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Conflict: Desires and Goals

Monday, October 16, 2006


In Stein on Writing (the best overall book on craft I’ve ever run across), Sol Stein describes plotting at its most basic as “putting the protagonist’s desire and the antagonist’s desire into sharp conflict. . . . think of what would most thwart your protagonist’s want, then give the power to thwart that want to the antagonist” (83).

In genres where there is a definite antagonist/villain, this is easier to do than in genres or stories where there is no “bad guy” to give the role of thwarting our hero/heroine. This is one of the reasons why it is important to figure out what your thematic conflict is—if it is Man vs. Man, then you most likely have an antagonist. However, the person who thwarts your main character’s goals may not necessarily be a villain. In a romance, it may be that the hero and heroine are at cross-purposes with each other. In historical fiction, it may be that our solider, whose desire is to get home, keeps being sent to far off places by his commanding officers. What thwarts your character’s desires doesn’t have to be of ill intent—just something that happens that keeps your character from reaching those goals easily.

Stein quotes Kurt Vonnegut as saying that he teaches his students to have their character want something on the first page—even if it’s just a glass of water. It’s not interesting to read about someone who doesn’t want anything—who has no goals. The greater the desire, the more interesting the story. Think about The Wizard of Oz. The whole story, once she arrives in Oz, is Dorothy’s desire to go home to Kansas. If she followed the yellow brick road all the way to the Emerald City with no one to stop her—even if she did meet interesting folks along the way—it would not be a very interesting story (nor take very long to tell!). But along her journey she meets with one conflict after another brought upon her by her nemesis, the Wicked Witch of the West. But the witch wasn’t thwarting her just to thwart her. She had a desire as well: to retrieve the magical ruby slippers which were on Dorothy’s feet and held the key for Dorothy’s return home.

Dorothy’s desire (home) is one that everyone can understand—it’s what Stein calls universal: “The wants that interest a majority of readers include gaining or losing a love, achieving a lifetime ambition, seeing that justice is done, saving a life, seeking revenge, and accomplishing a task that at first seemed impossible” (84). In my genre, this universal desire is built in: gaining a love. Love, money, and power, according to Stein, are the three themes which create the greatest conflict, which is perhaps why the romance genre makes up more than half of all popular fiction sold.

While Dorothy’s desire to go home is her driving motivation, her goal for the purpose of the active plot is to make it from Munchkinland to Emerald City to seek help from the Wizard of Oz. Once she achieves that goal, after several major conflicts that seem like they might keep her from achieving that goal (“Poppies! Poppies! Poppies!”), she is given a new goal—to get the Wicked Witch’s broom stick and return it to the Wizard. She accomplishes this goal (“I’m melting. . . .”) and just when it seems like she’ll get to go home, after teary goodbyes, her desire is once again thwarted by the balloon taking off without her in it—she has achieved her goals, but not her desire. Enter Glenda the Good Witch who explains that the means to gain her desire was always within Dorothy’s reach—the ruby slippers.

Your character’s main desire shapes his or her goals for your story.

In my contemporary romance, Happy Endings, Inc., Anne’s desire is to run a successful business, remain independent, and perhaps, after ten years of living with the regrets and bitterness of a broken engagement, “create her own happy ending.” Her goal for the first part of the novel is to plan a wedding with a limitless budget—thus ensuring the future of her business—while fighting her attraction to the man she thinks is the groom. When she discovers he isn’t the groom, her secondary goal changes to trying to trust him again—after all, he’s been dishonest with her about his identity for several weeks. Then, when she discovers the true identity of the groom, her goal changes again. And, along the way, her desire has changed to focus on putting happiness in her personal life first and her business second. While the hero and the man he works for (the groom) aren’t necessarily antagonists, it is through their actions—the hidden identities and goals of their own—that Anne’s desires and goals seem to be thwarted.

In my historical, my heroine Julia begins it with her main desire being to gain her father’s respect—to be recognized as his favorite over a sea captain who, she believes, replaced her twin brother in her father’s affections when her brother was lost at sea fifteen years earlier—and to return home to their sugar plantation on Jamaica. Her goal is figuring out how to get back to Jamaica. She has two people who will try to thwart her desire: her mother and a cousin intent on marrying her for her large inheritance. Both of these characters have desires of their own as to why they want Julia to conform to their goals.

You may have a very clear idea of what your characters’ goals are for your story. But what is the underlying desire driving those goals? And what can other characters, the environment, or other forces do to thwart those desires and make the goals seem impossible to achieve?

3 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink
    Monday, October 16, 2006 6:34 pm

    Another terrific post. The outer conflict is often easy to create, but that inner motivation…grrr. Also difficult, creating flaws in your character that are easily identified with but don’t ‘turn the reader off’ before you get a chance to show any character growth. That’s what I’m struggling with right now…a character who is a bit vain and flighty who must grow out of those traits as the story progresses.

  2. Sunday, February 1, 2009 2:21 pm

    What if their goal is something they don’t achieve at the end? I guess it’s just a matter of what the goal REALLY is. In my story, Elizabeth’s outer goal is to become an actress, which never happens. But in the process she realizes that what she really wants is a father figure to love and accept her, which does happen.

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