Your Character Needs a Goal

Thursday, October 21, 2021
Think about your current work-in-progress and your protagonist. He or she or it (and your anatognist, for that matter) needs a goal. This is different from their journey that the catalyst sends them on. It's different than the problem they are trying to solve. Your main character's goal is what this person wants more than anything else at this point in life. 

I know it's only October, and none of us like to think of goal setting before January 1. And I understand that your eyes will be rolling in the back of your head before I can get the S out in S.M.A.R.T. goal. But I want to show you how knowing what your character's goal is can help you when plotting your book, creating tension for your reader, and making your main character sympathetic, too!

We all get an idea for a novel, and it's usually a plot, something like: A boy discovers when he's 11 that he's part of a wizarding world, and it's up to him to defeat the most evil wizard of all. 


A rich, old, cranky meiser is visited by the ghost of his deceased coworker and three fellow spirits, warning him that he must change his ways before it's too late. 

But what is Harry's goal in Harry Potter and the Socerer's Stone? What is Scrooge's goal before the ghosts are visiting in A Christmas Carol? 

In the beginning of the story, once Hagrid tells Harry, "You're a wizard," Harry's goal is to go to Hogwarts, learn how to be a wizard, and escape the Dursleys. His goal is to be great like his parents. His goal might change a bit once he discovers he can fly a broom pretty well. Then his goal might be to be the best Quidditch player and win the House cup. But, his goal is not (in the beginning of book one): I will kill Voldemort and save wizards everywhere. That doesn't happen until book 7. 

Look at Scrooge. It's pretty simple to figure out his goal. Make as much money as possible regardless of anyone's happiness. His goal is NOT to change his ways. That's what happens because of the plot. 

Let's look at a book we've heard quite a bit about on the Muffin: Greenwood Gone by Sioux Roslawski. In this book, Henry's life changes the night of the Tulsa Race Massacre when the White citizens of Tulsa destroy the Black section of town. Henry's journey is to survive that night. But his goals in the beginning of the book are to stay out of his momma's way enough that she will not scold him for anything and to practice baseball, so he can become a great baseball player. 

When the race massacre is happening, Henry's goal of wanting to be good for his momma is still in him. He still wants to be a baseball player, but that goal moves to the back of his mind, as he tries to survive and help his family. But as Sioux was writing, she knew Henry's goals, and knowing those made a difference in how the book was written. And then in turn, how readers perceive the character, and how Henry holds a place in our hearts when reading the book. While reading, we might find ourselves thinking, He's such a good boy for his momma and only 12 years old. He is so helpful to her during this journey they have to go on because their neighborhood is burning down. And all the poor kid wants to do is play baseball with his dad. 

Or your reader might not think any of that because you can't control what your reader thinks (ah, that's another blog post, I think!). But knowing your character's goal, what he or she really wants, will help you make smart decisions on the way your character acts in any situation in the book. If you haven't thought of this for your current work-in-progress, go ahead and give it a try. Keep this goal in mind while you're writing, and see if plotting becomes any easier. Usually what this exercise helps authors do is stay more focused, and the plot will be tighter as you merrily make your way to the satisfying ending (oh, another blog topic!).

And if you are into S.M.A.R.T. goals, then your character can have one of those, too. 

Margo L. Dill is an editor, author, publisher, writing instructor and coach, living in St. Louis, MO, with her daughter and dog. Her next WOW! class starts on November 5 and is about writing a novel with a writing coach. You can check it out here. The middle grade and young adult authors class starts again in 2022 in late January. Check that out here! For more about Margo, visit


Sue Bradford Edwards said...
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Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Don't you think that giving your character an overarching goal and also a plot-based goal is part of what creates depth in a book?

Margo Dill said...

Yes! That is a great way to sum up what I was trying to say! Ha!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--As usual, you say it in such a smart (and succinct way).

Margo--This post was a like an extension of "Save the Cat! Writes a Novel." I nodded my head when you used Harry Potter as an example, and then again when reading about Scrooge... and then a wonderful surprise. You writing about my book made me rethink about the plot and goals and depth.

Thanks (as always).

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