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Giving characters goals?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Darkfantasy, Aug 1, 2018.

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  1. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    Character goal always seems to be something that's lacking in all my novels, so I'm spending time learning about it for my next novel. This fantasy is a little more complicated than any others and the character goes through lots of different situations so her goals change throughout the story.

    I'm using Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” to help me and I've noticed my character jumps up and down quite a bit, which means her goal constantly changes, and I'm a bit concerned it's too all over the place and there's no solid concrete goal we can follow her through with.

    In the first section Mia is living in an isolated and safely protected forest with a supreme race. She has everything she needs to live happily, accept love and acceptance from this other race. That's her goal to find a way to get those things. Which is why she accepts the King's mission to leave the forest. (to find something that can save their race from death) As a human Mia is immune to the disease. (love and belonging is her goal or her motivation not sure)

    Outside the forest she discovers she has been tricked into leaving and the world is more dystopian where humans are being killed in work farms by another race. She finds herself in a work farm (like the concentration camps during the holocaust) where every day is a fight to survive. (physiological) Her goal to discover why this disease is killing magical beings is put on hold because she has a more important goal, just staying alive.

    Then she and a small band escape the farm when some free fighters attack and help them escape. They take her to their hideout in the forest and although things are scarce she's not fighting to food, water and so on. But this area isn't safe or well guarded, they have no medicine. (safety) Her goal then becomes fighting back/solving the magic problem because humans are weaker and magic would help them defeat the other race who has no magic but live in greater numbers.

    Her desire to avenge a friends death in the farm and find magic to defeat the race leads her to join another band of people who come from a different world. With them she finds more safety and security. So her goal comes back to love/belonging as she tries to become one of them.

    (also is story goal and character goal the same thing)


    No idea if I'm evening doing this right, so I appreciate some helps

    Thanks
     
  2. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I think it's important to understand what "goal" means, and it can mean many things for a character in a novel. Confusing the relative importance of the various types of goal can lead to lots of problems in the telling of the tale.

    Some of these qualities differentiating the various types of goal can overlap; there are:

    Practical and impractical goals. Farm boy wants to leave the farm to earn money for his destitute family: practical. Farm boy in low-technology world wants to visit the stars to see what's out there: impractical. One might call the latter a dream more than a goal, depending on how seriously he focuses on it.

    Pragmatic and idealistic goals. Princess might have a goal to save everyone during a war (idealistic) but come to discover that she's going to have to send warriors to die and accept collateral damage to the populace in order to win the war (pragmatic.)

    Exterior-focused and interior-focused goals. Bob the would-be-warrior may have the goal of defeating the eighteen bandits who have holed up on a farmstead (exterior-focused), while at the same time he may have the goal of getting over his queasiness at the sight of blood and the fact that his father told him all his life that he was a weakling (interior-focused.)

    Plot-related and non-plot-related goals. Harry might have the goal of finding and then destroying the horcruxes (plot-related) but also have the goal of asking Cho Chang to go with him to the Yule Ball (non-plot-related.)

    Long-lasting/overarching goals and ephemeral goals. Poirot might have the goal of discovering and capturing the murderer (overarching) while also having the goal of interviewing a witness during his longer quest (ephemeral.)

    Ok...So maybe someday I'll expand on these for myself—I've not given this such a focused (ahem) treatment before, heh—but these seem like a good starting point for understanding character goals in a story's telling.

    You can mix-and-match some of these qualities to see what you get.

    For instance, that farm boy might have the overarching and pragmatic and practical goal of earning a good subsistence for his destitute family; this could be the basis of the whole story, so it could also be a plot-related goal (among many others during the telling of the tale.)

    On the other hand, that same farm boy might also have the idealistic, non-plot-related, interior-focused goal, however overarching, of making his dead father proud of him, i.e., of feeling he's made himself worthy of his dead father's pride which didn't exist before because his dead father told him, during life, that he was a weakling.

    I'd note that vis-a-vis that interior-focused goal for the farm boy, it may seem plot-related because it may help to drive the plot, may lie behind the other overarching goal of earning a subsistence to help his family for the rest of their lives, but it actually drives the character more than the plot. He could as easily go through the whole story, working his way to achieving his goal of supporting his family, without having this other motivation.

    On the other hand, you could make the story about that interior goal instead of the hunt for subsistence. The hunt is just an occasion for accomplishing this other thing, or one step in accomplishing it. This would be a different story. It would be more of a character story. In this case, flipping that switch from non-plot-related to plot-related would make a big difference.

    Hmmm....Now that I've put all this up here, I'll admit I'm just giving food for thought. The next step would be to consider these variables and come to determine what sorts of variations and types of goal are most important to the telling of a great, enjoyable story. But I didn't have that goal for this comment in this post, heh.
     
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2018
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  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    You start with Mia wants to be loved. Other needs elbow their way in, but they don't change that goal. But I don't see the events that play out being at all tied to that goal. She wants to be accepted by the superior race; surely being put into a work camp changes that for her. So, maybe she becomes bitterly disillusioned by that.

    Along come the rebels. Perfect opportunity for her to fall in love, or at least to trust someone over-much. Maybe this group lets her down. That makes two bitter disappointments. Is this story about how a person finds hope in a hopeless world?

    I don't see an ending here. Does she in fact find magic? Does she find a home? Does she sacrifice herself in the greater cause? How does a warrior find their way once the war is over?
     
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  4. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I think I should add another consideration to the list I gave above:

    Conscious goals and subconscious goals.

    For the most part, I think we should consider the term goal to be something the character understands, a conscious awareness of aims. This helps to distinguish goal from motivation—and I think these are two separate things most of the time. At least, understanding the differences can help in the telling of the tale.

    But there may be subconscious goals; or that is, characters may have a hazy, dim awareness of an ulterior goal, or not, while pursuing a conscious goal.

    Consider the farm boy already mentioned. If he is consciously aware that he wants to prove himself worthy of his dead father's pride (were his father to be able to change his opinions even though dead), the telling of the tale will be a lot different than if the farm boy doesn't even realize that this is a large part of what's driving him. So one would be more of a goal, the other more of a motivation.

    Alternatively, a character may believe she's waging war because she has a goal of protecting her homeland but come to discover that, after all, her goal was to eliminate her feelings of being unworthy to hold the title Queen of Margoria, or maybe her goal was to kill one single person on the other side, let's say the man who broke her heart and betrayed her, and the war (or at least the scope of it, or many things done during the war) was unnecessary for protecting her homeland.

    Dunno. This is a hazy one for me, but it seems important.

    So to bring it back to your story...

    Conscious goal or subconscious goal? Or, after all, a mere motivation? The answers to these questions will play a significant role in the telling of that tale, I think.

    Edit: Not sure, but here's some more food for thought. Perhaps one distinguishing feature separating mere motivation from a subconscious goal would be the degree to which it directs the character's actions. A goal, generally speaking, needs an aim. Even if a person isn't aware of it, or is dimly aware of it only, it will direct many of the character's actions. A motivation may cause a character to act, but a goal determines, directs or at least shapes that particular action.

    Edit#2: So...does your MC do anything in particular to achieve that love and belonging in the group? If yes, perhaps it's a goal. If no, perhaps it's just a need that motivates her. BTW, needs are not necessarily goals; nor are desires, themselves, goals.
     
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2018
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  5. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    Skip.Knox - Finding hope in a hopeless world? Maybe a bit bit it's more about someone's potential for darkness after being lied to and disappointed. Yes, she no longer wants to be part of the other race and instead turns to wanting to belong to those she meets later on. That was the main problem I couldn't seem to find an answer too. Her goal or motivation about finding magic doesn't really tie into anything else happening. Don't know how to correct that.



    does your MC do anything in particular to achieve that love and belonging in the group? Yes she does. Still finding this goal vs motivation thing hard to grasp, it's been drummed into my head as being simple when it's not. Her desire to find magic could be a motivation to make people accept her instead of a goal. It could work either way. Think I might be a little more confused. But thank you for such a detailed answer. I've copied your reply into my notes.
     
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Nothing worthwhile in writing is easy.

    Would finding magic be a way to save *herself*? She may not even realize it at first. She might regard magic as simply another tool to get what she wants. Over time, she comes to a different understanding. Or, she regards it as a great good at first, only to discover that this, too, has a dark side. And that finding her place among others means learning how to master that magic and use it wisely.

    Don't think you have to work it all out ahead of time. And don't think that, once you've got it worked out, you won't have to change and rewrite. I don't know who drummed it into your head that finding goals and motivations for a character is easy. You need to find a different drummer.
     
  7. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    Just crappy writing classes I took as a teen because I knew nothing, so I dumbly followed anyone that "knew" more about writing than me. I guess no one has ever explained goals to me in the way Fifthview did, no teacher and no article on creating goals.

    I just can't seem to make the pot work. I know something isn't clicking but I don't know what it is or how to correct it.
     
  8. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    My explanation of goals is merely my own, heh, and I think many others may view the subject differently.

    Not sure. The most common understanding of a goal seems to be that it's simply the primary desire of a main character; it's the goal line at the end of the field, and the character wants to be there more than anything. That prize at the end of the journey is the primary driving force of the character's psyche. And often, as the term is used, that's an internal sort of goal: wants love, wants respect, wants to stop feeling like a coward, etc.

    I don't view goals this way—or not only this way, since of course a character might have just such a goal, however dimly understood, from the beginning of the tale.

    Thinking of goal only in that way can lead to lots of conceptual problems when writing the story, in designing the plot and populating the tale with events, character interactions, and so forth. The positive (i.e., useful) result of focusing on such an internal state as the goal is that it can really help to flesh out a character's personality, find the character's voice, etc. But one of the negative consequences of thinking only in that way is what I kind of saw in your description of your MC's journey:

    First, I think it's absolutely OK for a character to have changing goals. In fact, I can hardly imagine a story that doesn't do this. Let's say that during the course of a story, a character is captured by slavers; well of course that character's going to suddenly have the goal of escaping. Using my list of attributes, I'd say that escaping is one of those ephemeral goals. It didn't exist at the beginning of the tale, and after the escape, it won't exist any longer. So...

    That's okay. These things happen during the course of a story.

    But with the help of a small band, she does escape. This is kind of what's called a "Yes, But" in the try-fail cycle. She escapes, yes, but finds herself in a situation that is almost as dire, perhaps even a little more dire, than being in the concentration camp where there was food, shelter, etc. So...she begins looking for another kind of escape: solving the primary problem via a discovery of magic.

    This is where I find the most problem with your layout of your tale. The new goal, discovering that magic, does not seem to be an ephemeral goal. Finding that magic and defeating that other race appears to be the ultimate goal, a plot-related goal and a long-lasting or overarching goal—which she's only just now discovering.

    Plus, you've tagged on revenge for a friend that was killed in the concentration camp as another goal. Is that the ultimate goal? Or is righting the imbalance between humans and the other race the ultimate goal? Or...is finding love and belonging in a community the ultimate goal?

    Any of these would work, and all of these together can work. But the problem I mentioned before arises when the relative nature and importance of these various goals is unclear in the writing—primarily as they affect the plot and how you'll design the events in the story.

    Brandon Sanderson said something once in a Writing Excuses podcast that struck a major chord with me; it resonated. Readers want to feel a sense of progress, always, every step of the way. Things don't just happen for no reason, and even if a character fails in a try-fail cycle, that's just another opportunity for showing the character re-orienting to attempt success.

    So let's take that interlude in the concentration camp. What's she doing while she's there? Obviously, she'll have the new, ephemeral goal, of escaping. But what else? There needs to be more, something to carry the reader through that interlude, something tied to the primary, overarching goal. It may simply be discovery. I take it that...

    I'm a little unclear about whether this other race is the same race she'd been living with before. Was she tricked by her former guardians or by some new race into leaving? If she was tricked by her former guardians, then the previous "goal" of trying to belong with them and be loved by them (why she left in the first place) just shatters and disappears. If this is a different race and they tricked her, then...?

    Either way, that seems like a sudden discovery, not a process of discovery that will carry us through that interlude and give the whole interlude a quality that makes it not an interlude. I mean by the latter: an interlude is a break in the tale, a disconnected thing, not there to give any sense of the Sanderson progress. (A sense of progress in achieving a goal of some sort.)

    But let's say that instead we carry through on the goal of "[finding} something that can save their race from death." In this case, she can do things while in the concentration camp to discover more about the illness, what's going on in the world, possible clues to solving it, and so forth. Then, it wouldn't seem that your character "jumps up and down quite a bit" vis-a-vis a goal.

    Incidentally, this whole "goal" of finding love and acceptance seems to shatter instantaneously when she's captured, also. But it wouldn't need to. In that case, she could be trying to make friends, alliances, etc. within the concentration camp, perhaps. Learning more about herself, her relation to others, a place she might go or a group she might find where she can belong.

    The same sort of process carries throughout the tale. To keep her from jumping up and down, there needs to be a certain consistency, a thread woven throughout that will allow a sense of progress. She can have these other ephemeral goals, but there needs to be some kind of overarching goal seeded throughout. Even the seemingly ultimate goal that she "discovers" later on can be tied back into what has gone before; maybe it's just a different incarnation, a clarification for her, of a long-held goal.
     
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2018
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  9. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    Haha, for the last few hours I've been working on that thread when she's in the work farm. And figuring out a way to give her some information/clues in the camp to keep her goal around even if living is at the front of her mind. I heard that pod by Sanderson and he's said it a few times.

    Good pick up on the being tricked by her guardians into leaving. Maybe not quite as sudden since she all ready felt like she wasn't wanted and many had turned there back on her before she left. But maybe That point needs work.
     
  10. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    This plot needs a ton of work still obviously, and it's hard when you don't really know what you're doing.

    Thanks for all the help from both of you so far
     
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I dealt with goals and motives all the time when I taught history; students were always mixing the two as if they were synonyms. One that came up all the time was the Crusades. The goal of the (first) crusade was the liberation of Jerusalem (from Muslim control). That was the stated goal of most crusaders as well. I rather think another goal was not to die in trying.

    The motives of those crusaders varied quite a bit. Some went to gain the promised remission of sin. Some went because their lord went and they were obliged. Some were motivated by fear of reproach by their neighbors or kin.

    Notice that while the goal could change (as it did in later crusades), the pool of motives was much the same. Another item worth keeping in mind is that individuals can have motives, but states do not. States can have policies and goals, but only actual human beings have motives. And, as FifthView says, people's motives can and do change.
     
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  12. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    Been doing some work tonight and felt I should keep something going on in the camp towards her goal of finding magic to help her situation.
    But I've been thinking of the whole 'understand why magic is leaving making her guardian and their community sick' as a goal. When maybe it's more of a step to getting to her goal. Her goal is love/acceptance her motivation for that is living in a community where she feels unwanted because she's different and not as 'cool' as them. Maybe solving why magic is disappearing from the land is simply her attempt at getting her goal. So as her situation changes her steps change as she begins to latch onto other people. That way her main goal (love and acceptance) stays the same and is related to everything in the plot.
    Thoughts?
     
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  13. argentquill

    argentquill Scribe

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    Her main goal(love and acceptance) is a good motivator. These other things, like finding out why magic is leaving and people are getting sick, I'm thinking, can be steps on the way to that goal. But there's another possibility here. When she realizes her goal, she sees that she didn't need the approval of others to achieve it. She can do things, just the way she is. She doesn't need that stuck-up community to approve of her, in order to be special, or to accomplish things. So let her go out into the world, and see what else she can do. ;-)
     
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  14. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    Argentquill - funny you say that about accepting that she doesn't need anyone's approval since I've just added that to my character after watching a video on youtube about goals, motivation, conflict and fear. One was about want and need. My character think she wants acceptance from her community/friends but what she really needs is self-acceptance. Great minds!
    Thanks for your comment
     
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  15. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Finding love and acceptance as a main goal always feels a little squishy to me—but that's just me. I know it's certainly doable. I think that determining a main, overarching goal probably sets the type of story it will be, a la the MICE quotient. Are you familiar with that? Milieu, Idea, Character, Event. So your story would probably be more of a Character story, albeit with elements of the others. If you chose finding that magic and curing the illness problem as your main goals, it would be more of an Event story, or possibly Milieu if the story revolves around how that magic shapes the outer world, and she finds herself stuck there and can only return to the sanctuary after finding that magic.

    Anyway, that's the beauty of storytelling. You get to choose the type of story you want to tell. Good luck!

    Edit: I forgot to add something, heh. The above would apply a little more if you settle on only one overarching goal, but there's nothing wrong with having a couple, perhaps an inner-directed and outer-directed goal, and a more even blending of MICE approaches!
     
    Last edited: Aug 4, 2018
  16. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    Still working on goal because I'm also not a fan of lovey-dovey stuff.

    This is what I came up with today please tell me if you think it sounds any better to give her two goals internal and external
    GOAL

    Internal Goal


    Want – Love and acceptance from others

    Need – self-acceptance

    external goal

    Want - Survival of people she loves

    Need – learn that she can cope alone

    Motivation

    Positive – She's lived in a community that has more or less rejected her from birth

    Negative – if she doesn't gain love and acceptance it leads to a lonely life that fear makes her desperate to find a clique.



    Positive – she loves them

    Negative (true reason) – she fears being alone
     
  17. argentquill

    argentquill Scribe

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    I think I heard it in a movie once, "On the way to your dream, you can find a greater one."
    In regards to your heroine, her wish for acceptance and a welcoming embrace in that community can be motivating her. But as she's pushing towards finding the source of the sabotaged magic, she finds she can do things beyond just earning the acceptance of others. She comes more strongly to accept herself. Maybe in the past she didn't love herself, because that would go against the opinion of the people whose approval she wanted so badly.
    The restoration of that magic, which so many depend on, becomes her goal. She becomes mission-oriented instead of emotion-oriented.
    She can come to see that she is a good person and can do good things, with or without the acceptance of others.
    So after her mission is complete, why should she stick around? Why doesn't she go out into the world and see what else she can do?
    Just a thought.;-)
     
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  18. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I'm trying to remember some other story I've encountered which involves a running-away-from-home sort of plot revolving around the need or desire to find a place to belong.

    I know I've experienced stories like this, but I just can't remember a specific one. Perhaps another story could give a clearer outline of how the plot will unfold for your story.

    I'd said before that wants and needs aren't really, themselves, goals per se. This doesn't mean that I think having an idea of wants and needs is unnecessary and cannot help in understanding the plot.

    I think you can have both of these, the internal and external goals; but I suspect that making one primary and the other a supportive goal will help in visualizing how the plot unfolds. Further, probably the better course would be to make that internal goal the main goal, and the external goal the sorta "funny thing happened on the way to the forum" subplot albeit not written as farce. This is a little like argentquillargentquill's idea that "On the way to your dream, you can find a greater one." Accomplishing one is the key to accomplishing the other.

    If that internal goal is your main concern and the character's main concern, maybe be sure to clarify how the initial decision to leave represents the doorway to achieving the goal she wants. She accepts the king's mission to leave the forest because she knows she's going to be locked into staying there forever if she doesn't, and she also knows that what she seeks will never be found there. Finding the cure is just an excuse for her, an opportunity of escape.

    Maybe she is bound by this promise in some way, so that pursuit is also a necessary pursuit. But later when she discovers that she was tricked into leaving—maybe not have that "I was tricked" thing, or not make it a blow to what she's believed up to this point? That might dilute her initial decision too much, or its raison d'être. But on the other hand, perhaps this discovery would reconfirm for her that her initial decision, her goal of leaving because that sanctuary was never going to be the place where she belongs, was the right decision. Maybe this realization can combat some doubt she has about having left after she's been in that prison farm for some time.

    A lot of the decisions, ephemeral goals, etc., can be used similarly. For instance, finding a new group, a new place, and saving all those new friends can, in a way, be steps in reconfirming for her that initial decision. Abandoning these new people or having them all die on her would be anathema to her original goal: She needs an authentic place, and real, surviving people with whom she can belong, or what was the point of her initial decision? This doesn't mean she doesn't feel warm things about these people—it's not a simple, unemotional calculation—but more of an "Isn't this why I'm here?" Or to put it another way, "Yes! I've found it! But to keep it, I must protect it!" sort of thing.

     
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  19. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    There was a discussion similar to this at some point in the past, and one suggestion that came up was to think about it as the character having two goals. The first one is what they want, and the second one is what they actually need. The interesting part is that what the character wants may not be the same as what they need. They want it because they think it will satisfy their need, even though in the end it might not.

    I think Maslow's needs pyramid is a good guideline, but I also think it shouldn't be used as a strict rule. I'm pretty sure it's possible for a person to have desires above their relative need level. In the same way, I'm pretty sure it's possible for a person to be completely oblivious to what they actually need.

    As I'm musing on this, I'm thinking that the needs and wants here may not be the same as goals. They're probably related, but may not be the same thing. What needs and wants are though, are factors that affect your characters behavior in certain situations.
    A character who desperately wants to belong may be more likely to end up in bad company than someone who's already part of a strong community.
    The needs and wants of a character will affect their decisions and how they prioritize things.

    I'll try and think a little on the example in the thread here.
    The safety aspect here seems like it's variable to me. At first, she probably feels safe as she's away from the labor camp, and she's among likeminded peopel (more or less). It may not in fact be safe, but it's a step up from where she was, and chances are that for at least a while she'll feel safe. As such, it's a great opportunity to get to know the people around her. This may also be how she comes to understand that she's not in fact safe when she thought she was.

    Next up is the learning magic bit. It's a goal for sure, but I think in this context it's more of a stepping stone towards achieving something else. I'm thinking that again the need is safet - only not just for her but for all humans. She's connected with her friends and belongs to the group, and she's discovered that the injustices of the world threaten not just her personally, but her friends too.
    The learning of magic is just a tool for achieving a greater goal - safety and freedom.

    I'm thinking that in order for something like "learn magic" to be a need/want for a character, they have to be very near the top of Maslow's pyramid, where the obtaining of knowledge for its own sake becomes a worthwhile endeavor.

    The way I see the goals/wants/needs are as primal expression.
    If a tiger is hungry, it hunts. If it feels unsafe it might flee or attack.
    A hungry tiger will not go looking for a phone to order pizza. However, if a hungry tiger comes upon a phone booth it may check inside to see if there's food.
     
  20. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    About the falling into bad company, that is exactly what ends up happening as one of my themes is exploring a person's potential for darkness and that becoming dark isn't always started with negative feelings - you can just fall into the wrong crowd and become influenced.

    Really appreciate all the help and advice so far it's been really helpful
     
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