Switching the Goal

Most stories start with a character who wants something. That need, that desire, is what drives the story forward as the protagonist fumbles their way toward achieving that goal. I’ve read countless books, blog posts and magazine articles talking about the importance of making your character’s need very clear from the beginning of the story so that readers know to cheer as the MC gets closer to his goal, or feel frustrated as obstacles keep him from the goal.

But can the goal change over the course of the story?

Say you have a character who is desperate to get back home. But the taxi breaks down on the way to the airport, she misses her flight and is stranded by the side of the road. While she waits for another taxi, a minivan crashes in front of her. She pulls the lone survivor from the burning vehicle, a child who is suddenly alone in the world.

How would this affect your character? Would it change her goal, at least for the short-term?

Say your character decides to help this child get back to his family on the other side of the country, even though it means delaying her own desire to return home. Now she has a huge obstacle. Not only is she going in the opposite direction of where she actually wants to go, she’s also responsible for another human being.

The choices your characters make don’t just affect their goals. They also reveal who they are as people. My imaginary character could have handed the child off to the police and caught the next flight out of town. But then what would that say about her as a person?

What about in your story? Do you have characters with changing goals? Is your protagonist sometimes his or her own antagonist as well?

19 thoughts on “Switching the Goal

  1. Wow, what a great storyline, and some really intriguing questions. (Wish I'd thought of them.)

    I think, my MC's goal has always been the same throughout the book. But she has had several obstacles to overcome which lead her away from it from time to time.

    Wow again. This is a heavy duty thinking post. Thanks Sherrie.

  2. I think the goals almost always have to change. Not necessarily the big one (that I think the hero may not even be aware of for a while), but the smaller more task-specific ones. Either because the hero reaches that goal (not all that often!) and it's not what they really wanted/not enough/creates another problem, or because they find out what they wanted won't help them and go off in another direction.

    And now I have to go weave that into my picture book, thank you very much!!

  3. I love changing the goal! That's the whole point of the character's inner struggle IMHO – to realize that their external goals may not really have been what they wanted all along. What they really needed. Great post!

  4. Hmm…the protagonist for something that I'm working on wants a certain goal consistently but even as she's trying to obtain it, the cpnflicts that introduce new and more pressing goals for her effect her in a way that makes her reconsider if she really wants her ultimate goal.

  5. “Is your protagonist sometimes his or her own antagonist as well?”

    Now THAT is a good question. And I have to admit, I didn't necessarily see that that's where you were going with this. I thought you were just talking about the evolution of a character; not necessarily the way plot can turn things on their head.

    Hmm, time to ponder, b/c I don't have an answer for you off the top of my head…

  6. What a thought-provoking post, Sherrie. Yeah, I think that changing goals often signify that the character has changed, matured, even, and they are placing more importance now on something they may not have even cared about before.

    I love how an inciting incident can change a whole character's world, and if this means there's an obvious shift in their goals and motivations, that's all for the better!

  7. If you start the story with the character heading home, but there is no pressing need to get there, then you are starting the story too soon with the wrong goal.

    In a strong story, goals must be important, not part of a to-do list.

    Goals, however, can evolve through the story as events change the main character's perspective on the situation.

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