reading book outside nature dock shutterstock

Positive and Negative Goals for Characters

Everyone has something that they want. Sometimes it can be as small as you want a piece of pie, or it can be as large as you would really, really like to save the world. Thus, realistically, each and every one of your characters should have their own goals as well. Hopes, wishes, dreams, goals… these are what give your characters motivation, and the actions that they take to achieve these goals are what make the story move.

Last week we talked a little bit about what makes readers give up on a book (or other piece of media). So today, I thought that it would be helpful to talk a little bit about what keeps a reader invested. For me, I find that a vast majority of the time it’s the characters and their goals and motivations.

But it’s not enough to just give a character a goal. You have to pick the right kind of goal. Because, just like there are positive and negative hopes, there are positive and negative goals. And we’re not talking about good and evil here. When we’re talking about story, a positive goal is a goal that causes your character to move forward and creates change. A negative goal is something that makes your character hold still or react.

For example, a positive goal for your character is, “I want to get out of this town.” A goal like this implies change, and it’s easy for you, your character, and your readers to come up with various plans to make that goal happen.

A negative goal is something like, “I don’t want my best friend to leave.” With this goal, the character is trying to keep things the same, which is problematic. First, the character is reacting to something instead of taking action. And thus, the momentum of the story is not in their control.

When telling a story, change is good. It leads to movement and growth, and honestly, if everything is staying exactly the same, there is no story. So, when you look at your story, look at your main character and ask yourself, “What do they want?” If your first instinctive answer includes the word “Don’t,” then it’s possible that you have a negative goal.

At this point, the next step is to figure out some way to shift things so that this becomes a positive goal, something that inspires plans, movement, and forward momentum. Instead of, “I don’t want my best friend to leave,” it becomes, “I want my best friend to stay. How can we do that?” With the first goal, your main character is sitting in their room whining and bewailing their fate. With the second, your main character is trying to convince their parents to let the best friend have the spare bedroom for a year, or sabotaging their best friend’s mom’s new job so they won’t move, or making plans to stow away in the back of the moving van. See how much more interested and invested you are in that second goal?

As a writer, you want your reader to become invested in the characters as quickly as humanly possible. One of the best ways to accomplish that (at least for me) is to give them a positive goal, ideally in the first few pages. Now, this doesn’t have to be the goal that they are obsessed with for the entirety of the book or the series. It can be something small and simple, like they want to hide from an ex-boyfriend or rescue a kitten or make the best sandwich ever. The point is that the book starts with them trying to accomplish something, and the thing that they’re trying to accomplish is something that the reader can understand and identify with immediately.

I want a character in motion with an easily understandable positive goal and a good voice. Give me those three things, and as a reader, I’m invested. Then you just have to make sure that I stay that way.

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

See More