Character Goals

Your villain defines how your hero will achieve his or her goal. Once you define your hero’s goal, you’ll need to define your villain’s goal.

The most important goal is your hero’s goal. Basically, your hero has two goals: an initial goal and a primary goal.

At the beginning of every story, the hero’s initial goal is vague and unfulfilled. The hero knows what he wants; he just doesn’t know how to get it. The purpose of the villain is to show the hero how to get it and that’s the hero’s primary goal.

In “Star Wars,” Luke’s initial goal is to get away from his uncle’s farm and see the universe. Luke could do this in a million different ways, but Darth Vader provides him with the best way possible. By capturing Princess Leia, Darth Vader inadvertently gets Luke involved when he wants to find out who Princess Leia is through R2D2’s message.

In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis’s initial goal is to get back together with his wife. Suddenly a team of terrorists storms the building. Now Bruce Willis’s primary goal is to save his wife from the terrorists.

Defeating the terrorists isn’t the real goal. Getting back with his wife is the real goal, but the terrorists provide him with the specific means to get back with his wife.

In “WALL-E,” WALL-E’s initial goal is find companionship. How can he find companionship? Indirectly through the villain’s actions, Eve comes to his planet and that’s how WALL-E will achieve his initial goal.

In “Finding Nemo,” Marlin’s initial goal is to protect his son. He could do that in a million different ways, but when the diver captures Nemo, Marlin now has a specific, primary goal to achieve and that’s to rescue Nemo from the dentist’s aquarium.

nBefore you start writing, define your hero’s initial goal first. This is the goal that your hero wants right at the beginning of the story. Don’t worry if you don’t know how your hero will achieve this initial goal because that’s the job of the villain’s goal

Exercise #1: What is your hero’s initial goal?

The Villain

There are two reasons for a villain in every story. First, a villain defines how the hero will achieve his initial goal. Second, the villain’s goal is necessary to get the story started.

In “Finding Nemo,” the barracuda is the villain that kills Marlin’s wife and eats all her eggs except for one, which turns out to be Nemo. This event makes Marlin extremely protective of Nemo and gets the story started to explain why Marlin would do anything possible to protect Nemo.

Next, the diver (another villain) captures Nemo. Now Marlin’s initial goal of protecting Nemo gets turned into a specific, physical goal of rescuing Nemo. Without a villain, the story never would have gotten started.

Once you know your hero’s vague, abstract, initial goal, the next step is to ask, “What would be the worst possible outcome for your hero?” The answer for this is the opposite of your hero’s goal and helps determine the best story possible.

In “Finding Nemo,” Marlin wants to protect his son from harm. The worst possible scenario is for a villain to make it impossible for him to protect his son and threaten to kill his son.

In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis’s goal is to get back with his wife, so a worse possible scenario is for a villain to threaten to kill his wife, thereby preventing Bruce Willis from ever getting back with his wife again.

Your hero’s initial goal defines what type of person he is. The worse possible scenario for your hero defines what type of villain you need and what your villain’s goal might be.

Without Darth Vader, there is no “Star Wars.” Without the diver taking Nemo away, there is no “Finding Nemo.” Without terrorists threatening Bruce Willis’s wife, there is no story in “Die Hard.”

Once you know the worse possible scenario to cause the maximum amount of anguish in your hero, you’ll have a rough idea of what your villain needs to do to cause this worse case scenario. This worse case scenario defines your hero’s Impossible Goal.

In the last chapter you defined an Impossible Goal for your hero. Now you have to merge this Impossible Goal with your hero’s initial goal and ask yourself if this Impossible Goal is the best possible goal to help your hero achieve his initial goal. If the answer is no, then you either have to change your hero’s initial goal or change your hero’s Impossible Goal.

The worse possible scenario for your hero, based on your hero’s initial goal. This should correspond closely to the Impossible Goal you defined in the last chapter. If not, you need to change the hero’s initial goal (get a new hero) or change the Impossible Goal (get a new story).

Exercise #2: Define a worse possible scenario for your hero based on your hero’s initial goal.

The Villain’s Goal

Your villain defines how your hero will achieve his initial goal and turn it into reality. However, your villain doesn’t just pop up for the convenience of giving your hero a physical path to achieving the initial goal. Your villain needs a goal of his own.

Your hero must pursue an Impossible Goal. On the other hand, your villain needs to pursue an equally big goal, but one that’s fully within his capability to achieve.

The hero’s goal seems impossible because it’s so big and the hero seems to lack enough resources to get it. The villain’s goal is equally big, but since the villain is so powerful, the villain’s goal seems easily achieved, and that’s what makes the villain’s goal so frightening.

The villain’s goal always involves a Horrible Consequence. If the villain wins, not only will the hero lose, but some catastrophic consequence will occur that we, as the audience, don’t want to see.

In “Star Wars,” the Horrible Consequence is that if Darth Vader wins, he’ll not only blow up another planet, but he’ll kill Princess Leia and crush the rebels chance of success once and for all. Since this goal is so tantalizingly close, it makes Darth Vader even more frightening as a villain.

In “Ratatouille,” there are multiple Horrible Consequences facing Remy the rat. The most serious is that Remy could be caught and killed. On a lesser level, Remy could never achieve his dream of cooking if he isn’t allowed in the kitchen. On an even lesser level, Remy might have his restaurant shut down by the food critic.

If the villain wins, the hero loses. As an audience, we can accept the hero losing although we might not like it. To make the villain’s victory even more repugnant, the villain’s victory will not only stop the hero from ever achieving his goal, but it will also hurt those closest to the hero. To lay on the pressure, the villain’s victory can also mean innocent people will also be hurt.

In “Independence Day,” the aliens simply can’t win or else all the heroes will die, all the heroes’s loved ones will die, and the entire human race will die. That’s a Horrible Consequence.

nIn “Die Hard,” we might not care if the terrorists win because they’ll just get away with the money. To turn this simple goal into a Horrible Consequence, the terrorists will not only escape with the money, but they’ll also blow up all the hostages (including Bruce Willis’s wife) on the rooftop to help them escape. That’s a Horrible Consequence.

The villain’s goal threatens not only the hero, but the hero’s loved ones and innocent people. The more distasteful the Horrible Consequence, the more the audience will root for the hero and despise the villain. The clearer you make this Horrible Consequence, the greater the tension of your story as we root for the hero to win.

Exercise #3:

Define a goal for your villain and define its Horrible Consequence for your hero and your hero’s loved ones if the villain should succeed.

Putting It All Together

Once you know your hero’s initial goal, you know your villain’s goal and vice versa. Both your hero’s goal and your villain’s goals must be big and distinct. We have to know what the hero and villain are fighting for because that increases tension and suspense. Without this knowledge, we’re left wondering, “What’s going on and why should I care?”

Your villain’s goal serves four major purposes:

  • Gets your story started
  • Inadvertently gives your hero a chance to escape his dead end life
  • Forces your hero to change by learning a lesson
  • Forces the hero to confront the villain so only one of them can win

Your story consists of the hero’s goal and the villain’s goal. Both your hero and your villain need a goal. At the  beginning of your story, the goals of the hero and the villain may seem miles apart, but as the story progresses, the hero and the villain’s goals appear intertwined, bringing the hero and villain together to its inevitable climactic battle.

Here’s how you can visualize the hero and villain’s goal in a story:

Hero’s Goal                                                                        Villain’s Goal

Hero stuck in dead end life with an initial goal         Villain initiates story by pursuing a goal

Hero steps into a new world and pursues a goal       Villain suffers a minor setback while reacting to the hero’s actions
that ultimately ends as a False Victory

Things fall apart as the hero hits a low point             Villain achieves a major victory that almost brings total success

The hero confronts the villain and wins                      The villain is on the verge of success but loses to the hero

Notice that the hero and the villain’s fortunes are opposites. When the hero wins (Part IIa and Part III) the villain loses. When the villain wins (Part I and Part IIb), the hero loses.

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