A goal is the concrete, specific, positive thing the protagonist is trying to get.
A goal can be anything: getting the girl, making a cup of tea, defusing a nuclear device, whatever. What’s important is
• how clear the goal is
• how the pursuit of the goal drives the plot
• how the goal shapes and defines the protagonist’s character.
A clear goal is concrete: Not “I want to be happy,” but “I want to live in the house at 485 Pearl Street.”
A clear goal is also specific: Not “I want a religious artifact” but “I want the Ark of the Covenant.”
An effective goal is also positive: Not “I don’t want to do this job,” but “I want to work on the Romance Program at McDaniel College.”
“Clear and specific” are important for plot purposes; the reader needs to know exactly what the protagonist is fighting for in order to follow the story.
But a positive goal is important for both plot and character. A positive goal will force a protagonist to act because there’s something out there she needs desperately. A negative goal will force a character to withdraw: there’s something out there she wants to avoid at all costs. A negative goal is often death to a character because without action and change, the character dies on the page. It also makes the character negative and depressing, lacking in passion and drive.
Betty has been hurt in love before, so she decides never to love again. When Sam shows up and he’s clearly the perfect man for her, she refuses to talk with him. Her best friend Gail tries to convince her to give Sam a chance because she knows how lonely Betty is, but Betty tells her no. Result: Betty is a coward who doesn’t change, and Sam and Gail get all the good action in the plot.
Betty meets Sam and knows he’s the One. Gail warns her that Sam will just hurt her again and tries to protect her by threatening Sam with a shovel. Betty and Sam persevere and overcome Gail’s objections. Betty and Sam change and grow and get all the good action, and Gail is the antagonist.
Betty meets Sam and knows he’s an insane stalker. When he refuses to leave her alone, she investigates and finds out he’s a serial killer. She allies herself with police detective Gail, and together they fight to stop Sam from killing again. Betty and Gail change and grow and get all the good action. and Sam the antagonist goes to jail.
Note: This doesn’t mean that the protagonist can never say no. If she’s pursuing her goal and somebody tries to convince her to do something she thinks won’t help, then “no” is a fine response because it reinforces her push for her positive goal.
For other posts in this unit see The Conflict Unit main post.