Characters with No Goals

The key to writing an interesting story is to give goals to all your main characters. The weakest type of story is where the hero has a goal but nobody else has a goal so the villain exists solely to get in the way of the hero, which creates a dull, phony, and forced conflict. After all, if the villain has no reason to keep interfering with the hero, why would he or she bother?

At the very least, your hero needs a goal. The hero’s goal is often emotional, but to achieve this, he or she must attain a physical goal. The physical goal simply helps the hero get the emotional goal. In “Die hard,” John McClane doesn’t just want to defeat the terrorists (which is the fault of all those “Die Hard” sequels and copy cat movies). Instead, John McClane wants to get back with his wife and to do that, he has to save her from the terrorists.

Even worse for him, he can’t save his wife until he first learns to change. Until he changes and realizes he’s the reason they broke up, he can’t truly get back with his wife even if he physically rescues her. This is what makes “Die Hard” such a fascinating action story because the action is backed up with an emotional goal.

Now look at a mediocre movie like “A Wrinkle in Time,” which closely followed the book of the same name. The biggest problem with both the book and the movie is that all the characters helping the hero have no goal of their own. Meg, the hero, is a little girl trying to find her father, who has been missing for four years and disappeared into another part of the universe after experimenting with ways to bend the universe.

Now what are the goals of her friend who helps her? Nothing. What is the goal of her little brother, Charles Wallace? Nothing. What are the goals of the three women who help the hero? Beyond trying to stop some evil force from spreading, not much of any goal. The only one who has a goal is Meg, the hero, which makes “A Wrinkle in Time” a fairly dull movie and a curiously unsatisfying novel as well, despite winning awards. The story basically is nothing more than Meg going through one odd experience after another that has no relation to the previous experience and that seems to pop up out of nowhere. In a novel, this can be entertaining, but in a movie, this makes no sense.

The four main goals needed are:

  • The hero needs to pursue a physical goal that forces him or her to change to attain an emotional goal
  • The villain needs to pursue a physical goal that creates problems for the hero
  • The mentor needs to help the hero to fix a problem from the past
  • The hero’s ally needs an emotional goal similar to the hero’s

All good movies include these four main goals such as in “Die Hard”:

  • John McClane needs to realize he must change so he can stay with his wife after defeating the terrorists
  • Hans the terrorist wants to kill all the hostages and steal bonds
  • Officer Powell needs to regain his confidence to fire his gun again
  • John McClane’s wife needs to let John know she truly loves him despite their past differences

Look at these four main goals in “Star Wars”:

  • Luke needs to trust the Force so he can blow up the Death Star
  • Darth Vader wants to destroy the rebel base
  • Obi-wan wants to redeem himself for helping create Darth Vader
  • Hans needs to think less of money and more of others

The next time you watch a good movie, look to see if the hero, villain, mentor, and ally have goals. When you watch a bad movie, look to see where the bad movie didn’t give a clear goal to the villain, mentor, or ally (or all three).

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