Character Goals: The 4 Gears that Drive Your Story

Guest post by author J. Scott Savage

Several years ago, I was working on the second book of a mystery series. The plot revolved around a man who appeared to be murdered over and over. My main character, a young reporter, was drawn into a series of scenes where she witnessed the man die in an explosion, a fire, and by falling off a balcony.

The main character was one I had used before and knew well, the plot felt interesting, the settings were sufficiently creepy. But the story just wasn’t working. I went over and over the same twenty pages, wondering what I was doing wrong, when, all at once, the problem became clear.

We were several chapters into the story and, while my reporter had witnessed several exciting events, she wasn’t doing anything about them. The MC was reacting, not acting, and as a result there was nothing for the reader to root for. As soon as I put her into action trying to solve the crimes, everything clicked into place.

Nearly every writing class I teach starts with four basic questions:

  • Who is your main character, and why do I care about them?
  • What is their goal, and why should I want them to accomplish it?
  • What obstacles stand in their way?
  • What are the consequences of success and failure?

Gear #1: Who Your Character Is

The heart of nearly every story is that a character has an important goal, but something is stopping them from reaching it. Rapunzel wants to leave her tower and see the outside world. Harry Potter wants to avenge his parents’ death. The Goonies want to save their homes.

Gear #2: Your Character’s Goal

Without a goal, the reader has no reason to root for your main character, which means they have no reason to keep reading. Does that mean you have to introduce the main goal at the beginning of the book?

Not at all.

Ultimately, the movie Tangled is a love story. But the romance doesn’t begin until halfway through the movie. Harry Potter starts out by wanting to escape from the Dursleys. He doesn’t learn about Voldemort until much later. Frodo simply wants to see fireworks at a birthday party. It’s only over time that he realizes he must destroy the One Ring.

The point is that, while you don’t want to introduce the “main goal” too soon, you must introduce “a goal” as soon as possible to pull the reader in and get them on your protagonist’s side.

Hand-in-hand with giving your character a goal is creating a motive that your reader can empathize with. Without motive, Hunger Games is the story of a girl who must kill a bunch of other kids to live a life of luxury. But add the fact that her main goal in life is to protect her little sister, and that she must volunteer for almost certain death to save Prim, and the reader is hooked.

Gear #3: The Obstacle

Once you have your goal, the next thing you need is an obstacle. More are better, and bigger is best. The bigger the thing is that stands between your MC and their goal, the more we root for them to succeed. Think about the moment when Frodo looks out over Mordor and realizes everything he must face to reach Mount Doom. It seems impossible for two hobbits to possibly make such a journey—which is why we can’t wait to see what will happen.

Gear #4: The Consequences 

The interesting thing about obstacles, though, is that the biggest ones are almost never the monster, the wicked villain, or the other side of the love triangle. The toughest obstacles your protagonist will have to face is almost always inside them. What do they believe so fervently that learning it is a lie would destroy them? Who do they trust most in the world? What if that person betrayed them? What is the one secret they would protect with their lives?

The most powerful stories almost always revolve around some version of a character who must choose between the goal they have to accomplish and the belief they hold dear. Give your character a goal, provide a motive the reader can believe in, force your character to face her worst fear to accomplish that goal, and you will have a recipe for a successful story.

Happy Writing!

J. Scott Savage is the author of eighteen novels, including: The Farworld series, the Case File 13 series, the Mysteries of Cove series, and others. His newest series, The Wonderland Diaries, will come out in Fall of 2020. He has been writing and publishing books for over fourteen years. He has visited over 1000 schools, dozens of writers conferences, and taught many writing classes. He has four children and three grandchildren. He lives with his wife Jennifer in a windy valley of the Rocky Mountains. He loves hearing from his readers at scott@jscottsavage.com.

Writers’ Clearinghouse empowers authors and agents by providing low-cost, at-a-glance evaluations of entire manuscripts, with emphasis in twenty specific areas (including relatable characters) that tell you exactly where your manuscript stands, its strengths and weaknesses, and what you can do to improve it.

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