Your main character’s goal is the backbone of your story. If it’s not strong, your entire story will struggle. Giving your character a strong goal can seem very intimidating, but it’s actually very simple. A goal can be anything, big or small.
Frodo wants to get the ring to Mordor.
Rapunzel wants to see the floating lights.
Luke wants to destroy the Death Star.
The real challenge is backing up the goal with emotion, drive, and tension. But, if you know what you’re doing, it really isn’t that hard. So lets get to it!
Want vs. Need
First, lets talk about want vs. need. Your character’s want is going to be their main goal. Their need, is what the audience can see they need, and what the character will later realize. Having these two together will help build tension which in turn builds audience engagement.
Like I said above, your character’s ‘want’ is their main goal. And their main goal can be literally anything as long as you properly support it. (If you pay attention, some stories have the simplest ‘wants’ that are expertly backed up to make an excellent story)
Your character’s goal has to be believable. But that doesn’t mean that you have to short cut your ideas, it simply means that you need to set up a universe that allows for the goal to be possible and a character that we believe has the desire to accomplish it.
The character’s ‘need’ is something that is not as well known or, at least, as often discussed. But, even if you haven’t quite heard of it described as a ‘need’, you have certainly seen it hundreds of times.
A ‘need’ is simply want a character realizes, while pursuing their want, that they actually want.
In Tangled, Rapunzel wants to see the floating lights and Eugene wants the crown. As the movie goes on, they realize their need, which is each other <3 Aww
And, as needs typically go, the audience realizes it before the characters do.
Having a need paired with your want (or contradicting your want) is an imperative way to build tension.
How Want and Need Work Together
Now, you may be thinking, “How does a need make the goal stronger? Wouldn’t it just make the goal useless?” That would be wrong, my friends. When using want and need together correctly, it will exponentially strengthen not just your character goal, but your entire story.
We’ve all seen romance movies, and what is the typical trope? That the main character wants the wrong person. They always figure out in the end that it was someone else all along that was right in front of their eyes. They want the cute ‘perfect’ guy/girl who actually isn’t perfect and wouldn’t make them happy, but they need their best friend. And that journey from them pursuing their want to realizing their need is what readers eat up.
Make Your Character’s Goal Specific
It is so so helpful to have have a solid thing that represents your goal. Sally “wants love” but at what point will she feel she has accomplished that goal? Is it her first kiss? Is it getting that one specific boy to ask her out? Or once the love of her life proposes?
Ralph (Wreck it Ralph) wants to be respected by the people of his game. His physical representation of that, is the gold medal. He thinks that once he brings a gold medal back to his game that he will be respected just like Felix.
Support Your Character’s Goal
Rapunzel wants to see the floating lights. Simple. How is that goal supported? Rapunzel is lonely and curious. The lights mysteriously show up on her birthday. Rapunzel never gets to leave her tower. Mother Gothel insults her by telling her she’s not capable of doing something she knows is. Taking down Flynn Ryder gives her confidence and means.
This support, this set up, these emotions all help support the goal. They make the goal believable, achievable, and meaningful.
Use their past, their emotions, their morality, etc to back up their goal.
Ex: If your character’s morality is questionable, we’re not going to believe that they’re simply doing something because it’s ‘the right thing to do.’
Using Set-up to Strengthen the Goal
Hopping into the goal from page one can often lead readers to be disengaged, because they haven’t yet been given a reason to care about the character or what they want.
An excellent example of when this did work, is in Throne of Glass where we quickly find out the main character has been in a slave camp and has a chance to be free. That is a very strong goal (that anyone could understand right away) and an intense way to start out a story. But, of course, the goal is only backed up and strengthened more as the novel goes on.
On the other hand, The Fellowship of the Ring builds up a little, showing the relationship between Frodo and Bilbo as well as Frodo and Gandolf and gives some history of the ring and it’s importance.
Using Emotion to Strengthen the Goal
Playing on people’s emotion is a fantastic way to get them hooked. Human’s are emotional creatures. Give us a snarky woman defending a helpless animal and we can’t help but like her. Give us a homeless man beaten down from the world, we feel for him. Give us a grieving mother who’s just lost their only child, we’re gonna cry (inside or out).
We care because even if we haven’t been in that situation, we’ve felt those feelings. We can sympathize because we’ve been there in one way or another. Or, at least, we fear to be.
In UP, a simple montage shows us the relationship between Carl and Ellie and we watch her pass away, leaving Carl a very sad and lonely man. This montage has brought hundreds of people to tears. They now pity Carl and they care for him. And when he decides to set out on the trip he never got to go on with Ellie, they all root for him. Despite him being a grumpy old man, people care for him because they know how much he is hurting.
Backing Up Your Goal with Mini Goals
Don’t forget that there are tons of mini-goals along the way to the main goal, which can also be referred to as obstacles. Overcoming obstacles, or completing those mini-goals that lead towards the main goal, are what build your entire story.
Frodo doesn’t not simply walk into Mordor to drop the ring off. There are challenges along the way. With these added challenges, you need to be careful. It can be tempting to add in anything that you want to cause all sorts of trouble for your characters, but ‘just any sort of trouble’ can lead the story astray, cause unnecessary tangents, and disinterest your reader.
In Tangled, they don’t simply make it to the floating lights without a problem. They run into ruffians and thugs, the Stabbington brothers, Mother Gothel, and Maximus. As well as nearly drowning, running from castle guards, and dealing with doubts and fears about each other. All of these are connected and helpful to the plot. Mother Gothel ends up working with the Stabbington brothers to get Rapunzel back. The ‘ruffians and thugs’ end up saving Eugene’s life, and Maximus is, at first, an obstacle and then becomes a savior and asset.
Hope + Fear = Tension
There are two main ways to make your readers care about your character’s goal:
- Make them care about the character (cathexis)
- Make them hope and fear about the goal
These, of course, work hand-in-hand wonderfully. But today we are going to be talking about tension. Tension is hope and fear. If Aladdin wants to get the lamp, great. But if Aladdin wants the lamp and he’s not allowed to touch anything and goes into a cave full of gold with his greedy monkey, now we’re a little worried. And add on top of it that we know he was hired by a sleazy villain who would double cross him in a second, we’re on our toes.
Placing physical and emotional obstacles in the way of your character’s goal causes the audience to fear they won’t be able to accomplish it, and hold on to the story because they hope that they can.
In Tangled we want Rapunzel to reach her goal. But what causes us to fear?
- We don’t trust Eugene (currently Flynn Ryder). Rapunzel is naïve and lovable and we fear he will trick her.
- Mother Gothel realizes Rapunzel is gone and goes after her. We know how fierce and manipulative she is and fear that she will stop Rapunzel.
- All of the mini problems including the bar, the twin brothers, and the horse.
I hope this has helped you all to be able to create stronger goals for your characters! Just remember to think through it logically and don’t forget that simple is often better! Start with something simple and build upon it. I assure you it will get plenty complex as the story goes on, haha.
While going through this process, remember that everyone is different and you can’t please them all. You will never be able to make everyone care and that isn’t necessarily a fault of your story. Try your best and keep learning and improving and that’s all you can do.