[No doubt part one of eight million…]
When you look at a finished novel—its pacing, its characters, its settings, its twists and turns—and you look at the infant idea cradled in your mind, you might wonder how you can ever make the journey from idea to story. Even as you collect random elements like the villain, the hero, the setting, even the basic structure, you still don’t have more than a vague constellation of factors that could make a story.
But you don’t have anything to put down on the page.
That’s the stage I’m at now, and I’m pushing to move towards drafting. At this point, it’s not about doubts (yet)… I just don’t have any specific ideas. Or, at least, the specific ideas I have are somewhat random and incomplete.
I know what the characters around my protagonist are doing—their goals, their knowledge. And I know some elements of the central mystery and plot that can crop up from time to time—but I don’t think my protagonist is investigating these elements in any major way. And I’ve got potential day-to-day conflicts that can show up to spice up scenes and create subplots, but I’m still missing the central frame that will really drive the story forward.
What I need is my protagonist’s main goal.
One place to start looking for ideas is with the character’s arc. The ideal of a story is that the character will grow and change through the events of the story. So I start by looking for a weakness that my character has at the beginning, and how she might grow through the events of the story to be better in that particular factor.
Sometimes, this can be tricky with a series character, or with a heroic character who starts more or less good. But look for other individual traits that could be improved upon—confidence, trust, leadership, thinking for themselves, taking on responsibilities, etc. Or if not a character trait, maybe a single negative behavior or relationship—could they learn to get along with their mother? Could they learn how to be graceful in defeat? Or how to respect their sexual partners?
Some characters don’t change—look at James Bond. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be challenged in some emotional or personal way; the latest Bond film was stronger because it forced him to question his trust in his mentor. A character like this may not change, but maybe they could be pushed away from the path and have to reclaim it.
Ultimately, a story doesn’t have to have a character arc if it’s interesting, engaging, and keeps you invested in the characters. But developing an arc for your character may show you where they need to grow, and what events might cause that growth.
However, it doesn’t always suggest a goal. If the character’s goal is to change, then it might be—but usually, the goal is to do something that requires the change to accomplish. Or, the character is going after a goal they want, but once they change, they spend the ending going after what they need. This is the case with romantic comedies where the playboy “grows up” and then finally gets the girl; his goal for the majority of the film is to trick the girl into bed or get with hot chicks or whatever.
So that might give you one technique for how to use the character’s arc to develop the goal. Start with the weakness that the character has at the beginning—what might they want because of that weakness? Then, as they go after that goal, they confront obstacles that force them to start changing and growing until by the end, they go after a different goal (or are finally able to get what they really wanted all along).
The problem I’m having with that option is that it’s a somewhat vague goal that results, which doesn’t give me much of a plot to work with. For example, if my character’s weakness is that she’s aimless and can’t commit to a life plan, then her goal may be to “find herself”—maybe great for a literary novel, but not great for plot. If I could specify her goal to “take a road trip to join her father in California to start a new life and find herself,” that might work (for a certain kind of story).
A job or occupation might provide a basic goal, but it won’t provide too much excitement. This is why job-based stories (in my opinion) fall into two categories: personal/emotional, and uncertain. In the former, the nature of the job, or of the specific “case,” is more personal or emotional—searching for a missing child might be the detective’s job, but they’ll probably respond emotionally (as will the reader). In the latter, the job is inconsistent and the character’s need for money keeps driving them to take more specific actions—a smuggler taking on any job they can find will have more immediacy than a trucker doing his day job.
One thing to watch out for (that I consistently run into) is short-term goals in disguise. I might think of a goal and then realize that it can either be accomplished in a single scene, or that it can’t be accomplished at all until some external event happens and so all the time until then is dead weight. These short-term goals are great for subplots, and can be used to make a single scene interesting (especially if you need the scene to deliver exposition or set up some small thing for later), but you can’t base an entire plot around them.
I know my protagonist’s emotional goal that relates to her arc and drives specific actions, but can’t drive the whole story. I know her occupational goals which can develop scenes and subplots but because of her lack of agency in that job, not much more (and it’s not emotional or uncertain enough to be compelling). And I know her vague goals related to the larger plot beyond this story, which again, can crop up for a scene or two but won’t be her over-arching goal for the story.
I have to figure out what my protagonist could want that is specific and concrete, that she has agency in actually going after, and that fits with her character (and her arc). Oh, and hope that it fits in with what I want for the story’s structure and pacing and tone and everything.
So I know my goal.