Characters with Goals

Okay, so here’s the thing.  Lately I’ve been reading, and boy, do I mean reading.  I’ve been flying through books faster than (this is the part where I insert a humorous metaphor, one where you all chuckle in front of your screens, but all of my jokes were lame.  So, I won’t try to impress you with my quick wit, or lack thereof, and instead I’ll graciously move on).

Throughout my reading endeavors, I’ve come across several books, which, while well written (as in great prose and descriptions), the main character has absolutely no goal in the book, nothing they are striving towards.  So, here’s my question:  Shouldn’t the main the character of a book have a goal?

The problem I have is that if your character doesn’t have a goal, to some extent, it doesn’t matter how well written a book is, it’s just not going to be that interesting.  Their goal doesn’t have to be monumental, something catastrophic, or even life altering.  Their goal can simply be to ask Jenny to the prom, but if the poor pimply faced nerd meanders about the halls of their high school throughout the entire book, futiley tugging on his suspenders, without expressing what he most wants, what his deepest desire is—to ask Jenny out–then are you really going to give a crap about what happens to him?

A while back, I was reading a Jodi Picoult book, Harvesting the Heart.  She’s an excellent writer.  One of my favorites in fact.  And the writing in this particular novel of hers, no doubt, was amazing.  However, aside from the fact that I found both main characters to be extremely selfish and irritating, neither of them had any sort of tangible goal, nothing they were striving towards.  The book was quite disappointing.  It left me, bored half the time and irritated that the character growth was nil.

A character usually wants their goal because they’re seeking change, or the return of something to their life that was better than their current circumstances.  This is why they hold so fiercely onto the goal throughout the book, even when they experience turmoil or setbacks.  If the character’s not striving towards anything, then they just end up sort of meandering through the book, with random things happening to them.  There’s little consequence or meaning.  Furthermore, the very things that make a novel go from being mediocre to excellent, are tension and suspense.  Well, tension and suspense evolve from the character’s goal.  Suspense is created when the reader is on the edge of their seat–no matter the genre–because they desperately want to see what’s going to happen next.  They want to see if the character is going to finally get what they’ve been after.  Tension comes from conflict.  And conflict develops when the Antagonist butts head with the Protagonist, causes turmoil, and ultimately prevents or waylays the character from meeting their goal.

Take our example again, of the poor nerd with bad skin.  If you throw in the suave Jock , star of the football team, constant bully to poor pimple face, who is also vying for Jenny’s heart, it gets more interesting.  It’s a fight for Jenny, and the nerd must win her over.  Aren’t you going to care even more?  I don’t know about you, but I’d fiercely root for the underdog.

Ultimately the problem is this: If a character has nothing they’re striving for, then they have nothing at stake.  If they have nothing at stake, then the reader is not going to be invested in that character or the outcome of the story.  How can one be invested in something when there’s nothing to lose or gain?  The answer is easy; they can’t.  And if the reader isn’t going to be invested in the character, then why be invested in the book at all?  Isn’t it the point for a writer to make the reader care about the character, care about what happens to them?

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6 thoughts on “Characters with Goals

  1. Yes! This is such a great point! The past several novels I’ve attempted TO WRITE are problematic for this very reason–the main character’s goal feels too “so what” to me. She ends up doing exactly what you’re saying . . . meandering around. Sometimes it IS in the pursuit of something, but even then it doesn’t feel like it matters enough to me. Until I can find that compelling goal, I won’t write more than 100 pages of an idea.

  2. I would really like to thank you a whole lot for the job you have made in writing this article. I am hoping the same most effective job by you down the road too.

  3. Pingback: A Good Way to Edit « T.M. Souders

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