Setting goals for yourself and your characters!


Goals. Resolutions. Projects. Aspirations.

Sometimes those words excite us. Sometimes they bewilder us. Sometimes they terrify us.

Relax…I’m not going to ask you to set another New Year’s Resolution. We’ve all learned about goal setting at some point in our life, either professionally or personally. Recently, a chat topic on The Wild Rose Press chat forum got me thinking about my yearly writing goals and also about my characters.

First off – writer goals. Well, we all have hopes for 2017. Perhaps it’s to finish that first manuscript, or to get our book out there into an agent or publisher’s hands. Or maybe we’re working on book promotion. Or to write two more books for an eager editor. Goals require carving out time for what’s important to us. Many of us follow the “SMART” principal: making our goals specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound. We want to be able to reach these goals, so sticking to the SMART rule of thumb is key to keeping ourselves motivated, accountable, and fulfilled. I know my goal list is lofty for 2017, so I sat down and looked at it to realistically contemplate what would be achievable this year. What are your goals? I suggest taking a few minutes to write them down by following the rule of “SMART”, and post them somewhere, checking in daily.

Now on to my second part of goal-making…our characters! One of my favorite  topics is goal, motivation, and conflict…the magical “GMC” that is the backbone to all fiction works. I’ve read many books on writing over the years (and I just got two more) and I will say Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation & Conflict has seen the most wear and tear, earmarks, and re-reads. Just like I can recite the lines of The Princess Bride back to anyone, I can reiterate what Ms. Dixon lays out in this book on the building blocks of fiction.

Here’s a simple overview of these three essential elements…

Every character (who) has a what (goal), a why (motivation), and why not (conflicts).

So for each character, big or small, in your story, you can write this expressive phrase:

            A character has a [goal] because they want [motivation] but this happens [conflict].

And never fear dear analytical chart makers! Oh yes, there is a chart method to create your internal and external GMCs for your characters. In her book, Dixon outlines several examples, using movies (as many of us can relate to movies, because just like books, movie characters have GMC!), such as The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca and even Star Wars.

So let’s go through another example from my favorite, The Princess Bride (using the William Goldman’s movie as the example)…

            As you wish…

A goal is urgent, and results in consequences if the character fails. A character has external and internal goals. Not all goals are achieved, and some may change.

Buttercup’s external goal is to be with Westley, her true love.

Motivation drives your characters and should be strong, focused, and guides all of your character’s actions and choices. Internal motivation creates emotion within the character. Characters can have varied internal motivations….guilt, family, redemption, protecting another, etc.

Why does Buttercup want to be with Westley? Well, because she loves Westley.

Why can’t she be with Westley?

Because she thinks he’s dead.  And several more reasons: Prince Humperdinck is forcing her to marry him. She is kidnapped. The Fire Swamp. Westley is captured and she barters for his life.

Therein lay our conflicts. And there are quite a few conflicts in The Princess Bride. Conflict is an obstacle standing in the way of the goal, but must be faced by the character. Conflicts test our character and strengthen our stories. Nobody wants to read an easy fix. We want to see the characters struggle and overcome! And as you can see, there are many conflicts in this story. Internal conflict is emotional conflict. Furthermore, Buttercup may outwardly appear a docile, simple farm girl. But she’s got gumption. She is stubborn and is not a passive bystander. She needs to make choices, which are ultimately driven by her motivation and goal.

Dig a little deeper and we can see her internal GMC.

What does Buttercup want? True love of course.

Why? Well, that’s a bit trickier. Don’t we all? Buttercup lives a simple life on her farm and rides her horse throughout the countryside. I would gamble that she wants to live the life of true love: on her farm, with her horse, and with her dear Westley. Happy ever after and all that jazz.

Why can’t she have this dream? Well, we already know that Humperdinck wants her as his wife (for his own political ploys) and that she thinks Westley is dead. But then she learns Westley is alive. Enter more conflict and see her motivation drive her. Also note that internal motivation can change or stay the same. Certainly, she wanted her happy ending with Westley but the prince threatens to kill him so she agrees to marry the prince so that Westley may live. She wavers between choosing life and choosing death. Conflict abounds.

So let’s break down her GMC chart according Dixon’s methods:

Buttercup (beautiful farm girl)

Okay, so working that GMC chart was a bit harder than I expected and there is some overlapping areas in her GMC, but you see where I am going here. Some character GMCs are more straightforward and easier to analyze. Take Inigo Montoya – that man’s motivation never wavers. He wants revenge for his father’s death and his goal is to kill the Count. His conflicts include having to kidnap Buttercup for some money, helping Westley save Buttercup, and of course getting to the Count to fulfill his goal.

I am sticking with my Buttercup example, because, well, death cannot stop true love…all it can do is delay it for a little while. And I am a true romantic at heart.

So on that note, get out there and create your goals as a writer. And don’t forget about your characters! Heck, I am sure you could even make a GMC for yourself as a writer…hmm, a daydreaming mom wants to publish her work (novels, short stories, children’s books, and magazine articles) because she has loved writing since she was a girl and wants to be successful, but life throws her some curveballs (busy children and schedules, agent rejection, illnesses, the need for sleep…). Will she achieve her goal? Stay tuned.