The Problem With Character Goals

Writing a character is easy. Writing a good character is hard. Why? Because people are hard. We’re emotional. Irrational. We make no sense. And the key to a good character is to take all of the things that make us human, things we don’t even understand about ourselves, and somehow have it all make sense in someone else.  

Here’s the bad news: there isn’t a formula for what makes a realistic character. What makes you the person you are is far different from what makes me the person I am, yet somehow we’re the same amount of real. Even a person with no aspirations, who sits in the basement all day watching reality TV, is real. 

This is not the part where I list a bunch of things that make a dynamic character. That’s a cop-out. There’re hundreds of lists just like that out there, they’re all the same, and every time I read one, I sit there for an hour afterward thinking- what does it all mean? 

If you’re like me and at a point where googling for the secret recipe seems like a good idea, you’re either mid-hate-spiral or very close to one. The very last thing you need right now is a pretty little bullet-pointed list than makes what you’re struggling with look easy. It’s like telling someone who’s drowning in a pool- just move your arms like this. Thank you, Stacy, but you’re not helping. 

At the top of those lists is this tasty tidbit: make sure your character has a goal.  

That would be like someone walking up to me in line at Starbucks and says, “Moira, in the thirty-year saga of your life, what was your ultimate goal?” No! Don’t ask me that! That’s terrifying. I barely know what I’m doing right now!

Does that mean I didn’t have a single goal over the thirty-year saga of my existence? By the nine, I hope not. And for someone with apparently no goal, I sure as hell got a lot of shit done. See what I mean? We, as a society, oversimplify to make things palatable. It’s not that simple, and if you’re freaking out, it’s ok. Your current struggle is real. 

When I’m so deep in the weeds of a story that I’m afraid I’ve lost control of, I see “make sure your character has a goal,” and I immediately panic. What if I don’t know what their goal is? Oh no, what if they have no goal? They keep going places, and things just keep happening, and there’s no point to them or anything-  

Cue the hate-spiral.  

Unpopular opinion: life is pretty much pointless. Sometimes the point is there is no point, and that’s ok. Just because your character isn’t trying to save the world or catch the bad guy does not mean your character is useless and two-dimensional. 

I don’t even know what my own goals are half of the time, and I’m just supposed to slap all that on someone else in a way that makes sense when people, in their own right, don’t make any sense at all? And just because I slapped a goal on some arbitrary personality doesn’t mean s/he is suddenly well developed. Give them a goal- bleh. How over-simplified. 

Real people in real-life situations are not always driven through the manuscripts of their lives by a single, all-encompassing goal. So if your story doesn’t have one, don’t freak out just yet. To try and force it upon one of your creations because the Internet said to is a little extreme, don’t you think? 

Try this instead. Think of yourself as a character in the story of your day. Did you wake up with a well-defined goal this morning that ultimately drove you to this moment, sitting here, reading this article? I mean, maybe. More likely, you were trying to do something at some point and somehow ended up here. Welcome! Thank you for coming. 

Goals come with this connotation that they need to be strived for. That you have to do it. Life isn’t all about established ambitions and check-marked boxes. Life is messy. It’s a long string of trying-to-do-somethings and probably-failing-at-thems. Like right now, I’m trying to write an article for a blog I never planned on having. 

We all have a series of small, at times unrelated, attempts at doing something for some reason. Sometimes they are so little we don’t even think of them as goals at all, and yet they are the chain links of our story.  

Even the deadest deadbeat with no promise or ambition wants something. Think of that scene you’re reading this article to avoid and tell me: what does your character want at that very small and specific moment? What is he or she trying to do right then? Then what will he or she try to do after achieving success (or failure)? 

If you’re still not sure, read my post on writing a story. Then stick a pin in that bad boy, stop sweating it, and (most importantly) keep writing.

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Moira is a self-identified space cadet currently trapped in the desolate wasteland of Upstate New York. She was first published at the age of nine in an anthology for children that still lives permanently on her bookshelf. Her hobbies include wine, television, and overthinking everything.

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