Characters must have goals & ways of achieving them
This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. -David
Stories, games, and all fiction is about people, about characters, about what they do and why. They may not be like us, we may not like them, but that’s what’s going on. We’re watching people (even if not human) do stuff to get results, though we may put it in more colorful ways.
Goals, methods of reaching them, and results are, in a way, everything a story is about. In the end, you’ve got to save the prince so you can throw the one ring into the fiery pit of the starship engine to bypass the alien invaders before your ninja rival does.* No goals, no methods, no results, no story, no interest.
Therefore, your world has to include characters that have believable goals, ways of achieving them, and results.
Which is obvious.
And, as you’ve heard me say many times, and doubtlessly will again, obvious is the problem.
Let’s dive in.
First you have to know your character’s goals to write them, code them, or however else you draw people into the world.
Character goals are important as essentially they’re why characters do things – and why people experiencing your world (via whatever medium) care. Admittedly these goals may not be interesting, or noble, or morally acceptable. But people do things for reasons, and that’s what gets our interest.
However the devil is in the detail and satan’s in the small thing. Our stories start with goals held by characters – the characters being lenses that let us experience the world you’ve made. To know our characters, to know their goals, we need to know the world they exist in – the world you make.
Characters are who they are for reasons. Their background set attitudes, expectations, and knowledge. They set the situations they act in and are motivated by. Their background, in short, defines their goals.
The goals your characters have, the reason readers or players care, come from the world you’ve built.
So you have to ask, when looking at character goals, how the goals got there. In short, “why the hell are they doing this anyway?”
- What is it in the character’s background that led them to set these goals? What is their culture, their history, their experience?
- Was this “goal setting” something that was traumatic, emotional, intellectual, etc. What impact has it had on the character – something learned painfully versus something learned in abstract produces different kinds of goal-setting.
- Did the character even have any control over these experiences?
- How have these goals evolved and changed over time and why?
Characters go and pursue goals. These goals are born of the world. Knowing the world lets you know the characters and their goals – even if they’re kind of weird, bizarre, or immoral.
However then characters try to reach their goals, and that means we have to consider…
Secondly, you need to know how much the characters know about themselves.
Think of how you have many times done things for reasons you only later understood, surprised yourself at a motivation, or questioned your own principles. How many times did you set out to achieve a goal only to discover it wasn’t what you wanted? Or that your understanding of said goal kept you from achieving it as it was off? Or that you were really trying to achieve one thing unconsciously while doing another.
You have to figure out how well your characters know themselves in order to write how they pursue goals.
After all how much they do – or don’t – know bout themselves is going to affect your tale. A confused, messed-up character easily pursuing goals they’re totally clear on is just not believable. An arrogant character whose ego seems to disappear when he plans The Great Main Quest Plot is going to seem wrong and poorly written.
Do characters understand what they do? Do they know what motivates them? Do they understand their own psychology? The more they understand themselves the more they can meet their goals . . . and the less, the more they may behave inappropriately, erratically, or just plain stupidly.
Just because they have goals doesn’t mean they understand them.
This is a tricky area of worldbuilding. You, a flawed person who doesn’t always know themselves has to know characters in the same boat better than they do. This may be educational, but it’s also a pain.
However, when you can bring this level of knowledge to your characters, your setting and your writing of it will be all the richer and more believable – and more something that draws people in.
The Methods Of Madness and Gladness
So now that you’ve got character goals, how are they going to achieve them. If they actually understand them (as we covered, they may not). So now we figure out how they actually pursue their goals – or what abilities and skills they bring to screw their lives up by pursuing the wrong ones.
So your characters actually have to bring abilities, plans, and methods to bear on what they want to do. At this point you suddenly reach a lot of questions that you hopefully answered in your world building – or need to now.
- Do they actually have the ability to do what they want to do?
- If not, how do they get said abilities (time for a training montage)?
- Can they actually grow enough to achieve said goals.
- Do they even understand what they’re capable of? There’s that self-knowledge thing again.
- Can they rally other people and resources to help them?
If you think about it in almost any situation and any tale or game, no one is ready to o meet their goals and solve problems right away. If thye are, it’s not exactly much of a tale or a game or an epic Forgetting this can lead to some rather inappropriately extended stories or games where everyone wonders why no one hauled off and killed the Dark Lord Azgarezl in the first twenty minutes because they were so competent. It should take time to reach their goals.
This of course assumes the character can ever meet their goals. Perhaps your tale will be about failure . . . and you won’t know that until you get to assess the character . . .
Finally, when it comes to characters pursuing their goals, rallying their abilities and connections, and in general doing something we have to ask what the impact of their actions is.
Characters pursue goals, take action, and produce results. You as the holder of the world, the person that manifests it as story or comic or game, have to determine what results occur from those actions in pursuit of a goal. When you do that I suggest you look back on your own experiences of doing things and how your actions turned out.
The answer? Usually not quite like you expected. We all have stories of not quite getting what we want, of unintended consequences, of failures, and of inappropriate successes. Oh and of hideous failure, but that’s a given.
When your characters take action you have to ask what happens from those actions – because real life is messy, and a good story doesn’t always make things nice anc clean. Not one that’s believable at any rate.
- Did the characters really do what they wanted to get to their goals – or did they fall short?
- Did they know they got what they wanted?
- What side effects were caused by their actions. Unintentional effects and collateral damage are always possible and not always visible (and, hey, can mean more story to tell).
- How do they feel about what they did and what they achieved – or didn’t?
- How do they adjust or change?
Every action has its impact – including on the person taking action.
After awhile I find thinking about this helps you see the ever-changing nature of your setting. Characters, well-created ones, take action, use that feedback, and respond. Actions rarely have surgically precise results.
It can get messy. But then again that’s the fun in making worlds and writing about them . . .
Change Is In The Cards
In the end, each character who sets on a quest, each hero or heroine rallying their skills, changes your world and themselves. THey set out, they act, they try to achieve. Not everything is what people want, not everything is always apply, but the world keeps turning. THat’s your tale, your story, your game.
And of course, the actions your characters take affect the world, and the goals and abilities of other characters . . .
* Write it. I DARE YOU.
– Steven Savage
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.