You’ll often hear people who teach writing emphasize a story’s “problem.” They say there’s no story without a central problem.
Well, Captain Obvious says, “of course a story needs a problem—actually quite a few of them.”
Instead of focusing on the problem of the story first, I recommend focusing on Character Goals.
After all, the characters are the ones dealing with (all) the problems of the story…
Defining a problem alone is usually, plot-focused thinking—Ok Bane has taken over the city, and Batman has to rescue it—that’s my story problem…
This approach can reveal information and direction to the story… but anchoring goals to characters, digging into the underlying motivations and aims behind the problem (the person’s goals for whoever is responsible for the problem), can be creatively liberating;
Establishing Goals will often naturally give rise to the detailed expressions and specific plot points of the problem.
So for example, If we establish Bane’s goal is to hurt Batman, to drag him out into the light, unmask him and prove to the world he’s a fraud. That’s deep. There’s a lot of ways that could manifest itself. Taking control of Gotham suddenly becomes a small step in a much larger plan. Instead of Bane’s capture of Gotham running as the central problem for the entire story, maybe that becomes the midpoint turn and we figure out new, more potent ways express Bane’s goal at the end of the second and the third. We’re not forcing the story to work a certain way, it’s telling us how it wants to be written.
Establish Goals Early
Often, newer writers don’t establish the protagonist’s goal early on (in fact, sometimes they never concretely establish the protagonists goal at all).
The protagonist’s (true) goal generally does not change throughout a story. His plan—the means to achieve it certainly will—but the overall goal will almost always remain the same.
You want to establish key goals by the end of the first act, generally the sooner the better. But the reader should definitely understand what the characters are trying/needing to accomplish within the first quarter of the book.
Of course the critical opposing element of the protagonist’s goal, is the MAF’s (Main Antagonistic Force’s) goal.
The MAF’s goal and the protagonists goal should always be in direct opposition.
If you can tie the MAF’s goal into the flawed end of your protagonists character arc—you are aces. This creates a dynamic where, fundamentally, in order for the protagonist to defeat the MAF, he must complete his character arc. Cool beans, huh?
If you’re working on one-shots, or small mini-series, your goals are likely to be pretty shallow:
Evil scientist dude wants to turn everyone in NYC into lizard people—Hero dude wants to stop and arrest him.
In larger series and graphic novels, you get to flex your goals and dig deeper:
Hero wants to protect his genetically engineered wolves and release them into the wild where they can at last be free—the evil cabal wants the mutant wolves for weaponization.
(Just at face level, based on those simple two lines, does one story feel much more complex than the other?)
But don’t forget whatever problems and goals you establish in the story, remember they’re really just smoke and mirrors…
The REAL story is the subtext of the hero’s character arc. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.