Many say plot begins with conflict. But you can’t have conflict if you don’t have an antagonistic force. And you can’t have an antagonistic force, unless your protagonist has a goal, a want; opposition doesn’t exist until it’s in the way of something. This is why plot truly begins with a want or goal.
At any given moment, your protagonist should almost always have a want that manifests in a concrete goal. Even if the want is something abstract, such as, “I want to be loved by others,” it needs to be tied to something visually attainable. Perhaps the character believes that if she throws the biggest, best summer party anyone has ever attended, her neighbors will adore her. An abstract want has now become a concrete goal. And the audience now knows what success looks like: an outstanding summer party.
The concept sounds so simple, that many newer writers overlook or even dismiss the idea. But a clear goal is critical to a strong plot, not only because it essentially is what starts plot, but because if there isn’t a goal, the audience can’t measure if what happens is progress or a setback. If nothing is trying to be attained, then the events don’t really matter. The audience is just watching stuff happen. Or, perhaps as the Cheshire Cat says, if you don’t know where you want to go, then which way you go doesn’t really matter.
The goal helps provide context to the plot, by orienting the audience to a desired outcome. When the goal is to throw an outstanding summer party, then managing to book the biggest local band becomes a success while rainclouds become a setback.
Some writers are resistant to including goals because they have a restrictive view of what a goal must look like and the kind of protagonist needed reach it, but not all goals are lofty and not all protagonists are go-getters.
Goals fit three categories:
These are related to gaining something. Often, these are more aspirational. The protagonist may want an award, treasure, a significant other, or a career. They may also simply want a meal. These goals are more associated with the character having a hope.
Some plots are about stopping something (the antagonistic force) to avoid a negative outcome. It could be a meteor about to hit Earth, or bandits robbing travelers, or an illness that promises death. The goal may be to prevent the consequences from happening or to stop problems currently happening or to minimize potential damage. These goals are more associated with the character having a fear.
Sometimes the goal is to keep things the way they are, or on the path they are currently going. When something disrupts that (an antagonistic force), the protagonist strives to re-establish an equilibrium. These goals can be more associated with hope or fear, depending on the story’s angle. (Note: the tricky thing with these is that if there aren’t big disruptions and obstacles to overcome, the story can feel too passive.)
To some degree, one may argue that these all overlap. After all, isn’t thwarting a super villain a type of aspiration? And when the protagonist is striving to keep things the way they are, aren’t they avoiding negative consequences? Nonetheless, the categories can be useful in better understanding plots and characters. Ariel trying to become human in The Little Mermaid is much different than Batman trying to stop the Joker from destroying Gotham.
Goals of obtaining often feature go-getter protagonists who are innately motivated, whereas reluctant heroes often have goals of maintaining—they act in the desire of going back to not having to act.
But just including a goal isn’t enough—a goal really only matters when achieving (or not achieving) it carries significant consequences. Who cares about a successful summer party if it doesn’t change anything? For a goal to be meaningful, it needs to have stakes—potential consequences—connected to it. For example, if our character succeeds in throwing her outstanding summer party, perhaps she’ll finally be able to form deep relationships in her community, and if her party turns into a disaster, perhaps others will alienate her even more. These are significant consequences because they change the character’s “world.”
Luckily, even the simplest goals can become significant with the right stakes. The goal to obtain a drink of water can be just as effective (if not more effective) as the goal to become a famous musician, if the character is at risk of dying from dehydration. To make a goal more powerful, raise the stakes tied to it. This is also how to get the most reluctant of protagonists to act—anyone will act when the stakes get big enough.
While a protagonist’s goal can evolve or change, or they can have multiple goals through a story, if you want a strong plot, make sure your protagonist has a goal with significant stakes.
Need help brainstorming your character’s goal?
Don’t forget that the Character Motivation Thesaurus is at One Stop for Writers. Whether your character is looking for love, wants revenge, needs to catch a killer, or protect a loved one, you’ll find tons of brainstorming material to help you plot the story and shape your protagonist’s inner journey.
September C. Fawkes is a freelance editor, writing instructor, and award-winning writing tip blogger. She has edited for award-winning and best-selling authors as well as beginning writers. Her blog won the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Award, Query Letter’s Top Writing Blog Award and has over 500 writing tips. She offers a live online writing course, “The Triarchy Method,” where she personally guides 10 students through developing their best books by focusing on the “bones” of story.