FiYoShiMo Day 10 – Character Goals

Hello! Welcome back to FiYoShiMo. Today’s Day 10, and it’s the last day we spend on character development. The next two days of character stuff we’ll focus on types of characters based on the information of the last four days.

Having covered all the whats and hows so far, we can look at the whys of a character. The tricky part here is that the character’s goal overlaps too closely with their motivations.

A goal is what the character wants to specifically accomplish, earn, receive or have at the end of the scene, story, arc, or series. A motivation is a driving force that puts momentum and a vector under their efforts.

There are goals to every unit of storytelling. In a beat, scene, or chapter, every involved character has a goal. In a book, every character has a goal. In a series, every character has a goal. And sometimes those goals are shared by other characters, and sometimes the goals parallel other elements of storytelling (a goal within a series may mirror the goal within a beat, but on a larger scale, for instance)

If you’ve got unclear goals, then the moment in the story isn’t going to fit in with the other moments around it. Two people have been arguing all day in other scenes, so it makes sense for them to continue arguing if they’re not near resolving anything. It would not make sense for them to suddenly be all chummy when they get to the frozen food aisle of the grocery store.

To help distinguish the goal from the motivation, you need to look at where the element of storytelling is taking you next. So we have these two arguing characters, they argue when they wake up, they argue over breakfast, they argue after breakfast, they argue in the grocery store. Looking at their activities, we’ve got them starting their day together and needing to go shopping.

Each character’s motivation doesn’t determine whether or not they go to the store, it determines the reasons for the arguing. They’re going to the store because the plot needs them to be shopping. It’s the arguing that’s the variable here, so here we have motivations informing their actions so they can get their goal – each character wants to be right, each character wants to be heard, each character wants to “win” this argument.

Where this gets tricky is when we start to see the plot tree branch away from the main storyline (the villain is going to strike again!) and give us subplots and character arcs (the villain is going to strike again, but we’re over here bitching about cauliflower). When we write, we are aware that we can get off track. We can get distracted while we’re putting the words on the page, as well as within the story as we’re building our worlds and telling our stories. Those deviations from plan affect us in many ways. We start to feel like we’re bad writers, we start to lose readers when story meanders. So we buckle down and we overcompensate. The story gets streamlined and we lose some of the secondary stuff because we didn’t want to risk losing anything.

This gets done a lot. Like your friend’s mom. And like your friend’s mom, it’s not always a good time.

What’s the fix? Clarity.

Yes, the writer has a goal of finishing the story and getting it published or read. Or to make a living as a writer. Those larger goals are important, for sure, but they’re not what we’re talking about here. We’re just cover to cover here, so we have agree that we as humans have that bigger goal, and it’ll get talked about later.

Inside the story, everything has two goals – to keep the reader engaged and to do whatever storycentric thing it has to. Here the tricky part is not inducing panic that any misstep will immediately send the reader running away, because they won’t. Yes, too many mistakes will send them away, but your reader would have to be a complete ((word deleted because while it is one of my favorite words to use, it makes people upset, and probably not because it rhymes with “stunt”)) in order to look at an unclear sentence and declare your work awful.

And frankly, if your reader is that difficult, I don’t think you’d mind seeing them next Tuesday.

Every sentence is a brushstroke in the painting of the mural of your story in the mind of your reader. Whether that sentence is part of a beat, or the closing of a chapter, or a piece of dialogue, or whatever it is, the sentence has to deliver the reader some information. It has to connect the previous one to the one that comes after it. It has to all cohere in a way that makes sense when expressed both individually as as the greater whole.

That’s why we place a premium on structure. That’s why you label your beats, why you map so many facets to your characters, that’s why your characters have something to do. The goal of a character is as big or as small as it needs to be within the confines of the pages, but to that character, it’s a big deal. If it’s not a big deal, why hasn’t it been accomplished yet?

For instance, it’s really important to me that I communicate clearly. It makes my job easier, it makes my relationships with the world easier, it makes good things possible for me. It’s how I get nachos, cocoa, time to play video games, clients, whatever. Wherever you live, my communicative skills aren’t as big a deal to you. You have whatever you have in life. My ability to describe my headspace isn’t going to pay your mortgage or keep your kids from complaining about how grandma smells, or get your boss off your back after you said that you’d handle the Johnson account last week. But if we’re looking at my story, then communication becomes a big deal. If we’re looking at your story, my goal is minor, if not negligible. If we’re looking at our story, my goal has to split time with yours, assuming we’re both protagonists. Seriously though, you said you’d handle the Johnson account. Go do that.

Here comes push-pull again as we move the characters nearer to and then away from their goal. That dynamism is what keeps the reader engaged. Will they accomplish their goal? How hard will it be? What will happen next?

You have to adjust the path of the character to their goal. Keep it too easy, too linear, you’re removing the doubt they could accomplish it, even if you challenge all their weaknesses. Even with objects of weakness, you’d still have to find a way to shoehorn it into the story (how many times does kryptonite just show up because Superman has to have a page of difficulty in a comic?), and that still doesn’t mean the character won’t come out ahead.

Make it too hard, or slow the character’s progress towards the goal, and you’re not making the accomplishment “more worth it”, you’re actually devaluing it. We have a fundamental understanding that the amount of hard work is proportionate to the accomplishment. A doctor performs a difficult surgery to save a life. A cop goes all over the city to catch the criminal. The harder something is, the more satisfying the payoff is.

When we build up a goal and then too quickly pay it off (like in those moments where we realize we’ve written 20K and just now get around to putting in an action scene), that payoff feels out of place, unless you’re going for comedy – all this guy’s hard work, and he just wants a Coke.

In role-playing games, there’s often a difficulty assigned to a goal. Want to get that treasure chest? You need to roll a die and get a certain value or higher. This is a really elementary solution to the problem, but it requires there be a scale for any difficulty a character encounters. How would you compare picking that chest’s lock to finally working out their relationship to their dying parent? Not everything can be made mechanically comparable and still hold impact.

A goal should not only have a reward, but it should carry some element of necessary change to it. Sure, the cop can catch the killer, but along the way they’re going to learn to be okay with their new partner. Yes, the defense attorney can finally find time for love, but she’ll learn this moment while in court, right at the peak of her toughest case. A goal that doesn’t require effort and change to accomplish is not a goal that tests a character.

I have a weak heart, and it’s tough for me to be as active as other people. (Forget for a minute that I’m not supposed to be that active in the first place) I have to do a lot of sitting and breath-catching in the course of anything that isn’t sitting and typing (although lengthy bouts of typing do exhaust me). This stress makes what I say and how I blog it important, a premium over the simple text messages that I send or notes to myself about needing bread on the grocery list. So when I go write 1565-ish words, that’s a big deal to me. The amount of satisfaction I feel is relative to the hard work I had to do. It’s important to see though that the character is the arbiter of the work-satisfaction relationship, not the reader. Too many books make the reader handle the judgment about what is and isn’t good enough, and that leads to softer weak characters and weak actions.

Take the reader along for the ride by demonstrating over the course of the story what the character wants and what they’re doing about it. Be clear and expressive about it. Use the best sentences you can muster. The reader will buy in, and doesn’t need to (or want to) be the boss of your story’s decisions.

What are your character’s goals? How do their motivations and philosophies influence their approach? How do their skills and weaknesses make that goal easier or harder to accomplish?

Tomorrow on Day 11, we’re going to look at what it means to be a Protagonist and an Antagonist. See you then.

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