Define Your Character’s Goals Before You Start Writing a Story

Know what is driving your character

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

The largest element that moves your story forward is the character’s goal, or what the character wants. A character without a defined goal is aimless and leaves you without a story.

One memorable novel that I’ve read many times it Post Office by Charles Bukowski. I read it many times, not because it’s a favorite novel of mine (though I do like it a lot), but because I assigned it to my students and for many semesters it was on my curriculum.

It’s a story about a drunk who ends up working for the post office. The main character, Henry is an aimless, lost soul who is a misogynist pig with no apparent goals but to get drunk, have sex, gamble, and waste away his life. These are not goals to hang a story on.

So, how can a book like this with a character like this get published and do well in the marketplace? And Post Office did do well. It became Bukowski’s first published novel. But I just said that your character has to have a goal. And Henry is a character who just wants to get by in life and lead a hedonistic life. Why am I using him as an example then?

Do characters have to want something or not?

Let me clarify. You as the writer must know what the character’s goal is even if the character doesn’t know he has a goal, even if it appears that he doesn’t want anything. Every character wants something, and Henry is no exception.

Bukowski’s character actually wants many things that he doesn’t admit that he wants, or that he’s forgotten that he wants, or that he doesn’t even know he wants.

He wants sex, alcohol, and money to gamble, true, but those are not his real desires. He also wants to write. He based this character on himself. He wants respect from society and to matter just like we all do. He’s a terrible human being and completely unlikable, don’t get me wrong, but he became this terrible person because of his past. In the book, we find out that he’d had a tough childhood, and we want Henry to succeed, to change, to reach his goal. Even he manages to do some good in this story, so we hope he will deserve so good in return.