Monday, April 1, 2013

Believing the Dream

Does Roxie Hart have a dream?
You bet she does!
We all have a dream, right? Well, have you ever put much thought in your characters' dreams? As writers, we tend to dial in on many different aspects of our writing. Is our grammar correct? Does the chapter run a decent length of pages? Is the ending satisfying? Did I pick a vivid setting and use it well? Can the audience connect to my main character?

Wait! That's a very good question.

Can the audience connect to my main character?

This question should be one of your main priorities when first setting out to write your story. Because, after all, we've read many of those "misses" of novels that never quite create a believable main character. But how do we create something that sounds so easy, but in reality can become a real time-suck?

The answer to this question is GOAL. Characters, in any given genre, need to have a GOAL. If I asked you, "What's your main character's goal?" in the story you're writing right now, my hope is that you can tick it off to me in ten seconds. If it takes you a lot longer and leads to a lot of unnecessary rambling, then you might want to stop right here and rethink your project.

Goals can be as varied as the day is long, but what most of them boil down to are two things:

  • Growth
  • Redemption
And almost all goals are driven by DESIRE. That dream has to seem possible somehow.
So how do we go about creating our character's goals? How do we know who should change most in our storyline? Can the opposition, or antagonist, have a goal as well?

First, we need to make sure the main goal of our main character (i.e. the person who goes through the most change) gets added early on in the story. Your audience needs to see this goal, don't keep it to yourself and then SURPRISE! look what I've sprang on the reader. That goal needs to be your main character's primary concern throughout the story. Don't do something stupid and make the death toll or the number of crashed cars more interesting than your character's goal. This goal you've created needs to connect to the theme of your story, and run through the entirety of the storyline -- from beginning to end.

As to who should change the most throughout the story, it's best if you know who that is early on. Most novelists start with a main protagonist and then before long get lost on the bunny trails of writing. Try to keep your MC on the right goal-oriented path from beginning to end.

The protagonist or opposing character is more than welcome to have a goal as well. And this is how you figure out the ending of your novel. Two things can happen in the end:

  • The MC realizes his/her goal, change has occurred, and the opposition has been vanquished.
  • The MC fails to realize his/her goal, change has still occurred on some level, and, unfortunately, the opposition has won out in the end.
It's just a matter of finding what works for your storyline.

Since films are more easily relatable for a large audience, let's take a look at a few. All films usually show the goal of the main character and all goal realizations occur early on in the storyline.

What does Bond hope to accomplish in the end?

SKYFALL -- In this latest installment where we get the joy of following James Bond, we see his goal early on. Atop the speeding train, 007 is trying to get one thing:  a hard drive containing a list of undercover agents' names. This is the main thread of the storyline. Although getting his hands on that hard drive morphs into getting his hands on the thief, Bond is focused on this one thing and this is what drives the story and brings the protagonist and antagonist's backstories to life. Most thrillers and action adventure films let the audience know early on what the MC is after and then the story unfolds from there. (Other films in this category:  Anything James Bond, Mission ImpossibleTransformers, Bourne series, G.I. Joe series, the Batman series, etc.)

All Inman wants to do is get his butt home and see Ada.
Does he realize his dream?

COLD MOUNTAIN -- Down to its bones, Cold Mountain is more of a love story than anything else. Inman wants nothing more than to return to his beloved hometown and the lovely Ada he hopes is still waiting for him. Ada longs for Inman to return someday, but she also has to learn how to survive on her own once her father passes away. Right from the start, the audience is shown what could eventually turn out to be a passionate affair between Inman and Ada, but will have to wait until the end of the film to see if anything develops. Plus, this is one of those stories where, in a sense, the antagonist wins out with the death of Inman. (Films with similar story structure:  The Mexican, The English Patient, Gone with the Wind, and Doctor Zhivago.)

Will Kathleen and Joe ever get along long
enough to fall in love?

YOU'VE GOT MAIL -- One of many movies with the romance story structure. Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox fall in love with each other long before they ever meet. The goal of each character is shown early on through the exchanged anonymous emails. Kathleen is finding some sort of fulfillment with her anonymous email partner that she can't seem to find with the real man in her life, Frank. But, of course, per the rules of rom-com films, when Kathleen finds out Joe is behind the emails -- the man trying to shut down her little book store -- a rift forms and the two eventually have to find their way back to one another. But the goal for Kathleen to find love is always there throughout the story arc. In the end, it's both the protagonist, Kathleen, and the antagonist, Joe, who change and find what they're looking for. (Similar films:  Notting Hill, Pretty Woman, French Kiss, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.)

Here's my challenge to you:  Next time you sit down to watch a movie or pick up a good book to read, see if you can spot the goal and see if the writer follows through! After all, like Roxie Hart above, all characters have some sort of dream to fulfill!

Can you think of any films or books where the MC's goal isn't very clear? How about one where the goal is never realized? Or better yet, one where the opposition wins out in the end?


  1. Very insightful post, Sister Mary.

    I believe that a dream and a goal are not always the same. Sometimes the character must do something that is not necessarily his/her dream. For example, in Miss Congeniality (they played it on TV this weekend so it's fresh in my mind :)), Sandra Bullock is an FBI agent who must pretend to be a beauty queen in order to uncover a plot to bomb the USA pageant. It is not her dream to uncover this or to dress up as a beauty contestant, but it's certainly her goal. Having said this, you've reminded me how important it is for a writer to know what the character's dream is because this will shape who that person is. My guess is that if the goal and dream are not the same thing, the goal may be what moves the action of the plot, whereas the dream is what moves the character's emotional journey (?)

    I hadn't thought about growth and redemption being the most popular goals, but it does make sense.

    There are several novels where the goal is never realized ("The Age of Innocence" comes to mind). I think most tragic love stories apply. I'll try to think of others.

  2. Interesting that you use Miss Congeniality. I'll agree with you on the goal of Sandra Bullock's character, but I also believe her main goal in the storyline plays into her dream. She dreams of being a really effective agent. She's man enough to do so, as the audience is led to believe in the opening sequences of the film, but then she realizes what reaching her dream (being an effective agent) entails and that means putting on a dress and being pretty. Ugh! So I guess it depends on how you interpret dream and goal.

    "The Age of Innocence" is a good example of an unrealized dream. Perhaps a love story that's tragic in many aspects but eventually has (in a sense) a happy ending is "Jane Eyre". Something like "Wuthering Heights" on the other hand plays both sides. There's the unfulfilled love for Heathcliff, but the cousins wind up together in the end. So, whose dream wins out in the end? I guess I'm not really sure with that one.

    1. Can you believe I still haven't read Wuthering Heights? (I know...) so I don't know what to tell you about it.

      That's true about Bullock's character! So I guess the "theory" proves right: the dream is what moves them emotionally, the goal could be what helps them achieve it (the action).

    2. Then may I suggest Wuthering Heights for your next read? :-)

      I guess I view goal and dream as interchangeable. In the case of "Chigaco" and Roxie Hart, the small town girl dreams of making it big on the stage, but that's also her goal. What drives her? Stepping on or *ahem* killing anyone who gets in her way. Her goal is to get rid of anyone who holds her back from her dream. So, again, I guess it depends on how you look at dream vs. goal!

      Maybe that didn't make sense...

    3. Yes, it did. I think sometimes they are the same thing, but in some stories the goal may be about survival rather than living the dream (Titanic, The Fugitive, Misery, etc) If the character survives the ordeal, then he's free to fulfill his dream.

      Question: does Roxie achieve her goal/dream?

    4. As to your question: yes and no. When Roxie gets sent away to prison, that's when her star rises and she becomes a tabloid sensation. But in the world of glittery lights and semi-talented people, another, more innocent jailmate steals Roxie's thunder. So, she realizes the dream of becoming a star but then afterwards she's seen as just one of many lackluster stars crowding the vaudeville stage in the 1920s.

      As to Titanic, wasn't Rose's dream to be free of the constraints everybody in her life was shoving her into? In the end, she not only survives, but realizes the dream of becoming who she wants to be. The Fugitive is survival but Dr. Kimble wants nothing more than to have his name cleared. Oh, crap! Now you've got me started!

  3. I remember coming across a similar concept in "Writing the Breakout Novel" and sweating it for WEEKS trying to figure out what my MC's goal was. :) But it really is a helpful exercise; it brings clarity to the character and the plot. It's even helpful to think it through for minor characters.

    "How about one where the goal is never realized?" Well, anyone who knows the Game of Thrones series will tell you that almost none of George RR Martin's poor characters get to see their goals fulfilled: they die too quickly! Although some goals are carried out after death, I suppose.

    Very interesting discussion above, too, about goals vs. dreams. And survival! I just saw "Life of Pi" which very much has sheer survival as the goal, though this goal serves the initial goal of understanding religion/meaning/God.

    1. Just one question: Would you say in The Game of Thrones that those characters who suffer an early demise saw their unfulfilled destinies as unfulfilled "goals" or "dreams"? I would think in a world where everyone wants to have power and a throne, then they "dream" of lording it over their subjects. But some never get they power they dream of?


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