Whether you have one or many, main characters are the driving force behind your novels. Niche or commercial, your novel is going to need a main character who can hold the reader’s attention throughout their journey and will at the same time inspire sympathy and change along the way. Your protagonist is a super important tool, and I’m going to help you give them purpose in your novel by giving them something super important: their goal!
Hi! My name is Christopher Sergi. I’m a novelist and a blogger going through the same journey you are: being a writer! Feel free to comment your thoughts below on the topics that come up in this tutorial, for not only do I want you to be a better writer, but I do too! We can learn and have fun together. Want to know more about me? Click here to read my bio, or follow me on Instagram to join me on my adventures. 😉
Why Your Protagonist Needs a Goal
For many aspiring writers, this is probably the biggest mistake they make, and that’s not giving their main character something to strive for. Very often, writers are not aware of what their protagonists wants. Often there is a lack of character direction, and many writers complain that their writing seems to meander, meaning it just swerves around without any definition.
A good way of identifying this in your writing is when your main character acts reactively to things that happen around them. The protagonist rarely goes out of their own way to achieve something, and instead they contemplate and observe external events.
Also, goals give the reader a reason to route for the main character. It’s the reason we’re reading the book. Yes we want to be entertained, but entertainment to a degree comes from our hunger to see your protagonist make their dreams come true. Just to prove this, take a book or a movie that you love and see weather the protagonists has a goal or not. I guarantee you you’ll see the goal. Now imagine your protagonist not giving two hoots about it. Not so entertaining is it.
Goals Must Be Tangible
Now it’s worth noting here that a character’s goal must be tangible. What I mean by that is the goal or objective the protagonist is working towards has to be measurable and obvious to the reader in some way. A good example of this is a character who wants to make one million dollars! As readers, we can see if this has been achieved or not.
Many first time writers (myself included) discover they need a goal, but fail to realise that that goal must be specific. Instead writers give their main characters goals that are too abstract, and what I mean by abstract, are goals that can’t be measured or properly recognised by your reader, such as the goal to be happy. Happiness is a very abstract idea, because everybody has their own view of happiness.
Goal tangibility can by anything physical, such as obtaining something, achieving a specific status or managing to be with someone. Once again, the goal has to be something we as the reader are able to recognise and accept for what it is. The main character’s goal must be superficial!
Goals Need Motivation
You may have heard the word motivation thrown around here and there when it comes to writing good characters? Now I for one used to hate hearing this word, but quite honestly, it’s because I didn’t know exactly what it meant. But I’m going to clarify it for you here, because when it comes to your protagonists’s goal, motivation is incredibly important.
Basically, motivation is your main characters emotional reason for wanting to achieve a physical goal. Let me repeat that. Motivation is an emotional reason for wanting to achieve a physical goal! If your protagonist’s goal was to make a million dollars, then their motivation might be because they want stability and security.
You might be thinking that having stability and security are goals in themselves, but they’re not. They’e too abstract and immeasurable to be goals. You must note here that goals and motivation are not the same thing. Goals are physical, motivation is emotional. Without emotional motivation, goals will remain purely superficial and your reader won’t connect with the protagonist properly.
Motivation Must be Caused by a Negative Belief
So your main character has a tangible goal, they also have motivation behind that goal, but in order to make your character’s actions towards their goals seem more believable, they need to have a somewhat negative belief that leads to their motivation. This is also important because it creates more depth to your character and it enhances their journey towards their goal.
Lets say we have a protagonist who wants to move to the countryside and meet their soulmate (goal) because he or she has never found love and would one day want to know what it’s like to be in a relationship (motivation). But their negative belief could be that they think all single people are inherently unhappy. (Negative Belief)
Basically the negative belief is a way to deepen the motivation and make it more realistic to the reader. Motivation is good but soon your readers are going to want to see more personality behind this motivation, and negative belief is a great way of making your protagonist’s goal more believable.
Add a Backstory
So once you’ve established what you want you main character’s goal to be, given them motivation and snuck in a negative belief, it’s now time to add backstory to justify why this negative belief exists in the first place. What happened in the past to your protagonist to make them think this certain thing?
But don’t get too carried away here though. Backstory is not every event that happened before chapter 1, and this is not necessarily an opportunity for you write a convoluted prologue. Character backstory is an event or events that happened that led your protagonist to have their negative belief.
If we take the above example, we can see that their negative belief is that all single people are unhappy. This belief may have come from seeing a parent die miserable and alone, where their last words were of regret for never finding someone to love. A traumatising event like this can lead to your character on their journey to their goal.
Suddenly goals feel very complex don’t they. As writers we are always told to give our main character’s something to strive towards, something to get them off the couch and something to get them to stop moping. Goals make your protagonists proactive, and we as readers love that. But soon you’ll start to see why goals are not sustainable by themselves and eventually you’ll have to add other elements to make the goal feel more believable.
So to clarify. Your main character needs a tangible external goal we as the reader can identify. This goal must have emotional motivation and an emotional reason to want to achieve that goal. The motivation must come from a negative belief that may cause conflict throughout the novel, and finally, this negative belief must stem from a traumatising past event.
And there you have it, a main character goal that will aid in your novel’s believability, flowability and digestibility. Both your main character and your readers will thank you for it.
I really hope this has helped you understand the complexities behind character goals and motivation. I know it can be tough at first and I know it was for me when I first started out as a writer. But now I know how to apply this to my work, it’s the first thing I think about. But if you’re still unsure about a few things, hit me up by messaging me if you need some more advice, or comment below to start a discussion, or better yet, sign up to my monthly newsletter to hear the latest.