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
Seven ways to show character growth
The best novels offer a strong storyline coupled with a strong character arc. A character arc is nothing more than the inner process by which a character becomes a better person. When the events in a storyline, coupled with how a character reacts to them, cause the character to become in some way a more mature person, that’s a character arc.
Readers love character arcs because when the storyline is over, the character’s final moments of personal growth leave the reader with the feeling that the story had a higher purpose to it. That it wasn’t just a fun adventure romp, spy thriller, or whatever. You leave the reader with the feeling that the book meant something.
Writers love them, too, because threading a strong character arc into your storyline is a wonderful way to add a layer of complexity and interest to a story. A strong character arc can be the difference between rejections that say “good, but not right for me” and “I would like to represent this book.”
Seven strategies to create a strong character arc
Gain direction, motivation, drive, or ambition. Take a character from being a boring lump with an unfocused, undirected life, and fix that. Give the character a goal, a raison d’etre, something to get him out of bed in the morning.
Get active. Take a character who from being a passive pushover, and let her start taking charge of her own life. Show her making decisions, making plans, and by all means, taking actions.
Shake up the old, boring routine. Show the character working free of a familiar and confining—if comfortable—routine life. Show him trying new things and embracing the world. Let him travel, see the world, and make new friends. Hint: if your storyline already involves travel, build the arc the other way around by saddling the character with a hum-drum routine of a life at the beginning of the book.
Expand your mind. Let the character learn something. Show her finding a new interest, pursuing it with joyful zeal. Should she self-study or go back to school? Stay in her garage and experiment, inventing something? Who knows, but if you can tie her chosen interest to the rest of your storyline, you’re golden.
Lose the ego. Start with a very me-focused character, and let him start to think about other people. Make him shut up about himself for a change. This can be a very effective arc strategy for stories that involve the “haves” getting involved in the lives of the “have-nots.”
Limber up. Mentally speaking, that is. Take a character who is rigid in her viewpoints and force her to loosen up. Let her begin to consider new evidence, to challenge her own assumptions. Let her fail a few times early on because she assumed she was right when she wasn’t, and from that, learn a lesson in humility: after all, you’re not always as right as you think you are. Don’t forget to let this new-found self-skepticism save her from a critical mistake or lead her towards a critical victory later, when the stakes are highest.
Refocus on the basics. A well-worn technique (well-worn because it’s effective) is to show a character’s disorganized, chaotic inner life by means of a slovenly, unkempt, unhealthy outer life. These are characters who are overweight, who drink and smoke, whose apartments haven’t been vacuumed since the Reagan administration, and who are failing to take decent care of themselves. They’re ignoring their responsibilities at the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. For them, you can reflect inner growth by showing them taking a new-found interest in their physical needs. Let them start to eat right, exercise, and occasionally even iron their laundry.
Every one of these strategies involves meaningful change somewhere in the character’s life. Some are changes in attitude, some in behavior, some in outlook or priorities. These are all inner changes, substantive ones that affect a character’s personality. It’s more than just changing your wardrobe. Character arcs are always deep changes that must be reflected in the surface levels of a character’s actions.
Note, this is another application of the famous Show, don’t Tell rule: The surface actions you tell the reader about are what show the character’s underlying growth.
Oh, and one final note. Are you planning a series and wondering how to manage a multi-book character arc? Why not start with a deeply flawed but loveable character, and in each volume let the storyline lead the character to growth in one of the above areas. There’s your seven-book saga, right there.
May 14, 2010 21:31 UTC
How writers can use Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Some decades ago, a researcher named Abraham Maslow got this idea that people have priorities. Brilliant, eh? Well, no. The clever bit was when he realized that any priority you care to name, whether it’s “I should go put on a sweater because I feel cold” or “Gosh, I’d really like to publish a novel one day,” fits into a hierarchy with well-defined levels.
Maslow decided that this hierarchy of needs had five levels. On the bottom are your basic life-support needs, keeping yourself fed and whatnot. At the top are your most aspirational goals, getting that novel published. Maslow’s main point was this:
You can’t pursue your higher-level goals until your lower-level needs are met
For we novelists, that’s key. It makes a fundamental kind of sense, too: all else being equal, a person (or a character) will naturally focus on the lowest-level need in their life that is currently going unsatisfied. That is, the freedom to pursue higher-level goals is a luxury compared to keeping one’s lower-level needs met.
If you trap your hero in an underwater cave with a limited supply of air in his scuba tank, pretty much all of his attention is going to be focused on getting out of the cave. You’ve created a pressing low-level need for him, and until he’s got it sorted, higher level concerns can wait. That is, while he’s underwater he won’t be spending a lot of brain-cycles trying to figure out the most romantic possible way to ask his girlfriend to marry him.
Similarly, you can’t get a group of women to organize for Women’s Suffrage if they’re too busy working to put food on the dinner table. This is why Women’s Suffrage movements, both in the U.S. and in England, were driven by middle and upper-class women whose low-level needs were already well assured. The freedom to pursue noble ends such as social justice is a luxury.
This philosophy leads to a point of leverage we writers have with our characters. People generally have a whole set of priorities in their lives, distributed across all levels of the hierarchy. These priorities are also dynamic, changing from moment to moment as circumstances change. This means you can pit a character’s priorities against one another—pit the character against himself—in order to create obstacles for the character to overcome. These types of obstacles will naturally be more compelling and believable than random, externally applied obstacles because every reader knows the frustration of having one’s priorities come into conflict.
Let’s imagine your protagonist’s central goal in the novel is a low-level life and safety goal. That is, the premise of the novel is one that threatens to prevent the character from being able to feed and house himself and maybe also his family. (Hey, raise the stakes, right?) Maybe, for example, your protagonist is an auto-worker who has been taking night classes in computer programming so as to provide a better life for his family. But, with the collapse of the U.S. automobile industry, he gets laid off. Now he has to figure out how to keep his family fed and his mortgage paid, something he previously had under control. If he has to go out and get a couple of lower-paying jobs, working days and nights in order to make ends meet, he’s going to have to give up on those computer classes. Or, maybe, he might take a chance and start applying for programming jobs anyway, even knowing that he’s not ready and might not succeed at that. Make him choose between the safe strategy of keeping his family’s low-level needs met at the expense of his high-level aspirations, and the risky strategy that might just get him both.
You can do it the other way around, too, pitting a character with high-level goals against unexpected low-level needs. Maybe your protagonist is a mid-level employee at some company, working hard to rise up through the ranks. Maybe he really needs a promotion and a raise in order to put his kids through college (a doubly aspirational goal). So he begs his boss for a chance to make a presentation at a meeting with an important client, and the boss says yes. Now create a conflicting priority: In the middle of this situation where he might realize his higher-level aspirations, confront him with a lower level need. Maybe he was nervous before the meeting (who wouldn’t be?) and drank too much coffee as a result. Well, we all know what happens when you drink too much coffee. Make him choose between relieving his low-level need, or soldiering on as best he can. Make him choose between appearing unprofessional by dashing out of the meeting to go potty, or holding his wee and delivering the presentation as best he can despite his physical discomfort.
Maslow’s hierarchy isn’t a rigid truth. People aren’t robots. The guy in the meeting actually does have a choice about whether to go deal with his immediate low-level need, or whether to ignore it in pursuit of a higher-level goal. It can be very dramatic to watch characters pursue high-level goals even at the expense of low-level needs. We usually call this “sacrifice,” and you can build wonderful drama with it.
It’s believable, because real life is full of examples. In a rigidly Maslowian world there would be no starving artists (or writers), but in the real world there are (as we well know). In Maslow’s world, there would be no over-achievers who pursue career or social goals to the exclusion of love-and-belonging. But in the real world, there are plenty.
In Maslow’s world, no one would ever dedicate themselves to a higher purpose, but of course some people do and they tend to be the people we most respect, admire, and follow.
Maslow’s hierarchy is just a tool
It’s a very useful tool, but it is only a tool. Much like the five stages of grief, which can come out of order or even skip over some stages, Maslow’s hierarchy is only a guideline for how people typically choose to focus their attention. To that extent, it makes a great framework for thinking about what a character’s goals can and should be in any given situation, and is a very useful strategy for brainstorming new conflicts and obstacles to throw at your characters.
May 05, 2010 19:32 UTC
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