One Character, Two Conflicting Goals

by Peacewolf Creations

by PeaceWolfCreations

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.

Anna KareninaConflicting 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.

internal conflictThe 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.’

What Makes a Good Story?

Currawong Creek is all set to be published in June. I’m now 20,000 words into my new novel, and have been dedicating a fair bit of thinking time to the deceptively simple question of what makes a good story?

Tell me a storyFor me, the most important thing is that a writer needs to have something to say. Now this might appear to be self-evident, but think about it. Have you ever been bailed-up by someone who can talk and talk and talk, but really, has nothing to say? You begin to look for escape routes, ways to politely excuse yourself. It’s easier than that for readers. For if a novel isn’t animated by a powerful theme, then the reader can just close the book.

Writing from the heartA good writer in my view, writes from the heart. And an interesting novel must in some way take a stand. It must confront its reader, by presenting conflicting values and beliefs. Think of your favourite books, and consider for yourself, whether or not this is true. For me, writing that lacks a point is lifeless, full of ornamental adjectives and decorative imagery maybe, but lifeless just the same. Readers won’t waste their time on sentence after sentence without meaning, BUT If the writer believes, that whatever he or she has to say, MUST be said, that passion will come through the pages and grip us, as readers. We’ll care about the characters, we’ll suffer with them, we’ll hate them and love them. So my advice to all budding story tellers is to honour your convictions, whatever they are. Let them power your story. Let them challenge your readers, and make your story worth the telling. Care a lot about the subject of your writing and it will show.

Writing the breakout novelI’d like to finish with nine gems from Donald Maass, legendary New York literary agent. His seminal work, Writing The Breakout Novel has long been my bible.

  1. Think writing tools, not rules.
  2. Emotions are what connect us to the characters of a novel. What engages your heart will engage your reader. 
  3. Create interiority. Create an emotional landscape that the characters travel through–your story’s interiority.
  4. Reveal yourself through your fiction by writing from a personal place, a place of passion, a place of experience, a place that matters. Give these emotions and motivations to your characters.
  5. Genre categories have become a palette from which writers may draw from to create unique hybrids. Great fiction will not be bound by conventions.
  6. Surprise your readers. Don’t just write about the emotions that they expect. Think about the strongest emotions that you have experienced and then think about the underlying ones, the subtle ones. Write about those emotions instead of what the reader would expect from the scene/plot. Again, surprise your readers.
  7. Write your stories like they matter, and they will matter. Powerful fiction comes from a very personal place.
  8. Readers read to make sense of the world.Your reader wants some kind of insight into the antagonist. Who looks up to your antagonist? What does he have to gain? To lose? Why must he reach his goals? How much will he lose to meet his goal? What will he gain? Help your reader view life through the villain’s motivations and perspective. Make your antagonist multi-dimensional.
  9. Beautiful Writing + Commercial Writing (page turners) = High Impact Writing.