When we first start learning about writing, we’re often faced with a whole new language. Words like “beats,” “tension,” and “conflict” take on new meaning within the writing world.
A beat is no longer just an aspect of music. Tension isn’t just about your shoulders hunching with stress. And conflict isn’t just about people yelling in each other’s faces.
We struggle with other writing-related words because the meaning changes with the context. Do we mean “blurb,” as in a quote from another author to place on a cover (“Don’t miss this spellbinding tale!”—Jane Doe, Bestselling Author of Major Book)? Or do we mean “blurb,” as in the back-cover (or product) description of a book? Sometimes, only context can tell us. *smile*
Such it is with the words “needs” and “goals.” We know what those words mean outside of the writing world: Sometimes, I need to eat unhealthy amounts of chocolate, and some days, my only goal is to survive the day. See? Easy.
But once we enter the writing world, those words become infused with extra meanings related to plots and character arcs. Yet at first glance, we might not understand how those concepts differ and what that difference means for our stories.
What Is a “Goal” in Writing Terms?
In stories, “goal” can refer to story goals or to character goals. (And those may overlap.)
Story goals define the plot. What point, showdown, confrontation, accomplishment, etc. is the story working toward? The story—and the plot—generally builds toward the Climax, and during the story’s Climax, the protagonists will succeed or fail with that goal.
Character goals can be similar. But the overlap between character goals and story goals usually isn’t perfect.
For one thing, characters often have multiple goals, perhaps one for the external conflict and one for the internal conflict. Also, characters goals frequently change over the course of the story. Our characters might start off with relatively selfish goals and adopt the story goals later, maybe after they see the consequences of not taking action. Each scene should have mini-goals for our characters too, which give each scene a purpose.
Goals Are Tangible, Measurable, and Necessary
In both cases, goal refers to something tangible, something concrete, something readers can pin a finger on and think, “The protagonists win if they succeed at xyz, and they lose if they don’t.” If we don’t do a good job of establishing the goals, the story will feel adrift.
Without goals, the story will lack narrative drive, and the pacing will suffer. Without goals, the stakes won’t be clear (what consequences are they trying to avoid by accomplishing the goal?). Without goals, story events will feel random.
Story goals are often a major aspect of the feedback I provide with developmental edits. It’s shockingly easy to mislead readers to the wrong story goal because subtext often plays a part in defining these goals.
Even in published books, we’ve probably seen some stories that reach what we thought was the story goal midway through Act Two, and then we wonder “Now what?” Or we thought the story goal was one thing, only to discover that was the series goal, and so this story feels unfinished. Receiving feedback about goals is yet another way editors, beta readers, and critique partners are so important.
What Is a “Need” in Writing Terms?
In stories, “need” refers to what characters long for or what they want. Unlike goals, needs don’t have to be tangible or specifically measurable. In addition, characters don’t even have to be consciously aware of their needs.
Needs can be related to a character’s internal conflict, but they don’t have to be. Needs (or sometimes called a character’s Longing) might be as intangible as “fitting in” or “feeling worthy.” There’s no definitive measurement for success in those cases (and they might not succeed at all), and characters might not know what they want.
Like goals, needs are important for stories. But just like the needs themselves, the reasons for that importance can be a little more intangible.
Readers Relate to Characters through Their Needs
Goals are very specific to the story. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t done most of the things characters do in stories. I haven’t fought Voldemort, I haven’t faked my death, I haven’t battled zombies, etc.
But needs are more generic. We can identify with wanting to be loved, to be safe, to be respected.
In other words, we usually relate to characters through their needs more than their goals. Even in a plot-driven story, we still respect the unemotional vigilante hero’s need for justice. That’s why we care about them capturing the bad guy.
Characters’ Motivations Develop through Their Needs
In addition, those needs often drive the goals. Why does the character decide to do xyz? Because they care, because the goal is a step toward their needs.
Going back to the vigilante hero, the hero doesn’t chase the bad guy because it’s their job. They chase the bad guy because they burn with the need for justice, and that means stopping this guy. If the hero didn’t care about justice, they wouldn’t get involved.
Stories Should Include Both Goals and Needs
A story with goals and no needs would be strictly plot-driven—to the point that readers wouldn’t necessarily care at all. Only the most cardboard cutout of characters wouldn’t have needs or longings or care about anything. (And if the character doesn’t care, why should the reader?) The plot twists and mysteries might be sharply well-written, but the story would lack any emotion.
On the other hand, a story with needs and no goals would be strictly character-driven—to the point where it feels like navel-gazing. Only the most passive characters wouldn’t have goals or be striving toward anything. The imagery and thematic metaphors might be beautifully well-written, but the story would lack a point.
Instead, the best stories will contain both goals and needs. A balance will preserve the tension and the pacing and the meaning and the emotional connection and the “so what?” factor and the… Yep, the right balance is important. *smile*
Potential Problems (and How to Fix Them)
If we receive feedback that… Or if we struggle with…
- a protagonist who is too passive, ensure the character has a goal they’re striving toward
- a story where nothing seems to happen or wanders aimlessly, ensure the story is building to a goal (a point)
- a story that feels unfinished (especially in a series), ensure the story goal is clear to readers and matches the subtext
- a character that feels forced, ensure the character’s needs support their motivation for the goal
- a story draft that feels forced, ensure the story and character goals are clear and match what the draft is building to so far
- a protagonist who is too generic (or lacking voice), ensure the character has identifiable and relatable needs that are driving the motivation of the goals (what do they really want? what are they struggling with?)
- a protagonist readers can’t relate to or identify with, ensure their deeper needs—the universal ones—are hinted at in the story
Bonus Tip: Try to at least hint at the protagonist’s need in a query or back-cover blurb. Remember that readers (and agents/editors) will relate to the character’s need more than the plot in many stories.
Needs and goals are both simple enough words, but when it comes to storytelling, we have to understand all the implications of what those words mean within the writing world. Hopefully with that knowledge, we’ll be able to write stronger stories and more interesting characters that leave readers turning pages and finishing the book with satisfaction in their heart. *smile*
Do you disagree with any of the definitions here? Do you struggle with including needs more than goals in your stories or vice versa? Have you read stories where the goals or needs weren’t strong or clear enough? Do you agree with the explanation for why they’re both important? Do you have suggestions for other issues to watch for (or advice for how to balance them)?Pin It