#FirstDraft60 Day 10 — What Does Your Character Want, What Will She Do to Get It, and What Can Stop Her? (a.k.a., Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts)
No matter how wonderfully complex and well-developed a character is, a reader isn’t going to care about her unless they can identify with what the character wants, what the character is willing to do to get what she wants, and how she faces the challenges and obstacles that conspire to keep her from getting what she wants—otherwise known as Goals (desires), Motivation, and Conflict.
In Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins wrote:
“What is your innermost Desire that will propel you through this story? . . . All of your main characters and important secondary characters should have a Desire. Conflicts between characters come into play when they are pursuing Desires that oppose one another” (37).
In Stein on Writing, 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).
Before you can develop that conflict, you have to delve into what each character’s goal/desire is. We have a tendency to define characters as “good guys” and “bad guys,” but when we start developing real, multi-dimensional characters, we have to move beyond these epithets into the knowledge that no one is “all good” or “all bad” (unless, of course, you’re writing fantasy or allegory with “evil” characters such as Sarumon and Orcs). What separates our protagonists from our antagonists can be as simple as having goals that are in opposition to each other. That doesn’t necessarily make the antagonist a “bad guy” . . . but that’s another series.
Goals and Motivations
Having completed your characters’ S.H.A.P.E. analysis day before yesterday, you should already have a good grasp on who your character is, how she thinks and feels, and how she will react in just about any situation. Now you need to determine what your character’s story goal is.
What is it that each of your main/viewpoint characters wants that sets this story in motion—and keeps it going once obstacles arise? That’s the story goal.
- For example, the story goal for Anne in Stand-In Groom is to successfully plan and execute the biggest, most expensive wedding she’s ever been hired to do, which will secure the future of her business. For George, it’s to successfully plan and execute his (celebrity) employer’s wedding while keeping his employer’s identity a secret from the public—and from the wedding planner. And if you’ve read the book, you know how these two goals come into conflict with each other.
A character’s story goal should be specific, but should also be universal. When we define our character’s desire/goal, it shouldn’t just be, “I need to get from point A to point B,” but the deeper, “I must get home and protect my family from those who seek to tear it apart” kind of goal that transcends time periods. (Keep asking “why?” until you get to the deepest level.) Give your character the kind of goal she is not going to give up on—the kind she will fight to the death to achieve. Reaching that goal becomes the motivating force behind everything the character thinks, says, and does. And knowing what this goal is specifically gives us the ability to set up obstacles—in the physical environment, in the character’s own inner psyche, in the antagonist—to thwart our character’s achieving that goal.
If the character meets no resistance on the path toward gaining what they most desire, there is no motivation, no story. Think about The Wizard of Oz. If Dorothy & Crew hadn’t constantly met with conflict—with the Wicked Witch trying to stop them, with the Wizard turning out not to be a wizard after all—it wouldn’t have been a very interesting story.
The way I keep my characters movtivated is to make sure the character has a goal, then to set other characters and situations in opposition to that goal. If the character keeps coming up against a brick wall, or if someone or something keeps thwarting them from being able to reach their goal, the motivation to reach it grows stronger. Naturally, they cannot always fail in moving toward the desire—they must have some successes to show that this goal is ultimately achievable, if they will just persevere, hold on, keep going.
Assignment 1: Answer the following questions for each of your viewpoint/main characters:
- What is her main goal/desire?
- What will she do to attain it? (go deep here)
- What will she do when she meets resistance?
- How far will she go to achieve her goal/desire? (keep going deeper)
- What internal hindrances does she have that could keep her from achieving her goal? (Dig deeper than just fear—what is the root cause of the fear? What happened in the past to give her this fear?)
- What external hindrances could keep her from achieving her goal? (This can be the antagonist . . . or even the hero or other main character, family members, cultural restraints, geographic constraints, finances, etc.)
- Is there anything that could happen that would make her relinquish her goal? (If so, then you need to start over at the beginning, because this goal isn’t the right one.)
- Is this goal something she would sacrifice everything—her health, her wealth, her family, even her own life—to achieve? (Make her prove it by putting her in one or more of those situations.)
The conflicts in your story are the points that make up the majority of your plot. You will need minor conflicts (resolved in one or two scenes) and major conflicts—those that affect the outcome of the story. Rather than repeat myself, here’s a post that explains the difference between them and the necessity for each type of conflict:
In another series of posts, I have discussed conflict at length, and this is where Goals, Motivation, and Conflict come into union with each other:
It’s Good to Be Conflicted
Conflict: Thematic vs. Actual
Conflict: Desires and Goals
Conflict: Move That Bus!
Assignment 2: For each character’s main story goal, determine what the main conflict is that will keep them from easily attaining that goal—and who or what presents that obstacle/challenge/conflict to the character.
Collins, Brandilyn. Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002. 102–103. Print.
Stein, Sol. Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Print.
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