Setting Character Goals

Happy New Year!! I hope 2017 brings you joy and all good things!

Around this time of year, it seems that most people are thinking about resolutions and goals. They want to lose weight, to learn a foreign language, to get a promotion or, if they are writers, to finally get an agent or a book deal or just to finish a particularly difficult revision.

But I don’t want to focus on any of those goals. Instead, I want to talk about your characters’ goals because every single character in every story should want something.


Recently, while working on a revision of my WIP, I came across a scene that was, well, boring. Really boring. And when you as the author bore yourself, well, that’s never a good sign. Although the plot was moving forward (in a dull “this happened and then this and then this” sort of way), the pacing came to a halt and the whole scene dragged. As I pondered this phenomenon, I realized that there was no conflict in the scene. The main character had a goal and proceeded to achieve it with no complications whatsoever. Worse, the secondary character in the scene had no purpose and no goal other than to follow the main character around and carry on a conversation about her goals.

It really didn’t work. He needed to be doing something in that scene for himself, he needed his own agenda and his own goals. And if his goals conflicted with the main character’s, even better.

I can’t remember where I first came across this, but one of the most important bits of writing advice that I’ve heard is:

“Every character is the hero of their own story.”

No character should exist just to be a foil for your main character. Each and every character has their own life to live, their own dreams and goals and desires, and they will want something in every scene whether it’s something small, like a Diet Coke because they’re thirsty, or something much bigger, like covering up a crime they committed. Sure, their goal might be to listen to a friend to help them feel better, but they might also be listening just so the friend will get it out of their system and finally stop talking so they can get on with watching The Bachelor. It depends on the character and what they want to have happen. Desire drives actions, and knowing what each character wants will drive your story forward.

Having solved one of the major problems in this WIP, I admit I’ve had a lot of fun working on scenes and watching how their shape changes based on the goals of the different characters. The hidden meanings and secret agendas add a whole new dimension to the story. There’s conflict in the story now and I’m not boring myself anymore.

So, what will your characters hope to achieve in 2017?

Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.