Stories need conflict, we all know that. Usually this comes about via a protagonist and antagonist with opposing goals. One man wants to win the battle and another man wants to stop him. This is the simplest version. But what about when opposing goals are contained within the same person? This happens when a character desperately wants two things that are mutually exclusive. It echoes life, and allows for rich characterisation when the choice is finally made. Readers really feel for a hero in the throes of this kind of tortured inner turmoil. If done well, the readers themselves become torn in two directions. They take sides, change their minds, feel the frustration. It’s an unbeatable recipe for a page-turning read, and the engine room of many popular novels.
Conflicting goals lie at the heart of Anna Karenina. Anna wants both her adulterous lover Vronsky and her child. In nineteenth century Russia she can’t have both. Will she follow her burning passion whatever the cost? Or will she return to a safe, suffocating marriage for the sake of her child? She chooses Vronsky. Her choice destroys their love and leads to ultimate disaster. Tolstoy uses action, thoughts, dialogue and backstory to emphasise the pull of these conflicting goals. They seem equally matched, until the fatal choice is made.
- Other well-known examples are Twilight by Stephanie Meyer – Bella wants to be with Edward, but she also wants to live.
- Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen – Jacob wants to keep his job at the circus, but he also wants to protect the elephants
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare – Hamlet wants to avenge his father by killing the king, but he also wants to fulfil his duty as a prince by protecting the king and the stability of the kingdom
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – Katniss wants to win the games so she can live, but if she wins, her friend Peeta will die. She wants him to live too.
The greater the war within, the more compelling your story will be. Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, sets out a good way to create conflicting goals. ‘Ask what does your hero most want in the novel – his story goal. Then ask what’s the opposite of that, or mutually exclusive to it? Give your hero an equally compelling reason to not pursue his goal. He wants both at once, but can’t have them both. The story will play out in how the hero pursues these opposing desires until the conflict is resolved, one way or another.’