Thursday, March 15, 2007

Character Goals

This is a question that, I swear, despite how obvious it is, new screenwriters rarely ask themselves before plunging into scriptwriting. Or, at least, they didn’t take the time to make sure that their answer to this question is a good one:

What does your protagonist want?

What are the goals, desires, and motivations of that individual?

What are the character’s needs, which propel the story forward?

I’m sure that all of my fellow
TriggerStreet reviewers would agree with this statement: one of the biggest problems in amateur scripts is the simple fact that the goal of the protagonist is muddled. OR it’s a case where the protagonist has goals but isn’t acting on these goals by making decisions, taking action, and pushing the story forward. Almost all storytelling is a protagonist trying to achieve something that he/she wants but is up against forces of antagonism. Am I wrong?

Character goals can be simple or complicated, but they should always be clear. The goals can be long-term and/or short-term, tangible or intangible, physical, spiritual, emotional, or psychological.
Robert McKee divided character goals into two categories: the Conscious Object of Desire and the Unconscious Object of Desire. Linda Seger divided character goals into three categories: Internal Goal, External Goal, and the Hidden Need. You can have goals that can be pinpointed on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or goals that spring from one of the Seven Deadly Sins). Personally, I’ve always found creative inspiration in Maslow’s metaneeds, which are the needs of the self-actualizers at the very top of the chart (illustrated above) in order to be happy:

Truth, rather than dishonesty.
Goodness, rather than evil.
Beauty, not ugliness or vulgarity.
Unity, wholeness, and transcendence of opposites, not arbitrariness or forced choices.
Aliveness, not deadness or the mechanization of life.
Uniqueness, not bland uniformity.
Perfection and necessity, not sloppiness, inconsistency, or accident.
Completion, rather than incompleteness.
Justice and order, not injustice and lawlessness.
Simplicity, not unnecessary complexity.
Richness, not environmental impoverishment.
Effortlessness, not strain.
Playfulness, not grim, humorless, drudgery.
Self-sufficiency, not dependency.
Meaningfulness, rather than senselessness.

If you have characters living in extraordinary circumstances such as war or rural poverty, it probably won’t occur to them that they have metaneeds, because they worry about basic needs - getting enough food to eat and having a roof over their head. In fact, Maslow believes that much of what is wrong with the world comes down to the fact that very few people really are interested in these values.

Hence, the role of the artist.


nena eskridge said...

Excellent post. Straight, simple and to the point. I will print and staple it to my forehead. And being from the rural south myself, I confirm the part about food to eat and roof over head. it's a real bitch. :)


Anonymous said...

My late husband used to say, "You can't do art when you're worried about where your next meal will come from and where you'll sleep. You have to take care of the basics first."

I found out that he was not entirely correct, as I still wrote poetry when we were homeless and starving.

Poverty and danger do wear you down over time, and you become very focused on the immediate - but for me, that always included a sense of beauty, aliveness, playfulness, uniqueness.

I've often wondered why retained a sense of those things in circumstances where most people seem not to. Is that just the mindset of the artist?

Many of the people living in the squat with us had a highly developed sense of justice, goodness, truth - many of them were artists, too, but others were just idealistic youth.

On the other hand, in the suburbs of the US, I've found many people who seem barely aware of such things. People who find creativity suspect, who revel in unnecessary complexity, who want nice stuff - but more in an aquisatory manner than because they are interested in the beauty of the objects.

What is it that triggers a sense of the importance of those higher values?

I believe it's extraordinary experience. It's encountering something outside one's routine, which challenges you in some way. (A life of poverty does not qualify - because if it's all you know, it's just the ordinary...)

Art draws people in to experiences which would have been outside of them. There needs to be some commonality, some familiar point of reference (something to identify with) - but then, it takes people a step beyond the ordinary into something new... and thus it may awaken a sense of these higher values.

(OK - I'm just kind of rambling with my thoughts here...)

Ann said...

Laura Deerfield is correct. My sister is a professional quilter and she introduced me to the towering, stunning and acclaimed works of the poverty stricken, slave-descendant quilters of Gee's Bend, Alabama.

Personally, I think art saves people. Artists, in general, tend to be tortured individuals. Others latch onto this art for the same reason it was created--because it helps them transcend worries, inertia and horror. It helps them grow and understand the world.

When people have it easy, they don't create. There's no reason to. A great expample of this is the art, culture and industrial revolution that only happened in the northern countries, where people had to struggle to stay warm and grow food.

Sure alot of art and ideas came from toasty ancient Greece, Rome and Mexico, but not from the nobility--they were too busy tearing out hearts and throwing prisoners to the lions *gg*.

It mostly came from the peasants.

Good post, though. I'd add Deb Dixon's Goal, Motivation and Conflict to the booklist.

Mickey Lee said...


You are absolutely correct about the weak protagonist with muddled goals. It's an issue I've had to deal with in my own writing. It makes me kind of wonder where that problem stems from -- is it because, as writers, by nature we tend to be observers rather than actors?

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, Nena.

Laura & Ann - Oh wow. I was really moved by that. Ya know, I wouldn't argue with that. Not at all. And I hate to sound wishy-washy, but I've never been able to fully embrace any of those story theories or even Maslow's chart. I like them. I view them as sources of inspiration, but I would never go to the mat over any of that stuff. Life's more complicated than a pyramid chart, ya know? Great comments. I really loved them. And Laura, I wish I had the answers to those questions. I wonder those things as well. Maybe it starts with noticing beauty in nature and then you look for it elsewhere? I don't know.

Mickey - I knew you'd back me up! I think Darwin's goals in The Other Side are very clear and that's one of the things that makes it great. And it's great fun watching his goals blow up in his face. Hehehe...


Mickey Lee said...

Well that's good to hear -- some of my reviewers didn't agree! hahah

I hope the second draft makes all this stuff even clearer

Ann said...

Life's more complicated than a pyramid chart, ya know?

Probably the most brilliant thing you've ever said, MM. Yes, the charts help, the enneagrams, the backstories, the archetypes...but they're never engraved.

All these things are just guides. Because life has a way of sneaking up behind you and altering you in ways you never thought possible and no Dr's bell-curve can ever predict.

We're scientific people living in The Modern Age and we like to assign numbers to everything we can't understand. Unfortunately, we're also irrational *gg*. We fall in love and get into all kinds of messes numbers can't help.

Why do you think I write romance? LOL. Because it deals with all those ineffables that no amount of thought, fact, logic or numbers can EVER explain.

Talk about endless fodder...

PS to Laura--A life of poverty *does* qualify, because there's always an awareness of the "other life".

Anonymous said...

Ann - makes sense. A professor of mine spoke about working class vs middle-class social theorists in a similar way... that the middle class tended to see themselves - whereas the working class tended to be more aware of the middle-class values, since these were established as the "norm."

Gays, and to an extent racial minorities also tend to be aware of the "norm" and that they are "other". (The politics of passing are fascinating.)

Ah, but I never cease to be amazed when I see the potential for art awaken in someone. When I start to talk to some nice cowboy trucker about poetry, and he comes back to me a month later with something he's written. Or when, after a discussion of symbolism, I see a movie with a former prostitute, and you can see her "get it" in a different way than she ever had before.

(OK - so my friends are a colorful lot.)

Ann said...

Laura--some of the most creative people I've ever known were auto mechanics and water-well drillers. I'm working on a theory that folks who work with their hands often achieve a level of expertise where they can put their bodies on auto pilot and free their minds. Not so with many white collar jobs which require constant thinking and suck up the creative juices.

Your truck driver fits in there nicely, as does your prostitute...

Sorry. Couldn't resist. I *am* serious about the theory though.

Unknown said...

"Like the wind crying endlessly through the universe, Time carries away
the names and the deeds of conquerors and commoners alike. And all that
we are, all that remains, is in the memories of those who cared we came
this way for a brief moment."

----Harlan Ellison