I was going to do a writing post about CPR for stories that need life, but most of the tips boiled down to goals, so instead I’ll talk about the importance of character goals. If your story seems limp and like it’s not really going anywhere, or if your plot is getting derailed, there’s a good chance that the problem comes down to your characters’ goals. Here are some common problems:
1) The protagonist doesn’t have a specific, concrete goal
By that, I mean that you could write a scene in which the character obtains that goal. It might not be a scene that ends up in the story, since goals often change during the course of a story as characters learn the difference between what they want and what they need, but you should be able to write a hypothetical scene of the protagonist achieving his goal. That’s why vague goals like “stop evil” or “find love” aren’t specific and concrete enough to drive a story. What would the scene look like when that’s achieved? It’s better if the goal is something more like “Destroy evil Lord Whatever’s doomsday device before he can use it” or “get married to a man I love.” Those are scenes you can visualize and dramatize.
You may need two of these goals for the protagonist. There’s what she wants at the start of the story before the initiating incident. A character should have something they want out of life even before things get crazy — a job, a promotion, a vacation, a peaceful retirement, to bring in the harvest. Then there’s the story goal that arises when the situation becomes known or begins. That’s where you get things like “stop evil Lord Whatever’s evil scheme,” “destroy the One Ring,” or “solve the murder.”
2) The protagonist’s goal isn’t what’s driving the story
This is what often happens when the protagonist’s goal is too vague because it’s so big — defeat evil. Meanwhile, the sidekicks have smaller goals, so they may be more specific and concrete, and that makes them stronger and more interesting. Or the villain may be driving the story, so the villain has a very clear goal for the outcome of his evil scheme, and the hero’s goal is only to stop the villain. When this happens, you have a weak protagonist, and the story isn’t very interesting.
To fix this, take a good look at the protagonist’s goal and see if you can come up with something better. You might also consider that the character you’ve picked to be your protagonist isn’t actually the most interesting character in the story. Maybe you should switch. Or you could combine characters.
It’s a little trickier when the villain is the one with the strong goal and the hero wouldn’t have to do anything if the villain weren’t up to no good. This is where having a goal to begin with helps — there’s something else the hero wants, and having to stop the villain is getting in the way of that goal. You can also give the hero a plan in relation to his goal that’s very specific. Frodo’s story goal isn’t to stop Sauron. His goal is to destroy the ring. He’s not really reacting to Sauron. He’s going about his mission.
3) There’s no conflict associated with the goal
If there’s no opposing force keeping your hero from achieving his goal, you don’t have a story. That force can be inside himself, can be society itself, can be nature, or can be another character. You get a stronger story if the protagonist and antagonists’ goals are in direct opposition — if one achieves his goal, that will keep the other from achieving his goal. If there’s no opposing force, then rethink your goal.
4) You forget about the goal as you write
It’s easy to come up with character goals when you’re developing and planning a story. But then you start writing and things happen, and you might lose track along the way. Maybe not the really big things that are driving the plot, like the villain’s evil scheme and the fact that the hero wants to stop the evil scheme, but you might not sustain the more specific goals or the internal goals that aren’t about the main plot. Or, you might forget the story goal when writing individual scenes instead of making each scene be a step toward the story goal. When you get stuck or bored in the middle of a story, this is often the reason. Go back to the core goals and it might give the story more drive and energy.