As a coach, I often read manuscripts where the protagonist’s goal, motivation and conflicts are not clear or on the page yet. This is a good opportunity for me to ask my writers:
- What does this character want?
- Why do they want what they want?
- What or who is standing in their way of getting what they want in the story?
- What is stopping them from getting what they want before the story starts?
When I ask these questions, I want my writers to think deeply about their character’s goals, motivations and conflicts, as diving deep into this will help them write characters that are interesting, active, nuanced and believable.
In essence, a protagonist (and an antagonist) with a clear story goal, the motivation to act, and conflicts hook readers and we want that.
Let’s consider why it’s important to have characters with a goal, motivation and both internal and external conflict.
We want readers to stay in the dream-like state of the story and keep turning pages. We want them to know what the characters want, why they want what they want and we want to see them struggle to get to their goals.
Also, characters with a story goal, the motivation to act, and conflicts are:
- intriguing and nuanced
- have agency, meaning they take action in their own story, and
- they hook readers
What happens if characters don’t have a goal, motivation and conflict?
When characters have no goal in the story they have nothing to drive toward. That means they don’t act, which means they have no force of opposition to work against. There’s nothing to overcome, and no conflict to face. There’s no story.
The reader’s eyes have glazed over and they’ve put the story down and gone onto do something more interesting.
When the protagonist’s goal, motivation and conflict isn’t fully realised, they are often standing off to the side of the scene reporting to the reader what all the other characters are doing and saying and experiencing.
The protagonist is not involved.
Not making decisions.
Not struggling with external and internal conflicts and obstacles.
They’re like a news reporter heard but not seen.
Sorry to say but that’s boring too…
Tip: Don’t be too nice to your protagonist. Let them get caught up in the fray. Throw them to the wolves and let’s see what they do to survive!
Which characters need a goal, motivation and conflict in a fictional story?
All main characters have goals, motivations to act, and conflicts to deal with.
Although, my recommendation is to do a brief goal, motivation and conflict sketch for all characters including supporting characters who are named. This means, defining each character’s individual story goal, motivation and conflicts.
Tip: If a character is important enough to be named, then they must have a purpose in the scene and story too. It’s important for you to know what each characters wants, why they want it and what’s stopping them from getting it. They all have an agenda and that’s interesting to read.
When you know what each character’s goal, motivation and conflicts are you can write a scene where they’re acting with purpose rather than coming on the page to deliver a cup of tea and disappear into oblivion. If that’s the character’s role, then they wouldn’t be named.
Character goals - What does the character want in the story?
A goal is something the character wants that is story specific. It is powerful enough to carry the character and the reader through the entire story. Main characters, especially the protagonist and antagonist, will have an external and an internal goal.
The external goal ties closely with the plot arc.
For example, the external goal might be: their quest, a job, bringing a criminal to justice/antagonist thwarting the protagonist.
The internal goal is an emotional one. The character might not even be consciously aware they want this goal. But you, the writer, need to know what their internal goal is so you can write a character with emotional depth.
For example, the internal goal might be: never be abandoned again or security at all costs.
The inner goal may be what they want, not what they need. Some characters learn what they need as they grow in the story. It depends on the type of character you have and the story your writing.
Character motivations - Why do they want what they want in the story?
Characters have reasons for why they want to attain their goals and you need to know the why behind what the characters want. This is their motivation to act in scenes and in the story as a whole. It is their ‘because’.
Characters with motivation take action and go for what they want in the story. They’re interesting to read, and we want to know what it means to them if their goal is achieved. We want to journey with the protagonist to find out what they’ll do to stretch for their goals. We want to see them go for their goal and fail, get up, regroup and try again.
Character’s conflict/s - What or who is standing in their way of getting what they want in the story?
Conflict is about the struggle the character goes through both internally and externally to reach their story goal/s. As the character moves through the story they face other characters and situations that put obstacles and external challenges in their way. They also have internal (emotional) conflicts that play out in the story.
Characters need to struggle with the internal and external conflicts. It’s particularly important for a protagonist to make decisions and choices, and to take action, then struggle with the consequences of what happens as a result of what they did. This goal, motivation and conflict in action builds tension in the story, and it’s exciting to read.
Until next time, happy writing!