The 3 Elements of a CHARACTER GOAL
You know that moment in a book or movie, near the end, where everything has gone terribly wrong? All has been lost, the main character appears to have been brutally defeated, the mentor has probably kicked the bucket, and generally things couldn’t look bleaker?
Writing feels like that moment.
Or more accurately, one point in the writing process feels akin to that dark night. It’s that time after the intrepid writer has pushed through the first draft of the story – they’ve brainstormed the development process, sailed through the beginning, blazed through the middle – and then quite suddenly …everything falls apart.
And this despair can be summed up in one soul-crushing sentence: “What happens at the end?"
The writer realizes that they don’t know. A giddy optimism has propelled them thus far, a chipper little voice in the back of their head assuring "Don’t worry about the end yet! It’ll sort itself out!”
That little happy voice, it turns out, is a liar.
But your reign of terror is over, lying voice. There’s a way to fix it so you can never trick another writer again. Because knowing what happens at the end comes down to knowing something right in the beginning: knowing three integral facets of the main character. If you know this golden trio, you’ll have a much better chance of knowing exactly what happens at the end: because the end is all about these three.
So what are these three things?
GOAL: What the main characters wants, and will pursue throughout the story, overcoming all obstacles and enemies to obtain.
WANT: Their reasons for wanting it, which is usually to fill some emotional void they sense in their lives, something they believe will fix life and make it complete.
NEED: What they TRULY require to fill that emotional void, to be complete.
Yup, three of the things listed in that other post “10 Elements of a Main Character”. But now, we’re going to delve into more detail, the elements of a good Goal, a good Want, and a good Need.
So what goes into a story GOAL? Goals should be …
SINGULAR: The character must have one objective, and only one. A desire, and the overcoming of obstacles to achieve it, form the spine of the story. If there are two, the character is split between two storylines; they are trying to balance two stories at once, confusing them and confusing the reader.
TANGIBLE: The goal must be something REAL. Something we can see and feel.
SPECIFIC: In addition to being tangible, it must be highly specific. If the goal was to “escape” it would have to be “escape to a definite destination”. It can’t be at all vague or easily fulfilled by many objects: it must be finding a specific object, winning a specific prize, getting to a specific destination, etc.
Like in Tangled: The goal is “see the floating lights.”
NOT EMOTIONS/STATES OF MIND: The goal can’t be something like “happiness” or “belonging” or “love.” Those aren’t tangible, they’re not specific, and most of all the reader can’t envision it being achieved. The goal CAN be a physical representation of an emotional state; obtaining this specific and physical objective will mean achieving the emotional state.
IMAGINABLE: We should be able to easily envision the main character achieving the goal. When we see it, we know it’s happening, know that everything has been building to this moment.
Like in Monsters Inc, we know what getting Boo back home is going to look like (though in the beginning, we don’t know that it’s going to be heartbreaking.)
NOBLE: The goal should be something the reader can cheer on. The reader understands why the main character wants it. The reader can relate to the goal, and the emotional reason behind it.
Cheer like this.
STAKES: If they fail, something will be lost. If they choose not to pursue the goal, things will be very bad. There can’t be a sense that if they stop going after the goal at any point, life could just go back to how it was. When the catalyst came in and shattered their ordinary world and everyday routine, the story entered the realm of “nothing will ever be the same” and the only way to restore order to their universe is to achieve this thing. And that thing that will be lost must be something we can relate to, something significant: love, safety, family, life, future, freedom, loved ones.
What goes into the WANT? The want is…
CONNECTED TO GHOST: The ghost is a moment from their past that still haunts them, and is the source of their moral and psychological weaknesses. Their reasons for wanting the goal should be connected to this moment. They believe that if they achieve it, their world will be fixed, life will go back to how it was before this haunting moment occurred.
MISGUIDED: And they’re usually always wrong. Achieving the goal just as it is will never fix what’s broken in their lives.
SAVING GRACE: It’s often this Want behind their goal that acts as their saving grace in the eyes of the reader. Sometimes it’s hard to connect with a character – they’re difficult to understand, easy to find unappealing, even downright unpleasant – until we know why they are the way they are. (Think Marlin from Finding Nemo; he’s pretty unlikable and frustrating half the time, but we know why he’s behaving that way, so it’s easier to forgive him.)
What do all of these character NEEDS have in common?
HOW TO FIX LIFE: In their pursuit of the tangible goal, something else is revealed that will truly save their lives. This is some truth that will banish the power of the ghost, let the character see themselves clearly for the first time, and show them what needs to be done to live a better life in the future. This usually arrives right after that “Dark Night” moment, which is usually when the goal has been achieved or lost; the truth revealed in this moment will allow them to snatch victory from this darkest defeat, renew their courage, inspire them to soldier on and pursue the story goal once more.
NEW WORLDVIEW: This crucible of battle and revelation of truth changes them. They’re not the same person anymore. They’ve conquered the thing that haunts them, overcome weaknesses, have greater knowledge of themselves and life.
Okay! So how does this work? Let’s use Wreck-It Ralph, because I’m in the mood.
What is Ralph’s Goal?
A single medal will suffice. A tangible medal that we can easily envision. A specific medal, namely the one he got from Hero’s Duty. A medal that we can imagine him obtaining, bringing to the Nicelanders, and using to change his lot in life.
It’s easy to cheer on because it means Ralph doesn’t have to live in the garbage, alone anymore. We can relate to it, and cheer it on, because nobody wants to be alone (especially not while living in garbage).
And the stakes for this are obvious: ___.
Now how about what Ralph wants?
This medal is connected to Ralph’s ghost which is years and years of being the bad guy. The bad, unlikable, unloved, unworthy, friendless guy.
He thinks if he gets it, he’ll become the good guy at long last, and his loneliness and lack of self-worth will end.
How is this his saving grace? It immediately makes the audience empathize with Ralph. Everyone, at some point, has felt alone and unloved.
What about what he Needs?
Getting the medal doesn’t work out for Ralph. It doesn’t fix anything. What he NEEDS is this medal:
To become a hero, he needs to be the hero for Vanellope.
“As long as that little kid likes me … “
So these three are the destination. These are what everything is going towards. If you know these three elements, you’ll have a much better chance of an ending forming in your head. So take that annoying little liar voice.
You know what that voice looks like? Her. It looks like Umbridge.
Sorry I wanted you to hate it as much as I do.