Character goals and motivations

CarrotI was working on revisions the other day, trying to figure out why a huge piece of my novel felt flat. I kept circling back to one of my protagonists, thinking, what are her goals? And why don’t I, as a reader, care more about them?

Then it hit me: all of her goals were dependent upon the inciting incident. Her goals were tied so closely to the plot that, were the events of the novel to disappear, she would be an incredibly boring character. Yes, she has things that she wants — but what she wants is basically for things to return to the way they were before the inciting incident. If that had never happened, she wouldn’t have any goals.

I’m ashamed that it took me so long to realize this. I spent so much time working out characters’ goals and motivations, and the conflicts that stood in their way, yet somehow I forgot to make my protagonist a character in her own right. I didn’t separate her from her story; so, the only reason readers would care about her is to see how she reacts in this particular situation.

Well-developed characters should be able to exist outside their stories. No, I don’t plan to run into my characters on the streets; but I should be able to predict how they’d react if I did. I, and readers, should care about what happens to these characters before and after the novel, and about what would have happen to them if things had gone differently. If I write a character whose goals are all determined by the plot, I’ve written a character who can easily be replaced by someone else.

For example, say Sally has been kidnapped. Her goal is to escape from her captors before they kill her. But if that’s her only goal, then Sally could be anybody who’s been kidnapped. What Sally needs is at least one goal that isn’t tied to the plot. Maybe she wants to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but her audition is in three hours and if she doesn’t show, she’ll forfeit her spot. Sally still loves music, and she’d still want to play with the CSO whether or not she’d been kidnapped. Yes, she wants to escape; but she wants to escape in order to achieve her other goals.

I’ll be diving back into my revisions with this in mind. And if any of your characters feel flat, ask yourself, Are this character’s goals determined by the plot? If x didn’t happen, would s/he still have these goals?

Have you struggled with characters’ goals? How did you make your characters more well-rounded?


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