Script Insights Article: How to Create a Strong Goal for Your Main Character

Screenplays in which the main character lacks a clear, understandable, and compelling goal that drives the conflict, forces transformation, and pushes the hero toward the climax – leads to a story that wanders and an audience or reader who quickly becomes bored or confused. The main character needs to have an objective to pursue.

A Strong Goal is Driven By Clear and Focused Motivation
The protagonist must be motivated to act to achieve a goal. This motivation can be psychological, physical, or situational, but the audience must clearly understand the motivation. If a reader wonders, “Why is he doing that?” then the character’s motivation has not been established. Frequently, the motivating factor is defined in the inciting incident, when the protagonist is at a crisis point and his entire world is about to change. Something happens that compels the hero to develop a goal and a plan to achieve it.

A Strong Goal Is Clearly Presented and Easy to Understand
The audience needs to know early in the story (some time in the First Act) what the protagonist’s goal is so they can follow him on his journey. Something may happen later in the story (often around the MidPoint) that forces him to change his goal to what he truly wants or need. For example, in The Verdict, written by David Mamet, the main character’s initial (external) goal is to win the civil case for his client, ultimately the goal shifts and becomes his (internal) need to regain his dignity.

A Strong Goal Is Compelling
Something must be at stake in the story that is essential to the protagonist’s well being. The audience must be convinced that if the protagonist does not achieve his goal something will be lost (the girl, life on Earth, justice, redemption…)

A Strong Goal Requires Action to Achieve
The main character must have a plan and take specific actions to achieve his goal. If he or she doesn’t take action then the audience won’t believe the goal is important to the character and will lose interest. By the MidPoint (at the latest) the hero needs to be acting on the story, instead of his “world” acting on him.

A Strong Goal Brings the Hero into Conflict with the Antagonist
The protagonist’s goals are in direct opposition to the antagonist’s, which creates conflict. A worthy opponent strengthens the hero.

A Strong Goal Is Difficult to Achieve, Forcing the Protagonist to Change
As the character acts to achieve his goal he will face increasingly difficult obstacles, conflicts, and complications that demand the character to confront and overcome his fatal flaw. The goal cannot be achieved without the hero changing or transforming in some way.

YOUR TURN: What is your main character’s initial goal and does it change later in the story? What is the motivation that compels your protagonist to develop a goal? Are the stakes high enough to sustain the goal throughout the story? What actions does the hero take to achieve the goal? What fatal flaw prevents him from reaching his goal and how is he forced to confront and overcome that obstacle?