Character Goals ~ Surface and Personal

How do you find your characters?


Where do you get your characters from? It’s a bit of a mystery how each writer develops their first idea of a character. If your characters come fully formed from your mind, they are likely cliché or one-dimensional. When a character comes to us that quickly, we need to step back and fill in the details that will make them unique and make the reader empathize with them.


What will make them a GIANT among characters?

How can you create character arcs that work?

How do you write a character people think about a week later?

How do you combine what you want your character to be with what he wants?



You must get close to your character. Ask them penetrating, sometimes embarrassing questions. Get into their head.


Characters arrive from 5 main sources:

~The unconscious~

~Real people~

~The story itself~

~Composite characters~


My characters come from all of the above. Often, one character gets developed through all 5 methods. I rarely use composite characters, but I do draw certain traits from people I know and combine them into one.


Your character must have wants and needs. This creates conflict which every story must have. By giving him a need, something or someone will automatically stand in his way. What does your character want? A family? Revenge on the person who killed their child? To time-travel back to the Kennedy years? They must have a want/need.

An unquenchable desire can cause your character to act is all sorts of odd ways – ways that are out of character for him.

In order to write a good character arc, your character must begin the story lacking something – something he wants. If he wants nothing, then nothing will block his way. By giving him a surface goal (to be president, to buy a new dress, to meet Cher), you are forcing him to face difficult decisions in order to obtain it. Often what he thinks he wants turns into something different throughout the story. This is normal. Our wants and desires change in our lives, so must our character’s.

Do not make your character’s need subtle.

That simply makes confusion. Be clear about his surface goal. The conflict and richness of your story will come out in your showing him trying to reach his goal. His goal cannot only be an outward one. There must be a personal reason he wants to reach it – a personal goal. The goal of being president could hide a deep-seated desire to be accepted and liked. Buying a new dress could show the character had insecurities or is a shopaholic. To meet Cher could be the last thing someone promises themselves they will do before committing suicide. All three of these surface goals hide a deeper personal goal.

A great example of characters’ goals/needs/desire change is the movie Thelma and Louise. Thelma just wants to get away from her controlling husband for a weekend of camping. Louise just wants to get away and think about her relationship with her boyfriend. There is conflict galore and their core goals change throughout the movie – to revenge, keeping ahead of the police, the husband who lies on the phone. Towards the end of the movie, Thelma has decided she never wants to go home – not to her husband. Their final goal – of not getting caught – results in tragedy. (I won’t spoil it). Watch this movie and study how their surface and personal goals change and how they are intertwined.

Your character will fail – time and again – to reach his goal. This does not mean failure. Conflicts will enrich your story and help build your character arc naturally. Plot and character ARE intertwined and must work together.


Where do your characters come from? Do you start with a situation and then develop the character? Or, does the character live in your mind until you find the proper setting for them? Share your thoughts at the bottom of the page in the comments section.


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