Character Goals and Motivations: What Authors Need to Know

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Create Clear Character Goals and Motivations

Characters are driven by their individual goals and motivations.

These are always present and influence the character’s decisions and actions over the course of the story.

Without clear goals and motivations, your characters are in danger of being confusing, uninteresting, or both. Readers won’t understand how they work, which means their choices won’t make sense and readers will have trouble staying invested in the story.

And this is why getting clear on your characters’ goals and then illustrating them clearly for readers is a necessary element of the writing process.



Clear character goals and motivations make your book better

If you want to write good fiction, you need to learn how to make your character goals and motivations clear.

This is essential for creating the conflict that drives your plot and for making your characters believable and relatable.

Conflict is one of the primary factors that makes readers want to keep reading. And relatable characters who readers can connect with will help readers to get fully absorbed in the story.

So choose the right goals and motivations for each character, and make it clear what those goals and motivations are. This is essential if you want to write great fiction that your readers will love.

The right character goals make your story more interesting

Creating clear goals for your characters will help you to write a compelling story that readers can’t put down.

A character with no problems isn’t very interesting. A good plot will involve problems your characters must overcome, and these problems will generally escalate over the course of the story until they’re finally resolved at or near the end.

This usually involves your main character trying to achieve a certain goal and having to overcome various roadblocks along the way.

When developing your plotlines and character arcs, it’s important to consider your characters’ goals because they are what give meaning to those plotlines and character arcs.

And meaning helps readers enjoy your story and makes the story feel like it was worth their time to read.

Clear goals make your characters more relatable

Communicating character goals clearly to your readers will help you to create complex characters that are believable and relatable and that drive the plot forward.

When readers can easily understand a character’s goals, they know why that character thinks and makes decisions the way they do.

This means readers can more easily relate to the character and will be more likely to get drawn into the story. And that helps them enjoy your novel and makes them more likely to keep reading.

How to identify character goals for each character

Getting clear on each character’s goals is the first step to making those goals clear to your readers.

The easiest way to identify character goals is to ask yourself what a certain character wants to change about their circumstances or about the world around them.

Some characters have multiple goals over the course of a book, though typically there is one overarching goal that gives the story direction.

If you’ve identified several different goals, consider whether there’s one big underlying one behind all the others. That’s the most important one that readers need to understand.

Make sure the goals aren’t too simple or easy to accomplish

If you want character goals that are convincing, they should be somewhat difficult to achieve.

The character can’t spend the whole book trying to do something easy or readers will get bored and wonder why it’s taking so long.

If your story doesn’t seem to have enough conflict, this could be because you’ve made things too easy. In this situation, see if there’s a way to complicate things more.

Don’t create character goals that are unrealistic

You can’t make your characters’ goals so difficult to achieve that they feel unrealistic.

After all, people in the real world don’t often set impossible-sounding goals for themselves, and fiction is a reflection of reality. Similarities to the real world are a large part of what makes fiction work.

Consider if it makes sense for your character to set a particular goal and whether readers will be able to believe it possible to achieve. It’s important to find the right balance of interesting but believable.

Adding more roadblocks

If you need to increase conflict in your novel, one way to do this is to put more roadblocks between your characters and their goals.

Roadblocks create conflict because they make your characters’ lives more difficult and move their goals farther out of reach.

They give your readers a reason to root for those characters and want to know what happens next. Will the characters be able to make it through?

These roadblocks need to feel real to your reader so that the characters’ accomplishments feel real when they eventually overcome their challenges.

Identify the character motivations behind each goal

If your character wants something, there needs to be a reason why they want it.

And identifying this reason and making this reason clear to readers will help make your characters relatable and easy to connect with.

So after you identify goals for each character, figure out what motivations are driving them toward those goals.

Characters are driven by their motivations

As characters are trying to achieve their goals, they will be driven by their internal motivations.

These motivations are why they have the strength and perseverance to continue pursuing their goals despite the obstacles you’re putting in their way.

If you’re having trouble identifying a character’s motivations, spend some time brainstorming potential motivations that could cause a character to want what they want. Then check in with who that character is and decide which character motivation seems to fit best.

Clear character motivations help readers root for them

When you do a good job making internal motivations clear to your readers, they will have an easier time understanding the character and rooting for them.

Readers want to understand your characters and know how they work.

They want to know why your characters want the things they want.

The more you can share about these things, the better readers can relate to your characters and the more they’ll get invested in the story.

It’s okay to let character motivations come out slowly over time

While readers love understanding your characters, they also enjoy spending time trying to figure them out.

So you don’t need to make each character’s motivations clear from the very beginning. It’s okay to keep readers in the dark initially about some aspects of the character and provide more information gradually over the course of the story.

But it’s important to make the character’s goals and motivations clear by the end of the book so that readers have a sense after reading it of what those goals and motivations are without having to think too much about it.

Keep character goals and motivations consistent

If your character is inconsistent, reader will get confused.

And not in the mysterious, suspenseful way where readers enjoy being kept in the dark about something. It will make them confused in a way that makes them think you’ve made a mistake.

And noticing perceived issues with your writing is the quickest way to make readers lose interest in your book.

If one of your characters has to do something that seems inconsistent with their goals and motivations, give readers a clear explanation for why it actually does makes sense.

Helping readers understand surface-level contradictions

When you make a character’s goals and motivations clear to readers, they’ll get a window into how your character thinks and a reason to connect with them.

Even when the character does things that the reader wouldn’t, the reader will understand why.

When a character does something that makes readers confused, it’s often an issue of the author not making it clear enough what is driving the character to do those things. So it’s not that you need to change the character, you just need to improve the way you’re communicating to readers about that character.

Higher stakes will create more conflict

What happens if the character doesn’t meet their goals?

If there isn’t much of a downside, you aren’t going to have a compelling story.

Conflict is what makes things interesting, and goals with low stakes are low-conflict. So adding more conflict will make the story more compelling and consequently help readers enjoy it more.

And upping the stakes is a great way to do this.

How to use character goals to up the stakes

If there isn’t enough conflict, try adjusting what would happen if your main characters don’t meet their goals.

You can do this by making the current consequences even worse or by adding additional consequences that will combine to make the overall situation worse.

This is different from adding roadblocks. Here I’m talking about increasing the negative impact if your characters aren’t able to overcome those roadblocks.

Two types of consequences to create higher stakes

There are two main types of consequences you could use to create higher stakes for your character goals. Which you use will depend on whether the primary character goal is to avoid a bad situation in the future or to get out of a bad situation the character is currently in.

Maybe your character will end up in a bad situation if they don’t achieve their goals. Or maybe they’re already in a bad situation, and failing to achieve their goals will mean that they stay there. It could even be a combination of the two.

For the first situation, up the stakes by making the threat bigger or adding additional threats.

For the second, up the stakes by making the starting point even worse so that the character really needs to get out of their current situation.


Character Goals and Motivations: The Main Takeaways

  • Creating clear character goals and motivations will make your story more compelling
  • Clearly pin down what goals your characters are trying to achieve
  • Figure out the internal motivations behind each of these characters goals
  • Make sure you’re communicating those goals and motivations clearly to your readers
  • Keep each character’s goals and motivations consistent throughout the story
  • Increase conflict by adding roadblocks between your characters and their goals
  • Increase conflict by creating higher stakes if your characters fail to achieve their goals

If you want an expert opinion on how you’ve set up your character goals and motivations and how well you’re communicating them to your readers, contact me and we can figure out if I’m the right editor for your novel. You’ll want either a developmental edit or a manuscript evaluation.


Clara Carlson-Kirigin

Clara Carlson-Kirigin

I’m Clara, the editor behind Prometheus Editorial. I work with fantasy and romance authors who want to invest in professional editing to help their novels succeed. I love teaching people how to harness the power of language, find their voice, and reach their target readership.

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