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.


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. jrbupton says:

    My character has two goals to begin with, before he teams up with the heroine.
    First, he is working as much as possible to pay for someone’s medical bill. He’s a moral fellow, so he’s not going to do anything too unethical.
    Secondly, is he wants to save people, specifically he wants the chance to be a hero and save someone before they get hurt, rather than continually doling out punishment, or arresting people after the fact.
    Side note: He’s a constable in a fantasy world set around an industrial revolution.
    I’m planning on having his personal plots interweave into the main capitol ‘P’ plot, wherein he and the heroine attempt to stop a coup which puts the city in immediate danger endanger, as well as the kingdom in the long run.
    But weaving personal goals organically throughout the story is definitely a challenge… But I guess that’s what writing is.

  2. Rick Potter says:

    My protag is blind and is under the belief she’ll never find love if she can’t see. She gains acceptance and desirability from working at night in a Gentleman’s Club as a dancer, and a psychologist by day. The only thing is, her clients are imaginary people from the past who drove her to be institutionalized from age 16 to 27. Her motivation is the hopes her operation will be successful so find real love.

  3. nicolelochoa says:

    The terminology of writing is still new to me so I had to Google “protagonist.” I had a pretty good idea it was a main character but, now that that is out of the way…

    I was able to identify my characters overall goal, love, but it took a bit of journaling to define her motivations. This exercise has given me the tools to fix certain portions of my novel feel that feel blah. Thank you.

  4. Tayci says:

    I’m wondering if it’s okay for my character to achieve their goal partway through the book. Example, my character wants to become the coven leader because her mother doesn’t think she can handle it and it will get her out from under the thumb of her mother. She becomes the leader halfway through the book, but is still letting her mother make decisions for her.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      She will need some sort of goal in the second half of the book but it doesn’t have to be the same goal. The novel probably needs some sort of twist or surprise to keep the reader interested and to change her goal at the midpoint. I hope this helps!

  5. Stephanie K. says:

    Erin, the content of your video and commentary is spot-on. You honed in on and pinpointed a problem that until now I’d only seen addressed in writers’ advice books in rather vague terms or with weak examples. I appreciate how you address problems and solutions in a magnanimous, all-inclusive way that welcomes the novice without insulting the experience and intellect of the old pro. Hats off to your achievement of quality and integrity. You’ve set the bar high. Many thanks.

  6. Karen says:

    My protagonist’s goal is to clear her neighbor of murder. She is motivated to do this because (1) they have a budding relationship and (2) it’s partly her fault he stands accused.

  7. Gerren Daniels says:

    Thanks Ellen I think I will follow along again this year. I am still knee deep in screenplay land. Once I finish writing my schedule of screenplays I will hopefully be able to get back to some of my novels I have written. I have hundreds of pages written. Some have just been sitting in my closet collecting dust. But cant wait to return to the book form. [😊]




    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Thanks for following along! I think most of these tips should apply to screenplays as well, but not in exactly the same way. I hope you pick up some useful tips even without a novel you’re working on. Thanks again!

  8. vanessafowler says:

    My protagonist’s goal is to find her brother. Figuring out a specific, personal goal has been a year and a half long process….yikes! Now I’m trying to figure out her motivation, and I sure hope that it doesn’t take another year and a half. As of now I’m thinking that she wants to be “whole.” I still have to define wholeness, but having her family be okay is a significant component.

  9. Brett Mumford says:

    My protagonist has been working on a proof for a radical theory, not accepted by the vast majority of the professional establishment. she has been given management of a project which will include other, some more senior, researchers who are firmly in the camp of management regarding the validity of her hypothesis.

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