How to Use Needs and Goals to Appeal to Readers

by Jami Gold on January 15, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Cue ball lined up on billiards table with text: The Importance of Goals *and* Needs

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.

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

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

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 goalsWhy 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)?

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31 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Kim January 15, 2015 at 9:10 am

I find it harder to write goals than needs. Needs are more immediate, more personal, more applicable to my own life. Goals? Not so much. They can feel too big, too remote. They are a struggle for me to figure out.

But I dislike navel-gazing novels, at least most of the time. I read one last year that had me screaming in frustration. The story went nowhere. It was just one woman complaining about her life and transferring all her anger at life onto people who did not feel the same way. She had no goals and the story had no goals. It felt like she had only one need–to feel sorry for herself! No, thank you.

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Jami Gold January 15, 2015 at 9:49 am

Hi Kim,

Interesting! Well, that definitely backs up the theory that readers can relate more to a character’s needs. 🙂

I proudly say that I’m a genre girl because I have zero patience for people (characters) with no goals to accomplish or improve something, so I understand your frustration. LOL! Thanks for sharing!

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Pat Ireland January 15, 2015 at 10:25 am

Another brilliant post, Jami.

It did leave me wondering about using this insight to create a more compelling conflict by giving incompatible needs to the protagonist and antagonist.

On one hand I suspect that would result in a turbo-charged plot and much stronger characters. But on the other hand, wouldn’t that also risk making the antagonist a little *too* sympathetic?

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Carradee January 15, 2015 at 10:30 am

Wouldn’t that depend on what the antagonist’s need IS, and what they’re willing to do to get it?

I tend to give my protags and antags conflicting needs and/or goals, myself. Sometimes they’re in direct opposition, and sometimes it’s more indirect.

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Pat Ireland January 15, 2015 at 12:04 pm

Thank you for your suggestion, Carradee. I write thrillers, and I’ve read too many novels in that genre with cardboard villains. I don’t want my bad gal to be nothing more than a life support system for a machine gun.

My bad gal is a terrorist so the last thing I want to do is make her too sympathetic. The problem is that unreasoned hate, and violence for the sake of violence, are both cardboard motives. Revenge isn’t exactly a “cardboard motive” but it has been overdone to the point of cliche. And looking deeper into her psyche for an explanation of her need to be a terrorist might make readers start to sympathize with her.

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Carradee January 15, 2015 at 12:27 pm

But will that really hurt anything? If the reader can sympathize with her, she’ll be more believable, memorable. More realistic. Think about all the villains folks love in literature—they’re the ones who the reader can have some sympathy for, maybe even root for their motives, while being horrified at the ways they go about fulfilling them.

You can sympathize with someone will still wanting them to lose.

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Pat Ireland January 15, 2015 at 1:01 pm

I see your point, and I think you’re probably right. “Doing the wrong thing for the right reason” has a lot of potential, and I’d never considered adopting that strategy. (I’m a novice, what can I say? LOL)

Thank you for sharing. I really appreciate your insights. 🙂

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Jami Gold January 15, 2015 at 1:11 pm

Hi Carradee,

Great point! I meant to mention this in my comment and forgot. 🙂

Often the best way to make a villain not a mustache-twirling cliche is to make them relatable in some way–flaws, needs, vulnerabilities, etc. So while we might not want the villain to be as sympathetic as the hero, some amount of sympathy can be a good thing. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that great insight!

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Deborah Makarios January 16, 2015 at 6:55 pm

“a life support system for a machine gun” – thus proving that you can even write about cardboard in an interesting way 🙂

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Jami Gold January 16, 2015 at 8:55 pm

Hi Deborah,

LOL! Yes, wasn’t that a great line by Pat? 🙂

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Jami Gold January 15, 2015 at 12:54 pm

Hi Carradee,

Yes! I gave my answer before seeing this, but we reached the same conclusion. 🙂

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Jami Gold January 15, 2015 at 12:47 pm

Hi Pat,

Ooo, interesting! The protagonist and antogonist would often (usually?) have conflicting goals (as Bob Mayer calls it, the Conflict Lock), but I haven’t thought of how conflicting needs would work.

As far as whether it would make the antagonist too sympathetic, I could see some needs being less sympathetic than others. Maybe like they’re more selfish needs? Or maybe the antagonist has an “end justifies the means” attitude that hurts others on their way to acquiring their needs? I’ll have to think about that one. 😀 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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Carradee January 15, 2015 at 10:27 am

I’m not so sure that readers necessarily relate more easily to needs than goals. I suspect it’s more that characters’ needs are usually more relatable than their goals.

I have one set of short stories where the main character’s needs are, um… Well, she has a really rare condition, where the only treatment is illegal even by her own race’s standards (and disgusting and disturbing by human standards). She NEEDS to do things that would kill her or get her executed, but her GOAL is to survive and save others from comparable traps.

On one hand, her need to do something that life won’t let her do is very relatable—but most people don’t feel a driving need to break the law or do gross things. I believe her GOAL of saving others from traps comparable to hers is far more relatable.

Though I admittedly haven’t gotten many reader comments on that character, yet, to be sure. 🙂

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Pat Ireland January 15, 2015 at 11:38 am

Wow, sounds like quite the story! Sure sounds like something I’d like to read… 🙂

I’m curious: how does your character define what she really needs? I think it would make a big difference whether she describes it as a “need to break the law and do gross things” or as a “need to be cured of a horrible disease”.

I’m asking because it sounds to me like either of these descriptions would be equally accurate, but the second is much easier (for me, at least) to understand. I can identify with someone who is ill and wants to be cured, even if the means of getting to that cure is gross and disgusting. (Not so sure about the “illegal” part. But, the fact that your character is equally concerned with curing others, in spite of the high personal stakes, adds a layer of heroism that would tend to mitigate the illegality. Or, at least that’s how I would likely interpret this.)

I think that under the circumstances you described, I could look at the illegality of the character’s actions as an indictment of her society rather than of her. Regardless, I’m wishing I could read these stories: your description has me hooked!

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Carradee January 15, 2015 at 12:41 pm

It’s an “I need to do things that my disease won’t let me do.” She also has a need to be careful about how/when she breaks the laws, because she has secrets that would harm more people than just her.

The treatment is very temporary. There are ways to do it without hurting anyone, from willing “victims”, but it’s illegal for political reasons hidden behind moral arguments (which she’s well aware of).

The related stories don’t all have the same style. I have a freebie experimental one that’s an intro to part of the story world and character, but for the conflict between goals and needs, any of the other stories that are also in the “PRIMpriety” bundle should give a peek at it. (A same-world/different-characters flash fiction in the same world is also in the Stories on the Go anthology of flash fiction.)

Lyn is a not-entirely-reliable narrator, though, so if you don’t like those, you might dislike her. I mean, she’s mostly reliable, but there are some things she messes up, and those involved are either too afraid of her or don’t care enough to correct her.

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Jami Gold January 15, 2015 at 12:52 pm

Hi Carradee,

I agree that needs wouldn’t always be more relatable than goals (that’s why I said “usually” in the post). Your story is a great example of how the opposite would work. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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Eliana January 15, 2015 at 2:06 pm

Every time I read your posts I find something I thought about too when I was writing my story. It’s incredible! 🙂
In fact, I had wondered for long time on how I could make the protagonist more active and also indipendent from actions of the other characters. It was difficult because I had to deepen this character, but I think I succeded and she becomes more real. I was also surprise, reflecting on other charcters, with whom I did the job yet tough without realizing.
I agree with almost everything you wrote because also in life you have on one side your goal (work, school, family) and on the other your needs (satisfaction, being love, freedom…): why shouldn’t a fictional character deserve them?
But I think you’re giving us some advice to write a “perfect” story: you say both needs and goals must be balanced (and I did it with my story too), but there are some books in the history of literature where this balance doesn’t exist. I’m thinking in particular to some novels of the first half of the XX century: I’m italian and I know for example Italo Svevo’s “Zeno’s coscience”, in which the protagonist describes his life, his needs, but he can’t do anything to fulfill them. I’m sure there are some other examples of this kind of story and character also in literature of other countries 🙂
Thank you for sharing your advice: for me it’s a way to stop and think deeper on the plot, the development of a character and ask me “where am I going?” 🙂

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Jami Gold January 15, 2015 at 2:58 pm

Hi Eliana,

Very true! We see this goals vs. needs/wants/longings dichotomy in real life, so it makes sense that we’d see it with our characters too. 🙂

As for the issue of a perfect story… I tried to word my post to say that we want both goals and needs, but that the “proper” balance depends on the story. 🙂

Some genres and stories are definitely more plot and goal-centric or vice versa, but we’d usually want to avoid ZERO of the other. As in my example, even in the most action-heavy story, the hero might still have a need for justice. So in this case, balance certainly doesn’t mean equal. 🙂 And as with your examples, we can find exceptions. Thanks for bringing up that point!

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Sam Blankenburg January 16, 2015 at 7:16 am

So, in a romance story, does it make sense that the couple’s needs are the same (or very similiar) although their goals may be different?

I mean, for example: She feels the need to belong AND he feels the need to belong, too – which would make them ideal together, right, because they’d each fulfill the other’s need?

But their goals are different, like – I don’t know – he’s trying to fight crime vigilante style while she has sworn never to be poor again and becomes a cat burglar … Kind of sets them up as classic antagonists – which make for the best of couples anyway.

And yes, I know I’m blatantly stealing from the Batman comics.

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Jami Gold January 16, 2015 at 9:36 am

Hi Sam,

LOL! at the examples. I’ve always had a soft spot for cat burgler stories because of that storyline though, so it must work, right? 😉

Anyway as far as your question, yes, it’s possible that the couple’s needs would be similar, but they certainly don’t have to be. The key is as you said, they fulfill each other’s need. Even if their needs are different, they can still fulfill this function for each other.

Unfortunately, the link I included in the post with a good list of needs keeps flaking (it sometimes works even with a line through it, so clicking doesn’t hurt). So I’ll include the basic list of human needs here:

  • Physical Needs: air, water, food, and sleep
  • Security: shelter, cleanliness, safety, and control over our situation
  • Attention: both to give and to receive, to feel special or noticed
  • Autonomy: independence, control over our life and choices
  • Emotional Intimacy: emotional and physical closeness, acceptance
  • Sense of belonging: shared perceptions, identification, support
  • Alone Time: opportunity to process thoughts and reflect
  • Achievement: competence, feeling good at something
  • Status: validation, feeling valuable to others
  • Purpose: spiritual needs, search for meaning, understanding, or growth

So one member of the couple could need acceptance (intimacy) and the other could need security. But as long as person B could give A acceptance, and person A could give B security, it will work.

That’s a great question, and I might do a follow-up post next week to dig deeper. 🙂 Thanks for the idea and for the comment!

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Julie Musil January 18, 2015 at 7:59 pm

Love this, Jami! James Scott Bell reminds us in his book Plot & Structure to keep goals in mind before we even write the first word. Your post is such a great reminder!

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Jami Gold January 19, 2015 at 8:47 pm

Hi Julie,

Yes, even as a pantser, I know that it helps if I have a vague idea of where I want to go. 🙂 So I agree that goals can help us at any stage. Thanks for sharing that insight!

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Kassandra Lamb January 21, 2015 at 10:37 am

Great post, as always! Good info about goals and needs in our stories, but I gravitated most to the first part. I really needed that reminder to not long for milestones over which you have no control, and to enjoy the unexpected ones that come along.

I scored a BookBub ad recently and it had the desired effect of boosting my sales tremendously, but I’ve been so worried that the higher sales won’t last that I haven’t really stopped to enjoy the milestone of the moment. Gonna work on that!!

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Jami Gold January 21, 2015 at 1:11 pm

Hi Kassandra,

Congratulations on your success with BookBub! Yes, definitely stop to enjoy that moment. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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Karen McFarland January 21, 2015 at 6:27 pm

A most excellent post on Goals and Needs Jami. As a newbie, it always helps to keep these point clearly in my mind. I can tell by the way you break things down that you’re a good teacher of craft. For me, I have no problem with setting goals for my character. I have more problems with showing his needs. I think. As I now have just finished a re-write, my next task is to go back through at make sure my MC shows his needs and emotions. Thank you so much! I will keep this one bookmarked. 🙂

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Jami Gold January 22, 2015 at 8:50 am

Hi Karen,

Yes, needs are often related to the internal conflict, so they’re a different animal when it comes to showing. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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