Character Goals May Shift
Hans Ness, Oct 29, 2023
“Your protagonist should have a clear goal up front.”
That’s real advice I got from a paid professional, but it’s way overgeneralized. First, let me clarify that advice was for a plot-driven action/adventure. Dramas and internal goals are different: The protagonist struggles with some discontentment, but the desired resolution is rarely specific. But when we look at external goals, they vary greatly:
The most reliable tactic is when the character has a clear and obvious goal early on that never changes.
Finding Nemo — Nemo needs to escape / be rescued.
Little Mermaid — Ariel needs a kiss of true love to remain human.
Less commonly, after the protagonist achieves their goal, they have an epiphany and realize it’s not really what they wanted, so they switch to a better goal, often switching from an external goal to an internal one.
Cars — Lightning McQueen wants to win the Piston Cup race and get a new sponsor. In the end, he stops short of the finish line because he realizes friendships are more important.
Up — Carl wants to fly his house to the falls in South America. He achieves this in the last 19 minutes, but realizes it’s an empty and lonely goal. Then he decides to be more social and help Russel save the bird.
Onward — Ian wants to meet his dad. In the end he is unable to, but he realizes that his relationship with his big brother has actually been more important.
Despicable Me — Gru’s goal is to capture the moon, and he does. Then he gives that up because he realizes his daughters are more important.
Most rare. The goal may be unclear, and it keeps changing, often becoming an internal goal.
Megamind — By the end of Act 1, Megamind achieves his goal of defeating Metro Man and ruling Metro City, but he finds it unfulfilling and now he has no goal. So then his goal is to create his own adversary villain. Then his goal is to get the girl. Then his goal is to be a good person.
Frozen II — Elsa hears a calling. Her goal is to follow it, but she has no idea what it is. Eventually her goal evolves to saving the villagers, finding her parents, and moving out on her own.
The Lion King — First Simba wants to be king. Then he wants to run away and escape his guilt for supposedly causing his father’s death. Not until the last 15 minutes does he want to overthrow Scar and save the pride.
Sometimes a story starts with a mini-story, with its own goal that resolves completely before the main plot begins. This allows more time to introduce the characters and build the world.
Raiders of the Lost Ark — Indiana Jones’ first goal is to get the Golden Idol. After he succeeds, then fails, he returns home and the main goal is introduced to find the lost ark.
The Lion King — Simba’s first goal is to visit the elephant graveyard and survive the hyena attack. He does, then the main plot is eventually triggered leading to new goals.
While there is always a goal, it is not necessary for the protagonist to be aware of it. Nor is it necessary that we as readers agree with their goal; we may be rooting for them to make a better choice.
Despicable Me — Gru’s goal is to capture the moon. It’s fun, but actually we’re rooting for him to bond with his adopted daughters instead, which he does not want to do at first, but eventually he does.
The Lion King — Simba’s first goal is [I Just Can’t Wait] to be King. But we don’t actually want him to grow up yet or for his father to die, so that’s not our goal for him. After Mufasa’s death, we want Simba to return and save the pride, but he does not accept that goal until the end.
Beauty and the Beast — Belle first wants “more than this provincial life” in a boring little town. But to us, the town is charming. Later we want her and the Beast to fall in love, which is not her goal until later. By then we’ve all forgotten that she thinks the town is boring. (Effectively that was a throw-away goal, which is not ideal, but it worked.)
Don’t feel pressured to clearly establish the final goal early in a plot-driven story. There should be some goal early on, but it may be a temporary goal or just the beginning of an evolving goal. And character-driven stories don’t need clearly defined goals, just a general desire for the protagonist’s life to improve.