Character Goals: the Key to Great Conflict

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Character motivation is the key to great stories. If you think about the stories you love, chances are they’re great because everyone in them has clear goals, dreams and desires. The clashes between these goals, dreams and desires creates conflict.

For example, in Game of Thrones, every character has a clear goal. These goals make each character seem more lifelike. They also give readers a reason to root for each of the characters, which is an impressive feat considering that each book in the series features 10+ point of view characters!

In short, give each of your characters at least one goal. It can be big (i.e. conquer the world) or small (i.e. find a glass a water), but what’s important is that your characters want something.

The number one way to write bad stories is to not give characters goals. This will make your characters seem shallow. It could even lead to some characters existing only to move the plot along – even though they have no reason to do so!

By contrast, giving characters clear goals/motivations has so many benefits, including:

  1. Great conflict – Through the opposing goals of different characters, you’re guaranteed to create sizzling tension.
  2. Three-dimensional characters – In real life, people have goals, dreams, wants and desires. By giving characters goals, your characters will feel more lifelike.
  3. Greater reader sympathy – Readers identify with characters’ wants. This makes it easier for readers to empathise with characters and care about what they do.

List of Common Goals:

TV Tropes has an extensive list of common character goals here. This list also includes examples.

Common character goals could include:

  • Safety/shelter
  • Food/water
  • Love
  • Money
  • Friendship
  • Appreciation
  • Knowledge
  • Achievement

Final Thoughts:

Whenever you’re developing a character, it’s crucial to outline their goal(s). Whether this goal(s) is big or small, it will help flesh out your characters and boost your story’s conflict.

What are your thoughts on character goals? Do all your characters have clear goals? Can you think of a story where characters didn’t have goals? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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7 thoughts on “Character Goals: the Key to Great Conflict

  1. I’m sure there are stories without clear character goals simply because some writers like to step outside of the big picture… I just can’t think of any except for maybe Holden Caulfield. Was there a goal in Catcher in the Rye? LOL!

    For me, character goals are the end-game – how I get them there is the story.

    A quick look at my current wips shows most of my protagonists in need of mental stability.

    No comment. 😀 😀 😀

    Good post! This one goes in the folder too. Thanks, Jed!

    Like

      1. Whaaaat? How did you escape high school without reading Catcher in the Rye? 😄😄😄

        And you’re welcome! Really enjoy your posts. Good info for new and seasoned writers. 😉

        Like

  2. Pingback: Boost your story’s conflict by asking this 1 question – Jed Herne: Writer

  3. Goals are helpful, but they are not right for every story. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, for instance, Peter (Jason Segal) has no goal whatsoever; he isn’t even in Hawaii to win back Sarah Marshall, merely to mourn their breakup (to “forget” her — to accept that the relationship has ended).

    Contrast that with the spinoff movie, Get Him to the Greek, which is built around a goal so overt that it’s right there in the title; that was the right strategic approach for that story. Just depends on the story model. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a Rites of Passage tale, whereas Get Him to the Greek is a Golden Fleece.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sean! Thanks for your comment, but I’m going to respectfully disagree with your argument. As K. M. Weiland writes on her blog:

      “Your character is going to want [i.e. your characters’ goal will be]:
      1. Something concrete (an object, a person, etc.).
      2. Something incorporeal (admiration, information, etc.)
      3. Escape from something physical (imprisonment, pain, etc.).
      4. Escape from something mental (worry, suspicion, fear, etc.).
      5. Escape from something emotional (grief, depression, etc.).
      https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/structuring-your-storys-scenes-pt-3/

      The fact that “Peter … isn’t even in Hawaii to win back Sarah Marshall, merely to mourn their breakup (to “forget” her — to accept that the relationship has ended)” shows that he has a clear goal: to forget Sarah. I take this as proof that goals are a universal element of stories, even if they aren’t particularly overt.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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