Understanding Goal, Motivation, and Conflict: GOAL


By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

The foundation of every functional novel is goal, motivation, and conflict. What your character wants, why they want it, and what they’re willing to endure to get it.

Sounds simple in principle, right? But I’ve seen a lot of people struggle with this, so over the next few weeks, I’m going to walk you through each point. If one of these core concepts isn’t working, your whole story falls apart.

Your character’s goal is their external, conscious desire. It’s the thing they want to achieve over the course of the story.

(We’ll get to their internal, subconscious need next time.)

Their goal MUST…
•      be important
•      be urgent
•      be concrete and specific

Let’s break this down.

When I say the goal is important, I mean that there will be big, negative consequences if your character fails to achieve that goal. In order to reach their goal, your character should have to suffer and struggle, so if the goal isn’t important, your character isn’t going to be willing to keep pursuing it.

I’ll talk about this element a bit more when we get to motivation, but I want to say one more thing about this here—the goal needs to be important to your protagonist, not necessarily to the world. A story about a woman whose goal is to adopt a child can be as powerful and captivating as a story about a woman whose goal is to locate a terrorist cell and stop them from bombing the U.S.

It’s the character who drives the story and so the goal needs to be personal and relevant to that character, regardless of how the rest of the world feels about it.

And if the goal is big like “save the world,” you’ll still need to find a way to make it personal for your protagonist (for example, by showing a person they love who will die if the big, bad thing happens). This is why so many “save the world” movies and books show you the protagonist’s child or wife or husband or brother first. It always starts by being personal, then it becomes business too.

An urgent goal is one your character has to act on right now. If they can wait a few months or a year before pursuing their goal, then it’s not an urgent goal. Another way of saying this is that the goal needs to be time sensitive.

Humans don’t tend to like change. Unless there’s a reason we need to act on something immediately, we’ll often put it off because we’re comfortable the way we are, even if the way we are is actually hurting us. We’re afraid that if we try to change, either we’ll fail and make it worse or the change we attempt will make our life worse than it was before. We don’t trust change.

Concrete is the one that trips a lot of people up because it’s easy to confuse an ambition with a goal. An ambition can’t carry a story because we don’t know what to watch for and we don’t know when we’ve reached it.

Ambition: Get healthy.

Goal: Workout five times a week.

How do you know when you’ve achieved the ambition? What does it look like? It’s too nebulous and the end point isn’t clear. This is why so many people fail in their New Year’s Resolutions. They set ambitions rather than goals.

You know exactly when you’ve achieved the goal. It’s measurable. It’s external. It’s visible.

Right now someone is sure to object that their character’s goal is internal. Even if our character’s goal is internal change, we still need to create a concrete, external signpost of what this looks like to them to achieve it.

Here’s an example. Let’s say at the start of the book, our character struggles with an anxiety disorder and it’s ruining her life. She doesn’t like to leave her house, and her relationships are falling apart.

Ambition: Overcome my anxiety disorder.

Internal Goal: Learn to manage my attacks when they happen so that they don’t spiral out of control and prevent me from doing the things I want to do.

External Sign: Be able to volunteer at the hospital like I’ve always wanted but couldn’t because the blood, wounds, and fear of catching something have always triggered my anxiety.

Internal goals are absolutely fantastic when coupled with an external sign this way because then you’ve got plot and character arc working together.

Extra Tip: One area where a lot of writers get confused is that there’s a big-picture story goal, but each scene also has a goal. Our character is going to have smaller-scale goals along the way, and those goals will be steps to achieving their big-picture goal.

Have you struggled with creating a goal that meets these criteria? Or have you seen now that your book’s current goal isn’t a workable goal at all? Feel free to share in the comments!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

Enter your email address to follow this blog:


Image Credit:Jacek Raczynski/www.freeimages.com