Drives and Goals

(This is another lightly edited Twitter writing craft thread which I’m posting on my blog for reference and so people can find it more easily. I hope it’s helpful!)

When I’m shaping a character arc for a book, I try to pay attention to both drives and goals. It’s crucial for a character to have both, and I often have to remind myself that they’re not the same.

A drive is a deep, underlying need that pushes or pulls the character through the whole story. It’s often the core motivating force of their arc.

It’s frequently a more abstract (but compelling!) thing, like seeking acceptance, recognition, love, atonement, justice, etc.

A goal is something more specific, like saving their little brother, defeating the bad guy, getting their crush to invite them to the ball, retrieving the lost artifact, etc. It’s what the character consciously & concretely wants to do and is taking actions to try to accomplish.

Goals operate at a large and small level. You’ve got big book-long or even series-long ones (defeat Voldemort), but also wee little scene-level ones (don’t get caught by Filch before you get back to Gryffindor common room).

Goals can and do change, while drives don’t unless something really dramatic happens to fundamentally change the character. A drive change is a big deal and a major character turning point.

A fair chunk of your character’s goals will be all tangled up with their drive.

Many goals will be a direct and clear result of a drive. Like, my drive is to protect my family, so I’m going to have to defeat the dark lord because he’s threatening them.

But sometimes goals and drives conflict. Like, my goal is to become a master swordswoman because that’s what my mom wants, but my drive is to find acceptance and I tried theater and the cast is my new family and I can’t do both and WHAT DO I DO?!

Or a character might think they want to find the powerful artifact to destroy it so no evil can use it, but really their drive for glory and recognition is pushing them to take it for themselves and they just haven’t acknowledged it yet.

I’ve found that when I fool myself into thinking a drive counts as a goal, the character will lack agency.

(Hmm, what’s her goal? Gaining public recognition after a life of being overlooked! NOPE. That’s a drive. Her concrete plans for steps to get recognition are goals.)

Conversely, if a character has goals but no underlying drives, their arc lacks heart.

(Especially watch out for this with villains! She wants to conquer the world, sure, but WHY? What inner forces push or pull her to do this?)

Conflict is all about drives and goals smashing up against each other, internally or externally. Those conflicts drive your story.

Story is just character in motion. Drives are what put your character in motion; goals give that motion a vector.

And then everything crashes into everything else and makes beautiful explosions!

About Melissa Caruso

I'm the author of the Swords & Fire trilogy from Orbit Books, including Gemmell Morningstar Award shortlisted THE TETHERED MAGE (October 2017), THE DEFIANT HEIR (April 2018), and THE UNBOUND EMPIRE (forthcoming April 2019). I love tea, adventure, and the great outdoors, and I've been known to swordfight in ballgowns. I live in Massachusetts with my husband, two amazing daughters, three cats, and a Labrador. Represented by Naomi Davis of BookEnds. View all posts by Melissa Caruso

One response to “Drives and Goals

  • Deborah Makarios

    Goals vs drives – that’s a useful distinction, thanks!
    I’ve got a character at the moment who has a very clear drive, but I’m less certain of what goals she will have as a result. But at least now I know there’s a difference!

    Liked by 1 person

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