Last week I talked about a hundred thousand words not being a story. I then read another frustratingly awful contest entry. Shortly followed by one which was really rather special. The thing which set this one apart (there were a lot of things, to be honest, but I’m going to concentrate on only one) was that the main character had a goal. He wanted something. He was working towards it. And what he wanted (and also, why he wanted it) was right there on page one.
Instantly, I knew that when this character set off on his walk from A to B, he was intending to get to B. He had a destination in mind. He wasn’t going to end up at B by accident, or coincidence, or because the author had hit the word count and it was time to end the book. There was a clear direction, which means that as I read, I was waiting to see if he’d get there.
The second most important thing about a character goal (after the character having it in the first place) is that when the character tries to meet this goal, he must fail. There are no two ways about it. Success is not an option. If Luke and Han had rescued Princess Leia from the Death Star without being detected, it wouldn’t have been a very exciting rescue. But when they were detected, shot at, then jumped into a hole which not only was full of stinking rubbish, but contained a monster and had compacting walls, it all became a lot more interesting. Oh and then Ben Kenobi died. So even though the goal of rescuing Princess Leia was met, it was not met easily. Disaster after disaster. And they came out of the situation worse off than when they went in.
In short, this is how goal works (and conflict, to some extent). I’ll talk about motivation later.