The Importance of Goals
One of the most basic lessons in writing fiction is that characters need goals. Without goals, characters are aimless, plot flounders, and the overall narrative lacks drive. So, too, in life—as the heroes and heroines of our own stories—we give our lives purpose and direction in the goals we pursue.
In essence, New Year’s resolutions are nothing more than goals to bring change. Of course, there’s no reason to wait for the new year to pursue a new goal, but for some reason that ticking clock—that inevitable flip of the calendar—always gets us thinking, “what if?”
What if I were healthier? Thinner? Richer? Happier?
What if I could overcome that bad habit? Get that degree?
How about you? Have you set any goals yet for 2019? Whether or not you have, take a moment to consider your life’s greatest dream.
How could that be translated into a successful resolution?
Of Dreams and Goals
Before we tackle that question, we have to admit there’s such a thing as a flawed resolution (or goal). Most resolutions are born of dissatisfaction—followed by a burst of motivation centered around a desire for change.
A desire—a dream, a wish, a hope—not necessarily a goal.
The trouble with desire is that it tends to be passive. Furthermore, desires need not be within our power to achieve. Not only that, but desires and wishes—hopes and longings not fully formed in our minds—are often nebulous and vague (while a successful plot goal never is). In the section below, we’ll explore each of these issues in turn—and more.
What New Year’s resolutions and character goals have in common, or should
(1) Character Goals aren’t Passive
Passive vs. Active.
Those two words might conjure nightmares about grammar, about that critiquer who won’t stop picking at a sluggish character, or about one’s own personal lack of motivation. By the structure of a sentence, we can tell if our characters are taking action, or if—instead—they’re being acted upon. Proactive characters take charge of a situation, whereas those who are passive allow circumstances to dictate the course of their days.
I doubt many people think of goals as being passive—but rather, the characters themselves. However, inferior goals make it harder—even impossible—for characters to be proactive. In that sense, there really is such a thing as a passive goal.
For example, what if one’s greatest wish is that their spouse would stop drinking? Or that their boss would lighten up? Goals to get pregnant or overcome cancer seem futile for a reason. Like the examples above, they represent hopes not entirely within the dreamer’s control.
The point is this: Just like characters in a book—we, too, need agency. In other words, whatever goal we choose must be within our power to attain. Secondly, our attitude toward our goal should be active rather than passive. When we don’t have agency, we can’t help but become passive players in the stories of our lives.
However, even if we do have the power to act, we might still be passive if our goal is inferior in other ways. Such as…
(2) Character Goals should never be Vague
Since goals are so important in shaping the momentum, direction, and personal stakes of a story, it’s important to get them right. One major lesson I had to learn before I could even approximate good fiction is that a character’s goal should never be vague.
Janice Hardy explains it this way:
“What makes plotting tough is that vague thematic statements like, “find love again” or “learn to trust others,” are great story goals (and good for internal character arcs), but unhelpful plot goals. Think of it like this: Go out right now and find love again. Um, you can’t, not really. It’s not like “love again” is something you can go get at the store. But you can act in a way that will help you find love again, such as go to a museum and talk to cute guys.”
Whenever we confuse the inner and outer journeys, our progress flounders. The inner goal—linked to a character’s arc—can be vague, but not the outer plot goal, which drives the action. So how are these two kinds of goals related? The inner goal—akin to character motivation—drives the outer goal. The plot. The action. Vague inner wishes are okay so long as they translate to specific actions.
So, even if we begin with hazy goals, we can’t end there. Instead…
→ The vague…must be made specific.
→ The abstract… be made concrete.
→ The broad… broken down into bite-sized steps.
In other words, we need a specific plan of action. Something we can picture ourselves (or our characters) doing, step by step.
For example, instead of vaguely resolving to be healthier and lose weight (in what would’ve amounted to nothing more than a blind and/or random approach), I found an app to keep track of my caloric intake. My specific goal is to get back down to my high school weight by May 11th of this year. Without the app—which prompted my goal and calculated my daily target intake—I probably would’ve restricted myself too much, felt like I was starving, and promptly given up.
With the app as a guide, I can tell when I’m pressing closer to my goal—and when I’m falling farther behind… which leads to my next point.
(3) Character Goals are realized and refined in the context of SCENE and SEQUEL
One way to bring change to our lives is simply by being more action-conscious. How can we make good decisions if we aren’t truly aware of our choices? Like when we eat without looking at labels—or without any sense of what a healthy portion should be. Weighing in—if our goal is to lose weight—is all well and good, but it doesn’t address the real problem: our net intake. Certainly, we can measure progress on a scale, but a successful goal mandates changes in diet and/or exercise, as well.
Here, the link to character goals is a bit thin, but consider the micro-structure of a novel: Goal, Conflict, and Disaster (in a SCENE). Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision (in a SEQUEL). Characters move through novels by way of action and reaction. Similarly, our example resolution (to lose weight), can be divided into two parts: Action and Assessment (which leads to Reaction and Reassessment).
Continuing our example:
Action = Eating and Exercising according to our plan. (SCENE)
Assessment = Weighing in to measure our progress. (SEQUEL)
Just as SCENE and SEQUEL drive progress in a novel, we need both action and assessment—both effort and progress-measurement—in order to be proactive for the long haul. Otherwise, we’ll end up spinning our wheels in one of two ways—either blindly acting, or else passively reacting to our poor choices.
The ultimate end is to take actions that move us closer to our goal (the equivalent of plot motion).
(4) Character Goals are more or less Singular
Finally, as equally problematic as leaving our stepwise actions vague—or leaving SCENE or SEQUEL out of the equation—is trying to fulfill, all at once, our every desire.
For a novel to be cohesive—and a character’s motivation, single-mindedly sufficient to prove the stakes—one goal (and one goal only) must rise to the top. Otherwise, a reader’s focus—and likely their interests, too—will be divided.
When that happens, the novel’s trajectory grows hazy as the “story question”—equivalent to the overarching plot goal—frays into thinner and thinner threads. At which point, readers begin to wonder what’s truly important to the story; the overall stakes dilute; the pacing slows.
Likewise, we need to pace ourselves. Prioritize our ambitions. Avoid getting distracted with multiple goals, which could end up suffocating our success in what matters most.
Character (or self) to-do list for a successful goal (or resolution):
→ Agency: Pick a goal within your power to achieve.
→ Action: Be intentional. Not passive, but proactive.
→ Avoid Abstractions: Make your goal specific—not abstract or vague.
→ Assessment: Be active, yes, but also measure your progress.
→ Avoid Distractions: Start with one goal and go from there.
What do you think? Are you reassessing your goals right now? Feel free to share your 2019 ambitions in the comments below.