The best, most engaging stories have a protagonist with deep, passionate goals — goals so strong that they’re willing to fight and change for them. A few weeks ago, we wrote a post on the importance of giving your character agency, which is the capacity and drive to make choices. But what choices? Drive to do what?
Your protagonist needs external and internal goals strong enough to carry through the whole story. Their goals need to have dire stakes and strong obstacles. They also need to contradict each other.
Goals: Your character should have one main, all-consuming external goal. This is the thing they are actively and passionately fighting for throughout the story. But they’ll also have an internal goal, which is the thing that they really, truly want. The internal goal is what they think (wrongly) that their external goal will give them.
Stakes: Both goals need stakes. What will happen if your protagonist doesn’t achieve their goals? What are they afraid of? What are they desperate for? Stakes are what keep readers turning the page. They give us a reason to care.
Obstacles: The external obstacle is your major plot problem, the issue your character is consciously trying to solve. The internal obstacle (sometimes called a fear, lie, or misbelief) is the subconscious lie your character is telling themselves about the world. It’s the wall they’ve put up that’s truly preventing them from seizing their internal goal.
Recognizing and overcoming the internal obstacle is the true heart of your story. It’s the journey of change that will, ultimately, prove your story point.
(If you don’t know your story point yet, pause here and go read ‘What’s your story point?’).
A Case Study: Elizabeth Bennet
Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is a fantastic example of a character blinded by her personal desires and inner fears. Lizzy says she only wants to marry someone she loves (external goal), but in this declaration, she’s really rebelling against possibility that her family’s lack of fortune will dictate her life choices (internal goal). Because she believes that money makes people self-centered and arrogant (inner obstacle), she doesn’t think she’ll ever love or marry someone rich. The ironic thing is that by striving not to be judged by her class and fortune, she ends up judging others based on theirs. She embodies her own worst fear.
To see how this works in more detail, check out the following map of Lizzy Bennet’s goals, stakes and obstacles.
Elizabeth Bennet Goals, Stakes, & Obstacles
Can you see how the story of Pride and Prejudice is baked into Lizzy’s internal contradictions? Lizzy starts the book believing Mr. Darcy is a total jerk (mostly because he’s rich, but to be fair, he definitely doesn’t help). Lizzy spends the story seeking information that proves her view of him right while ignoring information that might prove her wrong. At the climax, when she realizes Darcy’s true nature, she learns that she has been arrogant and prejudiced against class. When she ultimately chooses to love and marry Darcy, she proves the point of the story, that ‘love can overcome the obstacles of class.’
Download the Map!
Click here to download a blank version of the worksheet. We’d love to hear how it works for you in the comments below!
This story was first published at goldenmayediting.com. We provide book coaching & editing to fiction writers. If you’re interested in our other blog posts or in checking out our services please visit us there!