Monday, October 24, 2016

7 Questions To Ask When Creating Character Goals

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her authorwebsite.

This is the first year I've participated in NaNoWriMo. In previous years, I've observed some of the pre-November writing buzz, but this is the first time I'm part of it. The vibe reminds me of the moments before a race, when the runners are in the chute. The music is pumping, and there's a feeling of camaraderie and excitement.

During November, Go Teen Writers is hosting nightly check-ins. Whether you're officially doing NaNo, or just wanting a bit of extra community during the month, every night there will be a fresh, "How'd the day go?" kind of post. This will be a place designed for you to share how much you wrote (or didn't write!), encourage each other, and build relationships with other writers.

Last week in the Go Teen Writers Community group, Bethany Baldwin asked about character goals and was looking for good blog posts on the topic. We've talked about character goals a lot on Go Teen Writers, so I came here to grab a link to a post to send her ... and found nothing. While we've covered the topic, it's always been entwined with crafting a strong plot or a likable character.

So here is a list of seven questions you can ask to create compelling character goals:

1. What is your main character's primary external goal?

Another way of phrasing this is, "What is the number one thing your character wants?"

In Cars, Lightning McQueen wants to win the Piston Cup.

In Tangled, Rapunzel wants to see the floating lights.

As you can see in both of these examples, I'm talking about a goal that your characters KNOWS they have, that they TAKE ACTION on during the course of the story, and that DRIVES THE MAIN PLOT.

2. Why does he or she want this?

This is where the fun starts. Sometimes your character knows exactly why they want something. Lightning McQueen wants to win the Piston Cup because he wants the glory. Rapunzel wants to see the floating lights because she has a gut feeling that they mean something unique to her.

But there is also often a piece of this that the character doesn't know, or that they can't yet articulate or admit to themselves. Lightning McQueen would never admit that he struggles to feel good enough, and that he thinks winning the race will give him the sense of acceptance that he craves. Rapunzel, on the other hand, knows that she's craving adventure. Yes, she thinks seeing the lights will be special, but also she's just desperate to get out of that tower and go do something.

When we have big life goals, we tend to have multiple reasons for wanting them, right? Some are good, likable reasons. Others are more self-serving or less socially acceptable. Teasing out these complexities will help you figure out how to push your character's buttons. 

3. How does your character try to achieve their goal, and what stands in their way?

Wouldn't it be strange if Lightning McQueen's goal was to figure out who his parents are, and yet he spends the whole movie trying to get to California for his big race? That would make no sense, right? Figuring out your character's goal is almost always equal to figuring out the plot of your book. 

Once you know what your character wants, then you can figure out what actions they can take to try to get it. Because it wouldn't be very enjoyable if Lightning's goal was to win the Piston Cup, and he spent the movie watching other cars race. 

Not that you can't have some things happen to fall upon your character. In Tangled, Flynn Rider shows up in Rapunzel's tower, but then she seizes upon that opportunity. Some things will be out of your character's control, but your character needs to be as active as possible. That's one reason why The Hunger Games is such a powerful story, because Katniss chooses to take her sister's place.

And while the character's goal should make sense, it also needs to be big enough that they can't do it alone, and that they have to overcome obstacles.

4. How does this goal evolve over the course of the story?

This is another question that will help you solidify the plot of your story. 

When Tangled starts, Rapunzel wants to see the floating lights. As the story goes on, Rapunzel wants to see the floating lights and she doesn't want to lose her newfound freedom. It would feel false to the viewer if Rapunzel was content to see the lights and then return to her tower forever.

Or another way to think about this is that as your character moves closer to meeting their goal, there should be times when they see that the goal is just a piece of who they want to be. It isn't "everything," the way they once thought it was.

5. What are several other external goals they have during the story? 

As your character works to achieve their goal, it's natural for other goals to crop up. Often this arises in the romance thread of the story. Rapunzel wants to see the floating lights and become free, but she also wants to be with Flynn.

In Cars, Lightning McQueen wants to get out of Radiator Springs so he can get to California to win his race, but he also comes to care about the town, and he adopts Sally's dream of it becoming great again.

Giving your character multiple dreams is a great plotting technique, because it means you can put them in situations where they have to prioritize one over the other. This is how you set them up to make personal and meaningful sacrifices. Even with how many times I've watched Cars, I tear up every time Lightning McQueen hits his brakes moments before crossing the finish line.

6. What is your main character's internal goal?

This is a goal that is often hidden from the main character, but it's clear to the reader. Lightning McQueen longs to be accepted for who he is, not what he can do. That's what he finds in Radiator Springs. He doesn't know he needs that until he finds it, but the audience has known since we saw him have that phone call with his agent.

Another way you can think about this is that the external goal is what the character wants, but the internal goal is what they need. It's the heart of the story.

7. What do the other characters want?

The other characters in the story should have goals too. That's where a lot of organic conflict will come from. Lightning and Chick both want to be the next racing hot shot, so it's obvious how their goals conflict.

But let's consider Sally for a moment. Sally's goal is for the town to return to it's heyday. Lightning's goal—to win the Piston Cup—and Sally's goal don't conflict with each other until Lightning ruins the road, and Sally is bent on him paying for what he did.

See how that works?

I talk about this in the Story Workbook Tutorial (which you can get for free when you sign up for Go Teen Writers Notes) but something I brainstorm is the main goal for each of my prominent characters. I love how seeing their goals laid out side by side gives me all kinds of ideas for conflict, not just with my villain, but also the rest of the cast.

I want to hear what goals your character has! In the story I'm in the midst of brainstorming for NaNoWriMo, my main character's goal is to make money to support her family. Her internal goal (the one she doesn't realize she needs) is to be free.


  1. because of my personal life i've kinda took a break from writing novels... I've been kinda however keeping up my writing skills by posting poetry that is interesting. I noticed on my blog also the poetry gets much more views than the chapters I post. Once I finish my final 3 months in high school and have half a school year till I start college I can pick up writing my novels but for now i'll keep writing poetry cause it does not take up too much time. My mind is random and I have a hard time keeping on one idea, as many people with Autism do. So most of my writing often changes as it goes but most of it is just my emotions on a blog for others to read and enjoy in poetical form on my blog. I need to finish my book but for now my goal is finish up High School then I will have more free time. : ) Have a good day Miss Stephanie. Any tips on poetry? I know poetry is not covered much at GO Teen Writers but any tips would be nice so i can improve my poetry.

    1. Hey, Evan. :) It's kind of sad when Life forces novels to the back burners, but I'm glad you're keeping up with poetry! I really enjoy poems, but I usually only write them when I go through "poetry phases." Do you usually write non-rhyming or rhyming poetry?

    2. Firstly , Non Rhyming poetry is called free verse. And poetically it depends on the mood I'm
      In and content I post. I did get another 1,000 words into my novel though.

    3. Evan, I haven't talked about poetry on Go Teen Writers because I don't know a thing about it. I'm sure there are lots of other resources out there, though!

    4. Ok. Had no clue. I thought since you write a lot you knew a bit about poetry. If you are interested some time I could share what I know.

    5. Oh, yes. Free verse. I'm not sure why I didn't remember that. :P Just shows how rusty I am on my poetical terminology, I guess. Good luck on your poetry, Evan! I hope you find a good resource out there to help you progress.

  2. Great post! My MC's external goal is to find her estranged mother. Her internal goal is to belong somewhere. Also, congratulations on doing Nanowrimo. I did it last year. It's challenging, but a lot of fun. :)


    1. Those are good ones, Cat! It's easy to see how they work together.

      Yeah, I'm pretty excited about it! We'll see what I think in a few weeks :)

  3. Hello!
    I have a question. I am signed up for the RSS feed and went to sign up for the bi-monthly newsletter. It said I was already on the list. Are they the same list?

    1. How weird! No, they're not the same. Would you send me an email (Stephanie(at) with the address you tried to subscribe with? I'll see if I can figure out what's going on. Thanks for letting me know, Rebecca!

  4. I may not be good at making goals for myself but I really like making character goals. (And making their goals unattainable or conflict with someone else's. I'm mean to my characters sometimes.)
    My first MC is Rosamond. Her main goal is to break the curse that's going to kill her in two months. Her internal goal is to find her true love (cliche, I know, but it's honestly what she wants. Rosamond can't fall in love with anyone because she's going to die on her seventeenth birthday.)
    Draek is my other MC. He is also cursed but it's not a life-or-death thing so it's not as important. His internal goal is to be a respected king. He's not very good king because he changes into a beast every two weeks (his curse) so he mostly hides in his castle.

    Also, thank you for the feedback on my contest entry, Mrs. Morrill! Your comments were super helpful and now I know what to look for when I start edits.

    1. Julia, it sounds like you're on the right track with character goals. Nice work! And you're being mean to your characters for their own good :)

      I'm so glad your feedback was helpful! Thanks for entering.

  5. This was amazing! Thank you so much <3 I'm so excited that you're nano-ing with us. I hope you enjoy it!

    1. Thanks, Hannah! I'm feeling pretty antsy to start writing, but I also feel like I have so much more brainstorming I wanted to do!

  6. Two brothers have been placed in charge of a kingdom by their father. The eldest brother has the external goal of keeping his hotheaded younger brother from ruining the kingdom or throwing them into civil war. He feels this is his responsibility due to his position. To do this, he sends for their youngest sister to help tame his brother. But his brother's wildness might be beyond what any of them can control, and other (more pivotal) steps may need to be taken. Other external goals include maintaining peace and order in the kingdom and reestablishing the high church system in the land. His internal goal is to prove himself as an acceptable leader and man...a goal somewhat aggravated by the fact that his father put the kingdom under shared rule instead of strictly under the eldest.

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  8. Thanks so much for this, Stephanie. I appreciate it soo much! I have a huge project due tomorrow that I'm scrambling to get done but I will come back and read this more in depth later. :)