Character Goals: Define Them, Show Them

by | September 7, 2019 |

As a pantser (meaning: I write by the seat of my pants), I like to discover my characters as I write. I love to get them up and running and interacting. Hearing their thoughts, listening to their dialogues. That’s great … for a first draft. However, the revision process requires a step back from the creative process, and analytic glasses must come on. Among the many things you need to attend to as you revise is the clarity of your character goals. This is a lesson I’m still learning.

Trifecta: Character Motivation, Obstacles, Character Goals

My previous blog discussed character motivation. This topic arose out of my thoughts on creating realistic obstacles for your characters. Now there’s only one thing left to address in the trifecta: the goals.

Goals exist in function of motivation. This five-tier hierarchy sums up the possibilities for kinds of motivation.

writing goals

Psychologist Abraham Maslow discussed this hierarchy in his 1943 article entitled “Theory of Motivation.” I chose this pyramid for the title image of my previous blog on character motivation. So if it looks familiar, it is.

Motives = needs, the why.

Goals = action plans, the what.

Character Goals: Some Possibilities

Two ways to go:

#1. First determine what your characters need. Then give them goals to meet those needs.

Motive: She needs money because her parents have just cut her off from her trust fund. Goal: She has to find a job, even if it’s the most menial one in town.

Motive: He needs a friend/business partner. Goal: He wants to take his great new app to market but doesn’t have the people/business skills to do so on his own.

#2. First have a goal-oriented action in mind for a character. Then determine why these characters would be so oriented.

Goal: He’s aiming for his boss’s job. Motive: He grew up with incompetent parents. His current boss is incompetent. He wants to right the wrongs he sees happening in the workplace.

Goal: She’s gunning for the lead role in the play. Motive: Her older sister, a talented musician, has always received all the attention. She wants her turn in the spotlight.

Goals will likely always be explicit, since they tend to drive the main action of the story. Motivations are not necessarily always so explicit, but they at least have to be implicit in everything the character says and does. The important thing is that the reader is aware, on some level, of what is driving the character.

Character Goals: Usher

I’ve just finished the first draft of a romance between Nicholas, a male escort, and Dina, a post-doctorate lecturer in linguistics at New York University. I now want to revise it.


As I look over the motivational hierarchy, above, I see that I’ve given Nicholas challenges at all five tiers. I’ve also given him the possibility of appropriate goals.

Physiological Needs. Backstory: His abusive childhood sent him to the streets of New York City.

Safety Needs. Past: His need to survive on the streets caused him to join (pushed him into?) a high-end escort service.

Connection. Present: He has managed to make a friend, a fellow male escort. When he meets Dina he desires a romantic connection with her. However, he thinks she’s out of his league. He eventually sets the goal of trying to win her.

Esteem. Past and Present: He is ashamed of his career path. He has the goal of leaving it but is having difficulty getting out.

Self-Actualization. Present: His overall goal in life is to become a creative writer. He is motivated to be the most that he can be. He has applied to the Master of Fine Arts program at Columbia University and been admitted. However, he has not yet decided whether he will accept.


Uhh … I already see my problem. Dona is almost already a fully self-actualized character who I loved to create and like very much … but I didn’t define any goals for her.

Psychological Needs. Backstory: She has never had any. She comes from a psychologically and economically stable home.

Safety Needs. Again, she has none. Which is to say that I didn’t provide her with any. At the moment she has a post-doc at NYU and a big family safety net to fall back on.

Connection. Past and Present: She is very gregarious and has friends all over the city.

Esteem. Present: She has a PhD from a respected institution of higher learning.

Self-Actualization. Present: She’s already doing what she loves.

Character Goals: Thoughts

Nicholas has both internal and external struggles and is dealing with them. He is a strong character.

In contrast, the most Dona has to deal with is a crummy boyfriend (soon to be ex). And life-long issues with her weight, which – let’s face it – should not really be an issue these days. And kinda sorta isn’t for Dona. But kinda sorta is.

So, as much as I enjoyed creating Dona and like her as a character, she falls short of being a strong character.

She now needs more definition, and that’s what the revising process is all about.

For one, why did I hook her up with a male escort? Well, they click and all, and I loved writing the scenes where they’re together. But clearly I have a motive/goal gap in Dona’s profile I need to fill.

Furthermore, if she already has esteem and is doing what she loves, what more does she want? That’s a very good question!

Clearly, thinking cap time.

In addition, I created three secondary characters who are well balanced but I see they, too, need more work. I will now buckle down and give them the motivational/goal-orientations they deserve. At the moment, they function more like props. Not good enough.

For more tips from top romance editors, see How to Write Better Romance.

For more advice on how to write a novel, you can view my complete guide.

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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