Does Your Hero Have a Mushy Goal?

Everyone in the world wants something. Well, except maybe a few Buddhist monks who live in the mountains and meditate all day. They might not want anything. But the rest of us—we want things. We want a new job, a new car, a nicer house, to ask the cute boy to the movies, to win the championship game, to save the galaxy from being destroyed by the evil empire (I definitely want that.)
And so, obviously, our characters have to want things too, especially if we want to create and develop memorable characters.
And they have to actively be pursuing that thing when your story begins. But here’s the mistake I see way too many authors make: the want or goal that they establish for their hero is…well, it’s…mushy. It’s muddled. It’s not concrete enough. They say things like, “My wants to be happy.” Or “My hero wants to forgive himself”  Or “My hero wants to feel more fulfilled.” 
Unfortunately, these goals are not tangible enough. Why? Because when does the reader KNOW that the hero has achieved them (or failed to achieve them?) The answer is, they don’t. How, as the reader, do I know for sure that your hero is happy? How can I root for them to achieve their goal of happiness if I don’t know what will make them happy?
So much of the Save the Cat! beat sheet is constructed around WANTS and NEEDS. They are like the framework that hold up the other beats. So if your reader can’t understand HALF of that framework, your story won’t work. Or readers will give up. Or both! Which is why we have to make the goal tangible enough for the reader to understand exactly what it means. 
So, how do we do that? How do we take a mushy goal and turn it into a concrete goal? Easy. By completing the following sentence for your hero:
I will be happy WHEN…
I will feel fulfilled WHEN…
I will forgive myself WHEN…
The “when” is the key word here. The “when” prompts you to really think about what your hero wants and what they THINK will make them happy. The “when” forces you to attach something concrete to your goal. 
I will be happy WHEN I find my lost sister who was abducted as a child. 
I will feel fulfilled WHEN I earn enough money to move out of my parents house. 
I will forgive myself WHEN I scatter my father’s ashes off the coast of Ireland. 
Now, remember, this sentence doesn’t actually have to be true. In fact, if you remember the difference between WANTS and NEEDS, you know that it probably won’t be true. Your hero probably won’t find true happiness just by getting the date to the prom or moving out of their parents house. But that’s not the point of the WANT. The want is all about what the hero thinks will complete their life. The NEED is what will really complete their life. But having your hero pursue their WANT instead of their NEED at the start of the story is half the fun of the story! 
So make sure YOU, the author, can complete the second half of that sentence for your hero: “I will be happy WHEN…” You’ll be surprised at how many plot problems that second half of the sentence fixes. 


Want to learn more about all things character? Check out my online writing course on Crafting Dynamic Characters!

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  Comments: 6

  1. Absolutely wonderful and concrete tips to writing.
    Love you all tips and very helpful.

  2. Clear, concise, very helpful. Thanks.

  3. Hi Jessica,

    I just purchased your book, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and am finding it SO helpful!

    My question is related to my prologue (or first chapter) where the inciting incident (and my hook) comes BEFORE my protagonist is introduced in his normal world. I do this promptly in chapter two but I’m curious how that relates to the first beat.

    Would I just apply everything you teach to the second chapter and beyond? My hero’s mission and life lesson all comes back to finding who assassinated his journalist/friend in the prologue.

    Many thanks!

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