Critique Technique, Part 15: Unclear Character Goals

A story’s characters have—or should have—a variety of wants, needs, desires, and longings. Those words may seem to be similar, but the shades of difference between them are important.  Goals—things a character hopes or intends to achieve or accomplish—make those wants/needs/desires/longings real. In a romance, the heroine has a goal to catch that special man; in a spy thriller, the spy may have a goal to do his job and get away; in a literary novel, the protagonist may have a goal of reaching an understanding of a long-ago relationship gone bad.

In his excellent book Scene and Structure, Jack Bickham writes about characters having a variety of goals at the story, chapter, and even scene level. The goals I listed above are story-level ones. Without goals at this level, a story and its characters will wander aimlessly. This is a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good bet the author will never complete the work because he and his characters have no destination. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, when she admitted she didn’t know where she wanted to go, “Any road will get you there.” Or nowhere.

But no journey worth taking is completed in one step. In order to reach their story goals, the protagonist, antagonist, and other major characters will all have to have intermediate goals. Even the secondary and minor characters will have some goal. Like climbing a staircase to reach the top of a building, each character has to climb the steps of his or her intermediate—scene and chapter—goals to get there. (Of course, there will be obstacles along the way, but I’ll discuss obstacles next time.)

Goals at all levels need to be clear and specific. Both the character and the reader need to know where they’re headed. That’s not to say the author can’t throw in a bit of misdirection—and she probably will—or that the character won’t get thrown off course—he’d darn well better!—but at each step of the way, the character has to know where he wants to go.

Or at least think he wants to go. He could be wrong. But now I’m getting into obstacles, again.

Let’s take a specific case to illustrate story and subordinate goals: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. What’s Bilbo Baggins’ story goal? To have a grand adventure? Certainly not! He’s quite happy in Bag End. The wizard Gandalf, however, has other ideas—and goals—and needs a burglar (Bilbo) to accomplish them.

Ah, here’s an interesting wrinkle. Gandalf gives Bilbo a goal: to help Thorin Oakenshield and his dwarves regain their kingdom under the mountain. It’s the best kind of goal: dangerous, life-threatening, even, and grand.

One small problem. Bilbo doesn’t want it. Conflict! Not all characters get given their goals by others, but it certainly adds spice to the story when it happens. And it’s an interesting event when other characters—like the antagonist—do try to force the protagonist to achieve goals she doesn’t want to.

But when Bilbo gets lassoed into going with Gandalf and the dwarves, his goal becomes a good one: surviving something that’s been thrust upon him. And to return to Bag End, of course.

Fine. Now we have story goals. What about the intermediate ones? Look at all the incidents Bilbo has to survive during the story: being captured or nearly captured by trolls, goblins, wood elves, and giant spiders, and the danger of being eaten by Smaug the dragon. He also has to survive the battle between the dwarves and the men of Laketown and Thorin’s anger when he steals the dwarves’ most precious jewel. So escape and survival become Bilbo’s intermediate goals time after time, as does earning, and re-earning, the dwarves’ trust, something he repeatedly loses.

With that in mind, we can pull back from high fantasy to the story you’re critiquing. If you’re dealing with a portion of a book (fiction or non-fiction—characters in non-fiction have goals, too), it may be hard to see what the characters’ story goals are. If it is, be sure to ask the author early on in your review. With a shorter story or a book chapter, the characters’ story or chapter goals should be clear, and in the case of a chapter, it should also be clear how those goals fit with the characters’ larger ones. Scene goals, of course, support the chapter goals.

The differences between scene, chapter, and story goals are magnitude and when they’re achieved, or not. Scene goals are smaller, relatively, than chapter goals, and reached, missed, or replaced sooner. Likewise, chapter goals are relatively smaller than a character’s story goals and resolved sooner.

One other difference between story goals and the lesser ones is that the scene and chapter goals may not be explicitly spelled out for you. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be clear, but they may become clear only by reading the text and seeing how the characters act. This will require you to step back from the text, as it were, and think about it as a larger whole, rather than looking at it line-by-line. This is a critical skill for a reviewer, anyway, so it’s something you should be doing, or learning how to do, from the time you begin critiquing other writers’ work.

OK, let’s wrap up with some questions you can ask yourself about character goals as you’re reviewing a piece.

  • Do I know what each major character’s story goals are?
  • Are those goals clear to me, to the character who has them, and to the characters who will be affected by them?
  • Do I know what each character’s chapter and/or scene goals are, and are they clear to everyone concerned? [NOTE: for the purpose of creating conflict, it can be desirable for some characters in a chapter or scene to not know what another’s chapter/scene goals are, so answering “no” to the second part of this question isn’t necessarily bad.]
  • Is it clear to me how a character’s scene goals relate to and support her chapter goals?
  • Likewise, is it clear to me how a character’s chapter goals relate to and support her story goals?
  • If the answer to any of the questions above is “no” (except as noted), what does the author need to do to make those goals or relationships clear?

What else do you look for when evaluating characters’ goals in a story?