When it comes to the stories that stay with us, it’s often not a compelling plot, or even a book’s premise, that we remember: it’s how the characters made us feel, particularly when they achieved their hard-won goals.
Because character goals are less visible than gorgeous prose and slick metaphors, they get less attention than they should, despite how they shape our experience.
Today, that’s what we’re here to remedy.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- What are character goals?
- Why are character goals important?
- Internal vs. external character goals
- Character goal story examples
- How to create goals for your characters
- A definitive list of character goals
- Frequently asked questions
So, what exactly are character goals, and how do you choose the aims of characters in your stories?
What Are Character Goals?
Character goals are the objects of a character’s wants or needs, and what their actions aim to achieve.
When we talk about character goals, this usually refers to a story’s main character (a.k.a. the protagonist), though other characters can and do have their own agendas and goals, too.
A character’s goals can be externally and internally driven — preferably, both.
In her book on writing craft, Story Genius, Lisa Cron defines these difficult goals — because if they were easy, there would be no story, right? — as the ‘story problem’. This problem isn’t just the “single, escalating problem” a main character can’t avoid, it’s one that “causes the protagonist to struggle with a specific internal conflict”, with that character’s development changing their worldview by the end.
Ideally, we want both external and internal goals because they carry more weight. Cron states that “story is about … what the protagonist has to learn, to overcome, to deal with internally in order to solve the problem that the external plot poses.” This is true of the stories that stay with us; they resonate, not because of the compelling plot, or even how unique the concept is, but because we identify with the main character and the meaning they make from what happens to them.
But just why are character goals important? To answer this, let’s look at what happens when we take them away.
Why Are Character Goals Important?
Picture this, in any category or genre: you’re reading a book with a main character that you like enough, with a plot that’s interesting enough, and the writing’s fine. But for some reason, you’re just not loving this book. It’s not gripping you. Why? You decide to give it one last chapter. Finally, at the end of that chapter, it hits you: the main character is coasting. The book’s plot is action-packed, but this character is just being propelled from scene to scene and doesn’t really seem to mind, or care. In fact, you don’t actually know what the main character cares about at all.
Cool… Except that you’re experiencing the story through this main character’s eyes. If they don’t care, you don’t care. You’re not invested. And now, you’re about to toss that book right out the window.
Now imagine that it’s your story, and someone else is reading it. See the problem?
According to Lisa Cron from earlier, “this is where writers inadvertently fail … they write and rewrite and polish an impressive stack of pages in which a bunch of things happen, but none of it really matters”.
The reason why is this: without internal and external character goals, it’s not a story.
This is why character goals are so important, because they connect the stuff that happens in your story to why we should care ie. because your main character cares. Personal goals give characters agency, a reason to slog forward against all odds. Sometimes the story might start by giving your character a good shove first, but eventually, they’ll need to take the wheel. When they do, it’s generally because a key obstacle has arisen in the story’s central conflict.
When your character’s goal and obstacle are equally strong and opposed, this is where the magic happens, as it ratchets up tension, suspense, and in turn, the conflict. No one will be tossing your story out the window, now!
So, we know why character goals are so crucial to great storytelling, and we’ve talked about internal and external goals. Now let’s dig a little deeper into them.
Internal Vs. External Character Goals
Internal goals come from inside main characters, and are motivated by their wants and needs — which can be different. For example, in a dystopian story, your character’s ‘need’ may be survival, but their ‘want’ may revolve around never having found love before the apocalypse (sob).
The simplest yet broadest breakdown of personal goals that I’ve seen is psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser’s ‘Choice Theory‘, which lists 5 basic needs:
- Love and belonging
If you’re looking to pin down a character’s goal, thinking big picture like this can be a good place to start (more on this later).
Circling back to Lisa Cron again, one of the ideas she proposes in her book is that not only does each main character have a goal, but they also have what she refers to as an “impossible goal: to achieve [their] desire and remain true to the fear that’s keeping [them] from it”. What Cron is saying is that, deep down, there’s an internal obstacle that’s self-sabotaging your protagonist, and it’s your job as a writer to develop their character arc so that they can grow by the story’s end. Which is brilliant!
Yes, it’s another conflict to manage, but it also ups the stakes in a way that adds layers and breeds authentic characterisation, so your character is deeply three-dimensional. This can prove to be exciting if your main character is an unreliable narrator — think the protagonist Tyler Durden in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, and that finale.
External goals originate from outside main characters, often in the form of some other character (eg. the antagonist) or organisation’s visible goals.
These external character goals are where the surface events of the plot come in, with the goal being a one-sentence summary of what the main character is trying so hard to do, like save the world from the big bad villain.
External goals can also include less personified objectives like finding an item, winning a war, or reaching a destination.
Character Goal Examples
The Fellowship Of The Ring By J. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series is a good one to start with, as most people have either read the books, watched the films, or at the very least, seen the memes — and know that “one does not simply walk into Mordor”. Yet, this is exactly what main character Frodo Baggins’ external goal is: to journey to Mordor’s Mount Doom and toss the One Ring into its fiery pit.
Frodo’s internal goal is trickier. On the surface, you could say that it’s his struggle not to succumb to the ring’s terrible power; but really, in the book, it feels more about fulfilling Bilbo’s legacy as a way to thank and honour his uncle.
Wuthering Heights By Emily Brontë
Apart from being a brooding gothic romance on par with Romeo and Juliet, Brontë’s seminal classic is also a fantastic example of internal goals fuelling external goals, and those goals changing over time.
Enter Heathcliff, a homeless child adopted by the Earnshaws, whose external goal is to survive usurping the family’s son as the new favourite. Heathcliff’s internal goal is love and belonging, which he finds with the Earnshaws’ daughter Catherine. But when Mr. Earnshaw dies and that son relegates Heathcliff to lowly servitude — and Catherine agrees to marry someone else as marrying Heathcliff would degrade her status — Heathcliff’s external goals take a turn. He vanishes, returning years later with unexplained wealth, but Catherine is already married and dies after his return. Heathcliff’s love then morphs into vindictive obsession, as he takes revenge on anyone who got in their way… Or in his way, more generally.
Her Majesty’s Royal Coven By Juno Dawson
Times-bestselling author Juno Dawson’s 2022 hit is an urban paranormal tale about a UK government department of witches (cov.uk as their website? Utter genius). This book is another great example of blending an internal and external goal to drive the story.
The main character is ex-HMRC witch Niamh, whose external goal is to protect young trans witch Theo from HMRC — whose leader thinks teen Theo is the prophesied ‘sullied child’ who’ll ruin them. Cleverly aligned is Niamh’s internal goal, which is to let people in after losing her husband to war a decade earlier, starting with fostering teenage Theo and ending in letting herself find love again.
The Martian By Andy Weir
Weir’s thrilling debut science-fiction novel (and 2015 film directed by Ridley Scott, featuring Matt Damon) tells the story of American astronaut Mark Watney. He’s stranded on Mars, communications with Earth are down, and his crew thinks he’s dead. Not surprisingly, Mark’s external goal is to survive until he can be rescued, with his internal goal equally about survival, just more in terms of mental health and never giving up in the face of adversity.
Hamlet By William Shakespeare
Lastly, Hamlet, like Heathcliff, is another example of a main character with complex, richly woven internal and external goals.
Shakespeare’s play starts simply. Hamlet sees a family member’s ghost, his father’s, who tells him to avenge his murder as committed by Hamlet’s uncle (who’s become king and married Hamlet’s mother).
Hamlet’s external goal is clear. His internal goal, however, is not wanting to kill his uncle, and he gives a multitude of reasons why throughout the story that essentially boil down to Hamlet being a thinker, not a killer.
Yet this comes undone in the final scene, where Hamlet’s uncle moves to kill him — and, furious after all is revealed, Hamlet finally fulfils his deadly vow.
How To Create Goals For Your Characters
1. Pre-Plan Your Character Goals
I say pre-plan as I’ve tackled character goals after drafting a story before, and believe me when I tell you it’s way easier if you start with them!
Not only do goals give you a main character’s internal compass, but they also tend to pre-populate that character’s responses to the story’s events. This means you’re less likely to feel as though you’re beating a path to the plot as you write it, and more likely to find your character drives the story — which is infinitely less stressful.
Going back to our definition of external goals, these will generally be pretty obvious and dependent on your story’s concept: solving a murder, winning a competition, stopping a war etc.
My biggest tip is to put that goal upfront as soon as possible, so readers know what they’re in for. Check out our list of goals in the next section for some ideas.
2. Include Internal Goals
As you may have noted, internal character goals are massively important, as they help fully realise your main characters. Internal goals are easiest to pre-plan when you have either just a character, or a character and a good story idea, as leading with this means that you can jump straight into goals and character arcs. But all is not lost if you’ve been focusing on your story idea first.
Here, the trick is to ensure your main character begins with an internal goal that aligns with or is upended by the plot, and therefore the external goal they’re working towards.
I’ll give you an example: in my novel, the protagonist must travel to a new city and find an ancient object. However, her internal struggle is that she doesn’t believe that she’s the right person for the job; she’s afraid of what it will mean if she succeeds. This fear adds a layer of complexity, as well as upping the stakes as she’s not just fulfilling the plot — she’s self-actualising to prove herself wrong, and growing by the story’s conclusion as a direct result.
3. Plan Your Plot Points
OK, so you’ve pre-planned both your character’s internal and external goals. Great! Now it’s time to put them into action. Plotters will love this part, but if you’re a pantser, it’s definitely worth your while, too — perhaps just in less granular detail.
Your plot points will depend on what kind of story structure you’re planning to follow (three acts? Five acts? One of Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots?), but the key is to pin down a timeline so that each major step in your main character’s external goal, for example, happens when you need to amp up the story’s suspense. This helps to space out and pace significant events while still meeting each act’s milestones.
4. Consider Including Scene Goals
If you’re a pantser, this may be a plot too far, but scene goals work to ensure that your main character’s external goal is on track, and they can also be used as a checklist for their internal goal and its development.
And just to clarify — your character’s external goal can and may change (their ally was the baddie all along, what a twist!), so if that’s the case, scene goals will need to align with their internal goal instead.
To do this, use an outline of your plot points to drill down into a list of story scenes. For each scene, then note your main character’s internal and external scene goals; which should be related to their overarching story goals. You can also do this for secondary characters eg. if they have POVs.
You’ve done the hard work on character goals. Congratulations! If you’re inspired, by all means, get writing. If you want to give everything a little time to settle before you kick off, that’s OK, too. Just don’t forget to write!
List Of Character Goals
Internal Character Goals
- Realise potential (and overcome issues)
- Find family
- Find a place to belong
- Find love
- Live happily ever after
- Have fun
- Be remembered
- Find fulfilment
External Character Goals
- Defeat evil
- Solve a crime
- Free someone (eg a family member)
- Get revenge
- Stop a war
- Protect the nation’s interests
- Challenge the status quo
- Start a revolution
- Find / steal an object
- Travel somewhere new / old
- Get a job
- Start a business
- Get rich / famous / powerful
- Win a competition
- Finish a project
- Get married / divorced
- Have a baby
- Recover from illness
- Settle a debt
- Make amends
- Live forever
- Break a curse
- Change / save the past
- Fulfil a prophecy
- Change / save lives
- Save the world
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are Some Character Goals?
Character goals can be internally or externally driven. Internal goals arise from inside a character, and are motivated by what they want or need. External goals come from outside a character, and are what they must undertake and usually succeed in by the end of a story.
Examples of character goals include: overcoming self-doubt, finding love, solving a crime, defeating evil, finishing a project, getting revenge, or saving the world.
How Do I Determine My Character’s Goal?
To determine a character’s goal, try starting with psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser’s ‘Choice Theory’, which details 5 basic human needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. Depending on what your story is about, these should give you a jumping off point for a character goal that’s internal or external.
What’s The Difference Between A Character’s Goal And Their Motivation?
A character’s goal is the object of their desire and what they’re trying to achieve, and can be internal or external in nature. This differs from a character’s motivation, which is the actual reason for their goal in the first place, and what drives them on. A character’s motivation is a result of the character’s life and guided by foundational beliefs, or misbeliefs — like seeking power due to an earlier loss of control.
Choosing Character Goals
As we’ve learnt, the stories that shape us do so because characters shape us — connecting us to their wants and needs, and to the authors who guide their hands.
If we’re to learn and master such acts of modern magic, it’s up to us to create characters, with internal and external goals, that grow to leave readers spellbound.
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