5 Tips for Creating Character Goals
For readers to care about your story, they have to know what's at stake. And you can only know the stakes if you know what your protagonist is trying to achieve— their goal.
So what is a character's goal? The goal is the one thing your character wants more than anything else. That can— and often does— change throughout the story, and may even change between the start and end of a scene. Goals propel your character into action and give your story direction.
In this post, we’ll share five tips to help you create character goals that drive a story and keep your reader hooked!
Identify your character’s goals early in the story
Author Kurt Vonnegut famously said, "Make your characters want something right away, even if it's only a glass of water." Don’t wait to establish your character’s goal. If you haven’t given your reader a reason to care about the protagonist early enough in the story, the reader might put your book aside in search of something more compelling.
E.B. White wastes no time introducing the character's goal in his classic children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web:
"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
"Out to the hoghouse," replied Mrs. Arable. "Some pigs were born last night."
"I don't see why he needs an ax," continued Fern, who was only eight. "Well," said her mother, "one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it."
"Do away with it?" shrieked Fern. "You mean kill it? Just because it's smaller than the others?"
Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. "Don't yell, Fern!" she said. "Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway."
Fern pushed a chair out of the way and ran outdoors. The grass was wet and the earth smelled of springtime. Fern's sneakers were sopping by the time she caught up with her father.
"Please don't kill it!" she sobbed. "It's unfair."
Before the reader has even turned the first page, Fern is out the door to stop her father, setting in motion both Fern’s, and later Charlotte’s, goal: to save Wilbur's life.
Once your reader knows what your character wants most, they will be eager to keep reading to see if the hero will succeed.
Make the goal tangible and specific
The character’s goal must be specific and tangible, never too broad or vague. For example, your middle-grade character might long for world peace, but a more specific and tangible goal would be for her to stop the school bully from tormenting the new student that just moved to town.
In the example of Charlotte’s Web, the goal is specific: to save one pig’s life. It’s also tangible, as the reader will know right away if Fern and Charlotte have succeeded or failed.
A specific, tangible goal can also drive the action across a series. In J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo's goal is to reach Mordor and destroy the One Ring. That goal remains the same and guides Frodo's journey across three books, making it easy for the reader to follow his progress even as other conflicts occur.
Identify the character’s external goal
External goals are the things that your character wants. These goals are visible to the outside world and are ones that your character can take action to reach while the reader watches and follows their progress in reaching that goal.
In The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, Cussy Carter’s external goal is to deliver books and reading material to the impoverished people of Eastern Kentucky, and readers follow along her treacherous journey to see if she will be successful.
In Lindsay Eagar’s The Patron Thief of Bread, Duck, the youngest member of a gang of street urchins known as the Crowns, is chosen by the gang’s leader, Gnat, to apply to be the baker’s apprentice. Duck’s external goal, and the sole purpose of Gnat’s assignment, is to steal enough bread and coins from the baker each week to feed the Crowns. The reader quickly becomes invested in Duck’s success as they follow her progress throughout the course of the novel.
Make sure that your character has an external goal that the reader can identify and track. While Duck has the external goal of stealing coins and bread to feed the Crowns, her internal goal is driving her actions.
Identify the character’s internal goal
The internal goal is often the real motivation behind your character’s external goal, although they might not be aware of it until much later in the story. On a fundamental level, it explains why the character is doing what they’re doing. While the external goal is what your character thinks they want, the internal goal is what they ultimately need. The external goal is visible to the world, whereas the internal goal comes from within the character. In a well-written story, readers will be able to identify and empathize with the hero's internal goal.
In The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek, blue-skinned Cussy Carter’s internal goal is to be accepted for who she is despite the color of her skin. Her need to be seen as a valuable member of society, while also being accepted for who she is, drives her external goal of joining the historical Pack Horse Library Project to deliver reading material.
In The Patron Thief of Bread, Duck’s internal goal is to find belonging and acceptance after being orphaned as an infant. Duck doesn’t want to steal from the baker, but she agrees because she wants to gain Gnat’s acceptance and belong with the Crowns, and stealing from the baker is her chance to prove her worth.
Make the external and internal goals clash
If your protagonist's internal and external goals line up perfectly for the entire story, it's unlikely that they will grow as a character. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but you can make your hero's arc stronger by putting their external goal and their inner motivation in conflict with one another.
In The Patron Thief of Bread, Duck’s place with the Crowns hinges on her ability to provide them with coins and bread, yet as the story goes on, she feels guilty for stealing from the baker who has taken her in. Here, her external goal of providing for the gang she views as family clashes with her newfound acceptance and belonging from the baker herself. Conflict and tension naturally arise from Duck's internal and external goals being put at odds.
If you set up your character’s internal and external goals in a manner that creates both internal and external conflict, you will have created compelling, goal-driven conflict that keeps the reader engaged.
You're ready to create your hero's goals!
With these tips in mind, you’re ready to create goals that will drive your character’s action throughout the story. Identify your character’s goals in the story's setup. Make sure the goals are tangible and specific. Give your character external goals that the reader can follow, motivated by the internal goals and needs of the character. Use these goals to create both internal and external conflict, and you’ll have a story the reader won’t be able to put down.