Being a Better Writer: Crafting Good Goals For Protagonists and Antagonists Alike

Welcome readers, to another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! I hope that you all had a pleasant weekend, and that today’s post kicks off a glorious start to an even better week than the last. Especially where your writing is concerned!

So today’s post should be a little shorter. News-wise there’s very little I didn’t cover in last Friday’s news post, so if you’ve read that you’re all caught up. We’re inching closer to an official cover reveal for Starforge, but I don’t have an actual date yet. One other bit of news that has come to my attention over the course of the weekend will come out a bit later, but I’ll hint now that it’s good news and involves book sales numbers, which I am nearing a serious milestone for.

So yeah, most of the news that’s directly relevant was talked about on Friday. If you saw that, you’re caught up. If not, go give it a look and then come back here for a discussion on crafting good goals for protagonists and antagonists alike.

I admit, this may seem like a bit of a strange topic for some of you. Why should we talk about protagonist or antagonist goals. Aren’t those pretty simple? After all, it’s just what your character wants, right? How hard can that be?

Well … you got me. You’re right. Most of the time, this is pretty simple and/or straightforward. But for one, we talk about simple and straightforward things all the time on here. Secondly, it isn’t always simple or straightforward, and sometimes thinking about our characters’ goals a little more deeply than “They are at Position A and want to be at Position B” can free up our story in surprising ways.

So, hit the jump, and let’s talk about looking at (and crafting) good character goals.

Now then, let’s start with the simple basics: What is a character goal, in the context of the character (not the creator)? Put simply, it’s what that character intends to accomplish. For example, the character of Harry Potter in the series of the same name has a pretty straightforward goal in the opening chapters of the book: Read a letter addressed to him, and then after this attend wizard school. Simple, too the point, and perfectly understandable. Frodo from the Lord of the Rings also has a fairly straightforward goal at the onset of setting out on his journey, that of carrying the ring to the elves.

Antagonists are no different. Darth Vader, for example, has a very clear and simple goal stated in the opening minutes of A New Hope: Find the Death Star plans. That’s his aim, and that’s what he’s going to do, even if he has to “tear this ship apart” to do so.

There is nothing wrong with these goals, just to be sure that you’re picking that up. They’re all simple, straightforward aims and objectives that lend themselves naturally to good stories. However, I do wish to bring to your attention that there was more to these goals than the creator simply going “Okay, what does X want?” While that was likely how it started, and does start for most, goals and objectives have a way of growing and taking shape around or through character.

Both of those terms—around and through—do refer to separate ways for goals to develop, but we’ll get to those in a moment. First, I wish to note that a goal does start with the basics. So as you’re sitting down and figuring out the general elements of your story, it’s fine to say “Okay, so we’ve got a down-on-his-luck prince with a goal of saving a princess, a princess with a goal of not going back, and a dragon who … Hmmm. Perhaps you pause, then reflect back to the classic “Kidnapped a princess for the ransom money.”

These are all good, starting goals. If you’re a pantser (make it up as you go along, for example), this may even be the point where you start. But if you’re a bit of a planner, you might think “Okay, now what?” The basic lines are okay, but what about some depth?

Depth is where your characters’ goal, and the characters themselves, really get a chance to shine. Take for example this knight. They are down on their luck, and want to save a princess. Okay … why? Why save a princess over some other goal or just being a knight-errant? What’s the root of their desire to save a princess? Why is it a goal?

Ready for the clever part? You don’t have to find “proper” answers to those questions because the character might not have them. It’s important to consider them, yes. Consider why your knight wants to save a princess instead of other knightly duties. What reason do they have? Maybe it’s a poor one. Maybe they don’t even know, but are just operating on the logic of “That’s what knights do, right?” Not finding proper answers can open up all sorts of avenues for character growth (and plot) while also giving you, the writer, avenues to show a reader where your character is at.

By the same token, if you can answer those questions, you can also show quite a bit about your character’s growth so far, and have additional “detail” to their goal. For example, if you know that the knight wants badly to save a princess because his parents will not stop harassing him for choosing to be a knight, leading the character to believe that they will only be accepted as a knight by said parents if they save a princess … then you’ve got a goal that not only gives your character direction, but also a lot of avenues for their decision-making to interact with (which we’ll talk about more in a moment).

Point being, goals that aren’t well thought-out by our characters can be just as interesting as ones that are worked out as long as you, the author, keep that in consideration. The depth will be there either way … but what path that depth explores will be different.

Now above, where I mentioned having goals that are built or evolve around or through character? I used those terms for a reason, though I wish to make clear that these are distinctions used for the purpose of getting you to look at your goals through a variety of lenses. But for the moment, I want to talk about Indiana Jones in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Indy’s goal in the film is twofold: Acquire the ark, and/or make sure the Nazi’s don’t get their hands on it. However, this goal isn’t his. Not originally. He only comes upon this goal because someone else brings it to him.

This is a goal that evolves around a character. Indy himself isn’t the one who places himself on the path. He chooses to accept it, yes. But he only is exposed to it because other characters have the goal and bring him onboard.

Some goals are like this. Goals that grow and shape not because our character made a choice, but because other characters have impacted them, and our character reacts accordingly, adjusting aims to try and meet the original goal under new circumstances.

But what about goals that evolve through a character? Well, let’s look at another aspect of Indiana established in Raiders. The viewer is shown that one of Indy‘s goals (not the people who hire him) is to preserve and save historical artifacts. Thus, there comes a point in the film where the goal he has been given from an external source—do not let the Nazi’s acquire the ark—comes into conflict with his own personal goal of preserving relics so they can be kept safe. Indy has to choose which goal to act on, to blow up the Ark of the Covenant with a rocket launcher to keep it out of Nazi hands … or to let them have it and preserve the relic, even if in the hands of evil. One of the antagonists, and Indy’s mirror darkly, even calls him out on this exact conundrum, and Indy chooses to “evolve” the goal he was given of “get the ark/don’t let the nazis have the ark” by cutting the latter half of the goal.

That might have read a little clunky, but I hope you get the idea. Some goals are external, pushed on the character by outside forces, while other goals are internal. Goals can evolve and change around a character as caused by the actions of others, or they can change and evolve through our character making choices or coming to realizations.

Going back to our knight story with the knight that wants to save the princess, the knight can have the goal at the start to save the princess to, as earlier noted, win the favor of his parents. However, maybe he finds that the princess doesn’t want to go back and then has to reevaluate. This could be a goal changing moment—though again I note that “around” and “through” aren’t terms but illustrative concepts—though how it changes and why can be up to you. Does the knight examine their own goals—impress parents—and decide to modify that? Or does he let the princess dictate new goals on the side that may or may not conflict their their own internal goals?

Again, “around” and “through” are just conceptual. In truth, all goals from various characters will be internal—based in who that character is and what they desire—and then externally affect those around them, perhaps—and hopefully from time to time—making them change something internal or external. The aim in using those terms is to incite thought on the goals your characters may have and why, then how they will affect those around them, and in turn, how that can affect a story.

Now I don’t want to get ahead of things. You don’t need to sit down and craft these complicated interpersonal goals and relationships across the protagonist and antagonists down to the last detail right away. Or ever, really, if you don’t want to. But even as a pantser, there are some basic things you should keep in mind, the foremost of these being vital:

Craft goals that will result in conflict.

As we’ve noted before here on the site in other Being a Better Writer posts, without conflict there is no story. Conflict, big or small, drives story. So when you sit down to figure out the goals of your protagonists and antagonists, you want to give them goals that will bring them into conflict of some kind. It can be indirect, such as a story where the protagonist and antagonist never once meet or cross paths but continue to take actions that disrupt one another’s goals. It can be direct, where the two (or more) directly face one another and engage in some manner. It can even be conflict in other forms, such as two protagonists realizing that they have differing aims despite their similarities.

Now, with all this said, there’s one last thing I want to definitively cover, so that no writer reading this has a chance of missing it: Your character’s goals will be intimately tied to their motivation and who they are. A common complaint or issue with some new writers stories is when a reader does not understand who a character is, and thus doesn’t understand their motivations. Or they see the character claim one thing, yet do another that doesn’t seem to agree with it.

These are both different sides of a similar coin, usually the author not explaining adequately either the character or their goals and aims. Or sometimes both. Having goals and motivations clear in your mind, at least, is one way to help mitigate this issue because, well, if you’re thinking about them when you write, they’ll show up when you write. Usually. Sometimes it takes practice.

Ultimately, however, our aim is to craft a story in which the motivations of our characters are clear and concise, able to be directly understood or worked out by the audience. We want our readers to see what a character’s aims are, understand why they value them or have them, and the see how that will shape the story.

Simply put, one reason the iconic “I am your father” line is such a devastating reveal is because it threw so many character motivations into tailspins. Luke’s desire to protect his friends and defeat Darth Vader took on a new cast with the reveal that Vader was the father he’d thought dead. One reason so many other stories have used that trope is because it upends so many motivations and twists everything to make immediate conflicts clear.

“I am your father” doesn’t have the same impact if we don’t understand the goals and motivations of the characters in play.

So then … Where does this leave us? What’s our takeaway?

Well, I hope that after reading through this post, you’ll look again at the characters you craft, protagonist and antagonist both, and ask yourself about their goals and objectives. Both in a simplistic “concept” form, but then later by looking past the straightforward “surface” to dig into what forms those motivations and how they might drive both your characters and your plot forward.

Sometimes you may step back. You may have an idea, begin exploring it, and realize “Wait, this character’s goal of _____ would actually work better as _____,” and then build that outward, watching as the ripples of that change spiral through your story.

Ultimately, however, whatever goals you build should push your characters toward conflict of some kind. Big or small. It can be as simple a conflict as the two protagonists being in a relationship while one loves fries and the other doesn’t, so the one always orders their meals with a fry each … so that the one who doesn’t like fries “solves” things by giving their other the fries. Or it can be as straightforwardly dramatic as an antagonist wanting to kill all prior experiments from a lab to move on to the next experiment while the lab experiment itself very clearly wants to live.

Goals should lead to conflict. Craft goals then, that lead to conflict that suits your story. Do you want emotional beats with empathy and understanding? Craft goals that will lead to such results when the friction comes. Do you want explosions and death-defying stunts? Craft goals that will lead to that result instead.

Examine your characters. Look at who they are and what you want them, and their story, to become. Then give them goals and objectives to pull them toward that ultimate aim.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Crafting Good Goals For Protagonists and Antagonists Alike

  1. I’m going to get nitpicky here and say you’re mushing together two different concepts: Goals and Objectives

    In short, Goals are Big and Fuzzy, objectives are smaller concrete steps you use to achieve your goals. Picking on Star Wars is a good example. Luke has big, fuzzy goals: Do the right thing, go out and see the universe, find some excitement, etc… Kid stuff. Those goals are thwarted by reality (conflict), but if he helps his uncle at the farm (objective) he can progress toward his goal. A number of gained and lost objectives later, his aunt and uncle are killed, and his objectives change to joining the rebellion and returning the droids (to progress toward the Do The Right Thing goal) And yes, blowing up the Death Star is an objective here since it is in the process of doing the right thing again.

    End of the first movie. He’s reached most of his goals, but he has added a new one: Learn to become a Jedi like his father. Skip forward a bunch of achieved objectives later, his major goal shifts again: Learn to become a Jedi and *oppose* his father. (i.e. doing the right thing)

    Once you get a goal up to a certain level, it becomes a moral value, i.e. if your goal is to acquire money and to be an ethical human being, those two goals will clash until the more powerful of the two determine how you react to different situations. Or maybe you can hold both goals in constant equilibrium.

    The key is that goals remain fairly constant while objectives shift around depending on circumstances, or at least for normal people. Goals and objectives associated with the goals may be wildly at odds with each other. Examples:
    -The Millennial who has a goal of becoming a millionaire by the time he’s 30…but spends his time playing video games and smoking weed. (All goal, no objectives)
    -The Army enlistee who only joined because his father and grandfather were in the Army. (he’s going to have no end of objectives assigned by his superiors even if he’s lacking goals)
    -The Greedy Hustler who folds up his game of three-card-monte when he sees somebody wealthy leave his car unlocked (Has a goal, changes objectives abruptly when circumstances change)
    -The knight who goes to slay a dragon, only to find the princess ran away from an abusive father and was hiding in the cave (Has a goal of doing good things, achieves an objective only to change course when he finds his objective clashes with his goal)


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