Character goal?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Darkfantasy, Jan 12, 2019.

  1. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Mystagogue

    So I have two main characters in my book
    Character 1's goal:
    “Survive each day”.

    They are thrown into a brutal world where this is everyone's goal, not matter what side you're on. But this goal just doesn't feel personal. It feels realistic to their situation but it's hard to build a story around because it's so vague.
    It doesn't leave much room for motivation either, like it's obvious. We are mostly all built to want to live. This goal problem is making it hard for me to create character arcs as well. How can I solve this?

    My other character's goal changes several time throughout the novel. From pass the exam to get into magic school, to staying alive in a dystopian world. This character is easier but is it okay for a characters goal to change a few times when their situation changes. When a life threatening situation happens suddenly getting good grades isn't that important anymore.

    Thanks for the help guys
  2. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Mystagogue

    Being adaptive, including changing goals, IS part of survival. Flexibility is the key to long term success.
    So, short answer: absolutely! In fact, I kind of get infuriated with characters with maladaptive or denial strategies. (Read: every supposed 'adult' in the Harry Potter series.)

    Where's the character arc? Well, what will it take for this character to survive in this dystopian magical world? Think about Batman... he only had one rule: he would never actively kill (murder/execute) anybody. Basically everything else was a means to an end, and fair game. But this one thing was uncorruptable.

    Where does your character's ideologies and principles start in the beginning of your WIP, vs. where they are by the end? What about all the circumstances in between? If you have a character who wants to stand by a naiive code of ethics that will likely diminish survivability to zero, either they'll die or have to renegotiate their own code of ethics.

    This also leaves room for civil disobediance, radicalism, etc. Why obey unjust laws in a corrupt dystopian total BS society? Following rules that offer no benefit solely for avoiding the threat of punishment only incentivizes your motivations for so long when you're abused, marginalized or starving. Only fools keep playing once they know the game is rigged, so to speak.

    So, I think "surviving" dystopian bs societies is a viable, rich topic worth exploring with your own characters and premises.
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  3. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Dark Lord

    Look up the hierarchy of needs. The higher up the hierarchy a goal is, the more personal it will feel.
    Survival is on the bottom of the list. It's not very personal since every living thing has that goal.
    Maybe just think to yourself why survival is important to the character. Like, what are they living for? Meaning, connection to other people, ideology, self-actualization - those are higher up on the list so they're more personal and interesting.
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  4. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Mystagogue

    Wow, two amazing answers. hierarchy of needs if a good one. Plus, it's easy to have morals like 'I wont steal' when your never hungry or desperate enough to need too.
    That's the main idea of character number two, until the start of my novel she's lived very comfortably and has never had to fear for her life. She has this high code of ethnics that she has too change in order to survive and how that affects her.

    Character one's goal remains the same throughout and because she's had to live in this harsh world she is more self-preserving and less ethical. So proving her with growth and change has been more awkward. Finding reasons for her goal is more tricky.
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  5. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Main characters will always have two goals, an external goal and an internal one. Some like to split the internal goal and so a third spiritual goal is added, so the goals will be external, internal, and spiritual. If you can't nail these down, well... you'll encounter the exact problems you're encountering.

    Vague goals are fairly useless when it comes to story. Useful goals are specific with a concrete path with identifiable steps in which to achieve them.

    Think of the external goal as solving a problem in which affects all areas of your character's life, broadly their personal, work, and home life. The success and failure of is important to the most people in the story.

    For example, in Star Wars, Luke with Ben want to take the Death Star Plans to Alderaan and Alderan gets blown to pieces and that shifts Lukes goal to wanting to defeat the Empire by blowing up the Death Star. The success of this goal is important to the galaxy.

    (It's been a while since I saw this movie, so I maybe off a little. Memory is a little fuzzy.) In Casablanca Rick wants to basically stay out of trouble, not stick his neck out for anyone. As the story evolves, this changes to wanting to help Laszlo escape the country. The success of this goal is important to those fighting the Nazis.

    Think of the internal goal as something the character desires that they think if achieved will improve their life. The success or failure of this goal is important to those closest to your main character.

    Luke starts with wanting to leave home to be a pilot/jedi like his father. He wants adventure in his boring life. This shifts to wanting to save the princess. The success of this is really only important to Luke, Leia, Han, Ben and Chewbacca. Luke could have just left Leia behind and got the plans to the Rebels and still achieved his external goal.

    For Rick, he wants to get back together with Ilsa, the love of his life. In doing this, he things he'll get his heart back.This really only important to Rick, Ilsa and Laszlo. Whether she stays with Rick or not is unimportant to anyone else.

    The spiritual goal is something your character needs that they don't really know they need. It's a lesson that they must learn in order to grown and to achieve the external goal of the story. For the most part achieving this goal is only important to the character themselves. Achieving it is a revelation to themselves, an epiphany, a moment of clarity.

    Luke thinks that he needs adventure to live a fulfilling life, fight the Empire and save the princess sort of thing, but in reality he's really yearning for family and a place to belong. This is revealed to him when Ben talks to him during his trench run telling him to "let go," and he accepts it when turns off his targeting computer and uses the force. By letting go of what he thinks he wants, he gets to have what he really needs a true connection to family/his father in the form of the force and his new friends Ben, Han, Leia, and Chewbacca. You can see this change visually by contrasting the first and last time we see Luke. When we first meet Luke, he's alone and dreaming for something more. In the end, he's surrounded by friends.

    For Rick, he thinks getting Ilsa back will make everything better for him, but what he really needs to do to get his heart back is to learn to be selfless again. He has to learn how to put others' needs ahead of his own. So he lets Ilsa go despite her loving him and wanting to stay. He knows Laszlo needs her more than him. Contrasting when we first meet Rick to the end, Rick is in an unconscious rebellion against the Nazis, and in the end, he's going to be in open rebellion. He knows what he really wants, and he's going to go do it.

    The above is an amalgam of lots of things I've read. Check out Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. I'm echoing a lot of what it says in there. It's a great resource that's very accessible. The whole Save the Cat writing book series is great in general. Though most of the other books deal mostly with script writing, they're applicable to novel writing too, with lots of examples from movies.
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2019
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  6. Rkcapps

    Rkcapps Mystagogue

    I'm reading that now! It's awesome. I read Save the Cat, the original, but it's so useful to have something for novels.
  7. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Mystagogue

    Ah! The already deeply flawed but well-adapted to circumstances character 2 arc!

    Well, 2 Broke Girls (ok fine you got me: guilty pleasure catching that show every once in a while) started a good dynamic for characters based on- of all things- pity and scorn that turned into a minimum baseline respect. I'm assuming character 1 and 2 are going to meet somehow and interact... you have character 2 being incredibly adaptive and street-smart, cross paths with someone that has basically no chance to survive based on experience alone, but character 2 might recognize that there's something redeemable or otherwise exploitable in the 'weaker' character.

    What can change everything for character 2? Someone being so incredibly naiive actuallly makes them... genuine and sincere. So, maybe being treated with respect and being cared about as a friend- with no ulterior motives- from another person can help character 2 grow as a person? Not in a "drop his/her guard" kind of way, but in a 'hmm, maybe not all people are absolute garbage in an otherwise dumpster fire culture/ dystopia' kind of way.

    Also, character 2's code of ethics should still be ethical and *distantly* relateable. Like, a good example: how some drug dealers will not sell to little grade school kids, and will beat up older highschool kids who buy from them to resell to grade school kids they won't sell to. To a straight-laced citizen, you're just another scary drug dealer terrorizing the neighborhood, beating up on teenaged punks.
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  8. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Mystagogue

    Ah! The already deeply flawed but well-adapted to circumstances character 2 arc!

    Is that bad? Too cliche?
  9. Helen

    Helen Mystagogue

    Lots of potential goals: to heal, to change, to overcome flaws...
  10. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Mystagogue

    Nope! Not a bad thing at all. At least not for me. I myself like a 'well-oiled' dysfunctional character that is adapted to their circumstances. I guess because it's an opportunity for really dark humor when you throw a "wrench" (a not f%$ksd up individual) into their gears for contrast.
  11. Firefly

    Firefly Master

    I think the reason you're having problems with this is that wanting to live isn't a goal at all, but a motivation. Now, it's not necessarily a bad motivation, (though you're right that it could be more personal) but it's not enough in itself. You need some sort of concrete goal stemming from that motivation that gives your character something to do.
    If all your character wants is to "not get killed by the bad guy", then they'll just sort of flop around on the page doing nothing plot relevant until the bad guy shows up.
    If their goal is to find and kill the bad guy, or to get to a specific location where they think they'll be safe, then they have something proactive to do, which is both a whole lot easier to plot and a whole lot more interesting to read.

    EDIT: I accidentally published this before I finished writing it, so here's the rest...

    Changing goals can be confusing, because goals can and should evolve throughout the story, but can feel disconnected and episodic if you do them wrong. I think giving characters goals in the "normal world" stage of the story that will be abandoned later is a great way to characterize them and give them something to do before they get involved with the plot, but you don't want to put too much focus on them and give your reader a false picture of what the story is about.
    By the first quarter or so of your story, though, your character should really be locked in on the main conflict. They'll probably have different a sub-goal every scene of so, as they continually run in to setbacks and get new information and whatever else happens, but everything should be focused on the same major problem. What is it in your story world that's causing the life-or-death stakes? Do they all stem from the same thing, or are they a bunch of random issues that are interesting on their own but don't connect? If you're not sure, a good thing to do is to looking at the cause and effect chain of your plot events, or try taking each one out to see whether it changes the ones after it, especially the climax. (It should)
    Last edited: Jan 17, 2019 at 6:19 PM
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  12. Sitra Achra

    Sitra Achra New Member

    I guess it's a bit difficult to give specific advice without knowing what your story is about and who your characters are. It's very important for your hero(es) to have a goal, as the quest for it is what drives the story forwards and causes everything else to happen. Pretty much any story could be described as "someone wants something and is having a hard time getting it" whether it be a physical object, a person, or something abstract. "Survive each day" does sound episodic, but what is the primary, overarching goal of your hero? How does the story end?

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