A little over a year ago, I signed up for a theater class. Most of the lessons focused on the techniques actors use to learn about the roles they’re portraying, which involves much more than memorizing a script. Before ever setting foot on stage, each actor identifies the goal his or her character is trying to achieve in the upcoming scene. Whether it’s as simple as asking a friend for a favor or as dramatic as attacking an enemy, the character and actor both need motivation to move from Point A to Point B.
As I studied this preparatory tactic in the context of acting, I realized that it could benefit fiction writing too. In the past, I’d struggled to flesh out a complete plot line, cobbled scenes together that served no purpose, and created characters who amounted to nothing more than plot devices. Character objectives gave me a new lens to look through that showed me where my stories faltered.
When you understand why your characters are making certain decisions, you’ll be able to detect and strengthen the sources of conflict. The process of discovery isn’t complicated either, because all you need to do is ask four questions.
1. What Is the Character’s Story Goal?
Before you can determine a character’s objective for a single scene, you’ll need to zoom out to survey the big picture. Is she hoping to someday become a successful musician? Graduate from Harvard? Defeat an evil warlock? In theater, any value or ambition that a character pursues throughout her lifetime is called a “super objective,” and it will influence all of her day-to-day choices.
For example, from the first page of The Hunger Games, Katniss’s super objective is to protect her family. She hunts so her family doesn’t starve. She volunteers for the Hunger Games to save her younger sister. And once she’s in the arena, her concern for her family pushes her to stay alive at all costs so she can return to them. Though she works toward different smaller goals throughout her trials, her family remains at the center.
Keep in mind that character objectives should not be limited to protagonists, however. The Hunger Games encompasses a myriad of super objectives that explain various characters’ behavior. Some tributes are fighting for fame and glory. Others are content to avoid dying. President Snow is intent on controlling the citizens of Panem. And the gamemakers must design entertaining competitions to please the Capitol.
In theater, even the actors who play minor parts familiarize themselves with their characters’ objectives prior to rehearsal. If you allow supporting characters to exist without objectives, they’ll become glorified props readers can’t relate to. You’ll also forfeit the opportunity to stir up friction between characters with opposing objectives, which I’ll discuss more in the next two sections.
2. What Are the Character’s Immediate Needs and Wants?
Now that you know your character’s super objective, break it into increments. She can’t just walk into Harvard, grab a degree that’s waiting for her, and walk out again. She’ll need to apply and be accepted to the college, rent a room on campus, get a job to pay for expenses, and receive passing grades.
When events occur purely to shove a story along, each scene will feel like meaningless filler material. But when a character has a roadmap she’s following (and a reason to keep trying instead of turning back), all of your plot points will have a purpose. Even mundane activities, like a group project, will be significant to her development.
The more clearly you recognize what’s driving your character, the more friction you’ll be able to generate between her wants/needs and others’ wants/needs. Perhaps she needs to complete the group project for extra credit because her grades are slipping. But she wants to befriend the other students and dodge an annoying guy. Meanwhile, one student is determined to earn an A+, so she takes charge of the project and micromanages the details. Another prefers to knock off the assignment as quickly as possible because his weekend is booked, so he rushes through tasks. And the “annoying” guy is lonely and looking for attention, which makes him so talkative that he distracts everyone. The combination of all these wants/needs builds a scene that’s true-to-life and inspires readers to care about the outcome.
Katniss faces many needs in The Hunger Games: training, scoring high, winning over sponsors, confronting rivals, and surviving in the arena. During her private training session, she needs to impress the gamemakers with her skills, but she wants to grab their attention too. So, instead of continuing to aim at the targets, she fires an arrow at the gamemakers’ table, striking an apple in the mouth of a roast pig. On the other side of the situation, the gamemakers need to rank each of the tributes, but they’ve already sat through hours of sessions and have all but lost interest in their judging duties. They’re tired and drunk, and they want Katniss to finish the demonstration so they can go home. This leads them to dismiss her.
3. What (or Who) Hinders the Character’s Success?
No one enjoys reading about a character who never struggles or takes risks. Without challenges, she can’t grow into a better person, so be sure to litter her path with obstacles. As she’s working on the group project, any number of plans could go awry. A teammate who was supposed to deliver crucial data may fail to show up. The Wi-Fi may cut out, preventing online research. Or the annoying guy may interrupt every five seconds. Setbacks shape how a character behaves in the moment.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss needs to amaze the gamemakers during her training session, but she bungles her first few shots because she’s not used to the new bow. After she practices with it and manages to hit multiple targets, the gamemakers ignore her because she’s the reason they’re stuck there. Katniss and the gamemakers act as obstacles for each other.
Katniss’s next move is more daring: she launches an arrow outside the designated area to startle the gamemakers. By this point, her objective has changed four times over the span of only two pages. In theater, these shifts are referred to as “beats,” and a scene can contain as many as the actor and director deem necessary. The placement of beats is fairly subjective, so I can’t provide a formula. Just concentrate on natural fluctuations within the scene, such as a character entering or exiting, the disclosure of new information, or a problem arising.
4. How Is the Character Feeling?
A character’s needs, wants, and obstacles will affect all of her objectives, but her actions won’t always be based on logic. Her emotional state can either make her more determined or more discouraged. To cope with the absent teammate, the flickering Wi-Fi, and the annoying guy, she may drive around town until she finds a peaceful coffee shop with functioning internet. Or she may transform into an anxiety bomb and explode. The way she responds must reflect her unique personality and the thoughts rattling around in her mind.
Katniss’s anger in The Hunger Games brings out her impulsive and rebellious nature. The gamemakers view her as a pawn, and her stunt proves that she refuses to be manipulated. They’re still wide-eyed and gap-mouthed when Katniss leaves, but readers see the full impact of the gamemakers’ shock when they give her the top score. Their favor enables her to gain sponsors; however, it also breeds resent in her competitors, which triggers more cycles of needs, wants, obstacles, and emotions that propel the story forward.
Advancing Your Plot
If you analyze your scenes with these four questions, you’ll emerge with an ultra-sharp image of where your character is headed and what she needs to accomplish to reach her goals. You can then predict her (and other characters’) reactions, increase tension, and trim out incidents that don’t contribute to your plot. When every piece of your story is meaningful, even down to the last syllable, readers will love getting lost inside the pages.
Allison Raymond has been captivated by stories for as long as she can remember. She was only eleven years old when she came to recognize writing as God’s purpose for her life. Although many years have passed since that moment, she has never doubted this purpose. Instead, she chooses to spend her time working hard to make her dream of becoming a published novelist a reality.
Allison grew up in Virginia, Illinois, and Oklahoma. She now lives in Missouri, where she is attending college in pursuit of a degree in Secondary English Education. In the future, she hopes to become a high school English teacher to share her passion for storytelling with aspiring young writers. Currently, she shares this passion on her personal blog and in a large number of her daily conversations.