1. TKL says:

    I’d like hear (read) your thoughts on writing a character who has motivation to act a certain way but doesn’t realize it as a goal. For example, a man raised in a racist home who doesn’t realize he is a racist and therefore does not have a desire to “not be a racist,” but who does desire to live in a peaceful world, and discovers that by always acting in a peaceful way, he has changed his views on race. Do you believe that would make too weak of story since he’s not actively working toward the “goal” that he actually achieves (discovers) in the end?

  2. Jenna Vandenberg says:

    Thanks! I love your videos and brutal honesty, and I am excited to finally participate in your boot camp. Halfway through my first draft I realized that my character didn’t have a good enough reason for pursuing her goal, so now I’m in the process of rewriting. As you mention in your video it was a lack-of-outlining problem.

  3. newlyolder says:

    My protagonist is a boy of 15 whose girlfriend is pregnant. His motivation is to do the right thing whatever that is. The girlfriend is undecided whether to keep the baby or not.

  4. Douglas Hazelrigg says:

    Here’s my issue with respect to today’s topic. My character has a strong goal during the first half of my novel, but then she undergoes a transformation and realizes the goal was not her true destiny (which was always beckoning within her). Most novels end there, or shortly thereafter, once such a character uses their newfound perspective to overcome a climactic obstacle. In my story, however, the second half of the novel deals with how she battles various NEW obstacles — some of which are really manifestations of the same ones she dealt with in the first half — using her new perspective. In other words, I have long felt that too many novels, plays, and movies end abruptly once the hero undergoes a transformation and wins the “big battle”, even though that in REAL life that’s usually only HALF THE STORY. I want to examine what happens once a character has undergone a transformation, and adopted a new goal, and is repeatedly tested on THAT. Indeed, in real life, many people eventually succumb and go back to their prior motivation, even though it kept them in defeat; the true test is whether one remains true to one’s new perspective over the long haul.

  5. Pam Portland (@TruckingWriter) says:

    Simply put, my protagonists’s goal is trying to visit all fifty states before she turns fifty. Her motivation is a tougher angle, though. She is feeling lost and unfilfilled in so many other areas of her life that she finds her strength in the beauty she sees and the sites she explores. But when she is finally on the verge of reaching her goal, its only partially fulfilling. I’m as conflicted about her motivation as she is.

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