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Let's talk about goals

It’s almost NaNoWriMo time again, which means I’ve been hanging out a lot on the NaNoWriMo forums. I find I’ve been spending a lot of time helping other ‘WriMos sort out their plots before November starts, and in particular, helping them figure out the whole question of goals.

Rather than type it out a million times over there, I figured it would be better to simply go over it once, here. After all, goals are a big part of why we believe in and root for a book’s characters, and even the most quirky and interesting character is going to fall flat if the character’s goals don’t feel right.

Short, Medium, Long

Within the context of a novel, I find that characters’ goals usually group into three levels. Short term, medium term, and long term. Every novel will have its own scale—what constitutes a short term goal in a multi-generational family saga might take years, while a short term goal in a “you have 24 hours to stop the terrorist plot” type thriller might only take minutes or even seconds—but within its scale you’ll find all three kinds of goals.

Short term goals are what characters want to achieve right now. Within the immediate scene, usually, or even within a paragraph. Typically, the short term goal is the one which is the most pressing for the character, right at that very minute. It is the thing they can least afford to ignore.

Medium term goals take longer to achieve. They are almost always more difficult to achieve. And this is the important part, they often correspond with the character’s overall story goal. If you look forward to your plot’s climax, a character’s medium-term goal is the thing he or she is either going to succeed or fail at when the big moment comes.

You would think that long term goals are the ones that would drive the story, but they’re not, because characters have (at least, so we imagine) lives outside of and beyond the confines of the plot you’re writing. As far as the character is concerned the plot is probably just one episode, albeit a dramatic one, within the context of a larger life.

Which leads us to the long term goals. Long term goals are most typically life goals, the great, meaningful, important things the character aspires towards. These are goals like “get a promotion,” “buy a house,” or “write my novel.” Anything you can add the word “someday” to, without substantially changing the sentiment of the goal, is a long term goal.

Long term goals may be very important to the character personally, but they are often put on the back burner in favor of pursuing short term and medium term goals. After all, short term and medium term goals almost always feel more pressing and immediate, when you’re making decisions about how to use your time. Yes, you may deeply want to save up money to buy that house, but right now the car’s out of gas and your kid needs new shoes. We all know what this is like in our own lives, and if you’re striving to portray a realistic character (as opposed to a relentlessly logical one), it helps to show this tension between satisfying the needs of the moment and planning for the long term.

Goals and Maslow

Short, medium, and long term goals also fit nicely into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Short term goals often correspond to the lower, more immediate, survival-oriented levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Food, shelter, and so forth. Long term goals, being more aspirational, tend to fit into the upper levels of the hierarchy. There, you find achievement, professional success, and the like. In the middle, you tend to find your story goals. For example, the entire (and mind-bogglingly prolific) genre of romance novels trades on story goals that fit smack into the middle “Love and Belonging” layer of the hierarchy.

These are not hard and fast rules, by any means. And while many a thriller novel has made hay on story goals that sit on the lower, “Safety” layer of the hierarchy, you’ll find that from scene to scene your characters’ goals may well jump around as circumstances warrant. That’s fine. The point here is that when you get stuck, when you’re not exactly sure what goal makes sense in a given scene, you might look to see if the hierarchy of needs can point you towards something that will work.

Know What Everybody Wants

Try to be aware of all your characters’ goals, on all three levels, all the time. Yes, that’s a tall order. I know it is. But it’s important because goals dictate choices and actions. When characters’ choices fall out of sync with their goals, readers stop believing in them as real people. As well they should.

At a minimum, do this for your protagonists, antagonists, and any other POV characters you may employ. Make sure you know what those people’s goals are. When you’re writing a scene, you can scope your focus down to just the goals of the people in the scene.

Using All Three Levels

Now that you know what everybody wants, what do you do when it comes to writing the book?

Short term goals typically drive your scenes. Why? Because scenes involve characters doing things, and at least by default characters choose to do whatever’s most pressing at the moment. You don’t sit and finish your Sudoku while your house is on fire.

That said, characters often have a lot of choice as to what their short term goals are, because characters are keeping in mind (or rather, you’re doing it for them) their medium term story goals. Therefore, characters pick short term goals that support their medium term goals. In a given scene, characters have a wide (almost unimaginably wide) array of possible choices they can make. Not all of them make sense, but they do exist. Some smaller set of choices will help the character towards achieving the story goal. The smart, believable character will pick a short term scene goal from this smaller set. Short term goals are often a means to an end.

Long term goals, on the other hand, often get left by the wayside and are only pursued when an opportunity happens to present itself. There’s an ironic, almost perverse contradiction short, medium, and long term goals, which almost always works against the direct pursuit of long term goals. There’s a scale of personal importance from short to long term goals, in which the long term goals are indeed the most important ones to a character. Those are the things the character most strongly wants, deep down, to achieve.

But remember, “someday.” Long term goals are “someday” goals, and there is a contradictory scale of immediacy under which short term goals out rank long term ones. And for whatever reason, immediacy seems to trump personal importance every time. This is usually a source of frustration, to the extent characters are aware that their pursuit of short term and medium term goals is pulling them away from their long term goals.

Goals in Opposition

Those contradicting scales of personal importance and immediacy point to a larger, and much more important issue with goal setting in your novels. Opposition. As often as possible, put different goals in opposition to one another.

Some oppositions are obvious: The protagonist’s and antagonist’s story goals should clearly conflict with one another, and I won’t spend any time on it because that’s pretty well-trodden ground on other writing blogs and in writing books. Just about all you need to know is captured in the image illustrating this article: those kids can’t both have what they want in that moment.

What I will talk about are intra-character conflicts. Creating conflicts within a single character’s goals is an excellent way to raise the drama in your novel. Choices, difficult ones that involve sacrifice, are inherently dramatic. When you’re designing a scene, see if there’s a way you can make the scene such that it will force the character to choose between two things he or she wants. You can make it overt and unthinkable, as in Sophie’s Choice, but it takes a lot of setup to make that work as anything other than melodrama.

What I like is to create conflicts across the different levels and scales of goals. Short term goals causing long term goals to be put on the back burner is one example, but a weak one. What about creating a medium term goal for the whole story that, in the climax, will turn out to require that the character sacrifice any hope of achieving an important long term goal?

Alternately, you can create conflict within the same scale by giving a character multiple goals at that scale. For example, you could give a character two goals that rank similarly on Maslow’s hierarchy: a personal achievement goal of completing one’s Ph.D., and a social goal of establishing and maintaining a circle of friends. These goals are normally perfectly compatible, except during finals week when the character has to choose between studying for an important test and going to the movies with his friends. Especially if the girl he’s really into, and that one of his friends is also interested in, is going to be there. You see how that works.

Goals in Alignment

Goal conflicts and oppositions are workhorse tools of portraying complex, realistic people. But don’t neglect the potential for making strategic choices about where to align different goals, too.

This applies more between two characters than it does within a single character. Take an extreme example: you could give your protagonist and antagonist an identical long term goal but give them radically opposed story goals about how they want to achieve it. This can lead to the classic “horribly misguided antagonist” type of plot, in which the antagonist may be driven by the noblest of motives but is led towards doing terrible things in pursuit of them.

For example, your protagonist and antagonist could share the goal of averting global warming. But, while the protagonist may decide that the underlying problem is that people need to learn to consume less, the antagonist may decide that the underlying problem is simply that there are too many people. One will become an advocate for recycling and renewable energy, while the other will become a terrorist hatching plots for how to kill a billion people at a time.

The best antagonists, in my view, aren’t the ones who are the most purely evil. That’s boring. The best antagonists are the ones we can easily empathize, because we share their long term goals. Similarly

Mix it Up

The dynamic between any two characters in a novel is usually a mixture of opposition and alignment across short, medium, and long term goals. Characters who always agree are boring to watch. Characters who always disagree are marginally more interesting to watch, but it quickly becomes difficult to understand why they bother to interact with each other at all. Only by carefully choosing where to create alignment and opposition among the many goals they have, can you create a believable, interesting, compelling dynamic.

October 14, 2010 20:04 UTC

Tags: character, goals, NaNoWriMo, Maslow, POV, conflict

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NaNoWriMo Sponsorship Drive and Mega Prize Giveaway!

Fellow writers, once again National Novel Writing Month is nigh upon us. Those who know me know how much I love NaNoWriMo, both as an event and as an organization. This year, NaNoWriMo is working with gifttool.com to make it easy for people to encourage people to sponsor their efforts, and I’m jumping in to support a cause I truly love.

You remember the March of Dimes walk-a-thons? This is like that, but with typing.

Click here to sponsor. My goal this year is to raise $1000.00 for NaNoWriMo. It’s a lot, I know, and it probably makes you wonder why. That’s a question that deserves a good answer.

The best one I have is joy.

NaNoWriMo has brought a lot of joy to my life. That joy comes in many forms. There is the original joy of writing. NaNoWriMo is what led me to rediscover that joy after a decades-long absence. It is the joy of doing something creative, of learning a new skill. NaNoWriMo also led me to a new career and a new direction in my life. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be putting myself out there as a freelance book doctor if it weren’t for NaNoWriMo. Once I started swapping critiques with other writers, they kept telling me I gave great critiques until one day somebody said “Wow, you could charge for advice like that.”

As a vocation (and an avocation) book doctoring brings me much more joy than any other job ever has. I like helping other writers hone their skills. I enjoy getting sneak-peeks at novels that may someday be published. And there’s much joy in taking control of my own life in a way that wasn’t really possible when I was “working for the man.” All in all, I’m a lot happier and more satisfied with my life, as a direct consequence of NaNoWriMo, than I have ever been.

When I put it that way, I should probably set my fund-raising goal at ten times that amount.

But I’ve put it at $1000, and we’ll see what happens. I do it in part to repay NaNoWriMo for all that it has brought to me, but for another reason as well. I know that they’ll use the money to bring that one, original, life-changing joy—the joy of writing—to others. They’ll use it to help adults and kids, worldwide, discover and revel in their own creativity.

Of course if you all want to make both me and the good folks at NaNoWriMo deliriously happy, by all means let’s make it to ten grand! Because, really, don’t you think the world use a bit more joy in it?

So, what am I going to be writing this November?

This year, as has become almost a tradition for me, I’ll be trying something new for NaNoWriMo. This year, I’m writing an adult, literary novel centered around the question of “how far will one man go to gain respect, when he knows respect doesn’t come cheap?” Click here for a synopsis of the novel (and an excerpt, once November starts), and click the “Novel Info” tab on that page.

We’ll see how it goes. I’m pretty optimistic about this one, although if you can think of a better title than “LX” please share it down in the comments. Until then, I thank all of you who choose to sponsor me in my writing effort, and sponsor a truly unique and wonderful organization in the process.

If that’s not enough, prizes!

If joy itself isn’t sufficiently motivational, how about prizes! I’m offering the following prizes to generous sponsors:

The Wallet Quick-Draw winner: the first person to donate (other than me; I chipped in a bit to get things going) gets the very first copy of the book, signed and everything. I will produce a limited number of copies through a Print on Demand service for prize purposes.

The ESP winner: This gets tricky, so pay attention. The person whose donation amount is closest to the average donation amount, in recognition of your superior abilities to anticipate the behavior of your fellows, gets a signed copy of the book and an invitation to be a beta-reader. So, if you want a sneak peek at this story and the opportunity to tell me how I can make it better, figure out how much you think everyone else will donate on average, and give that amount.

The Luck of the Draw winner: From the list of sponsors who don’t win any other prize, I’ll pick a random person in traditional raffle-style fashion. That person shall receive all of the above and a free book doctor critique of ten pages + a synopsis of your own novel.

The Grand Prize winner: Whomsoever shall donate the single largest lump-sum to this sponsorship drive shall receive all of the above-mentioned benefits, plus a free book doctor critique and analysis of your entire novel. I’ll read it cover to cover and write a report you can then use as a roadmap to guide you in producing a revised draft.

The Everybody’s a Winner winner: Finally, because everybody who contributes deserves to be thanked, I will acknowledge all donors, by name, in the book’s Author’s Note. Unless you don’t want me to. I’m cool with that. [Edit: Why didn’t I think of this yesterday? Everybody who donates will also get a copy in eBook format (not sure whether it’ll be Adobe Digital Editions, ePUB, or what, but something you can read with freely available software).]

Click here to sponsor my novel, and my very great thanks in advance to all who do. Winners will be announced in early December.

ADDENDUM: If you contribute, please leave a comment here with your real e-mail address in the appropriate field. Otherwise, I have no way of contacting you when you win a prize; the GiftTool interface shows me your name, but for obvious reasons, doesn’t show any other contact information. Thanks!

October 12, 2010 19:01 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, LX, it's for a good cause

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