What I’ve Learned: Story Elements III: Objective


On first glance, one would think that the third of the Story Elements we’re looking at, Objective, is as simple as the previous, Situation. However, being obvious doesn’t always mean being simple.

Objective is, of course, any end result that is desired by the character. You’ll notice that I didn’t say main character, or protagonist. The reason this Story Element is complex is because every character has at least one objective important to the story, and usually main characters have at least two.

The protagonist’s objective is usually the overall Objective of the story. The tricky part here is that your protag will probably have more than one Objective: external and internal, and they may not always coincide.

Romance stories illustrate this example very well. Most often, the main character in a romance is the woman and her internal Objective is usually some variant of falling in love, which is the entire undercurrent of the genre, of course. This Objective may be conscious or sub-conscious, but it’s a strong theme throughout the story. At the same time, however, there’s something else going on. Something very dramatic, often dangerous, and having very high personal and/or public stakes. Perhaps the bank is trying to foreclose on the family farm, or her sister has disappeared and she must go on an adventure to find her, or she is a cop trying to find a serial killer. Internal/external objectives.

Speaking of serial killers, let’s look at your antagonist. You might guess that, just like your protag, a good well-rounded antagonist will also have internal and external Objectives. Perhaps the external objective of the serial killer is to taunt the police without being caught. Perhaps the internal one is the megalomaniacal need to be recognized and admired as something bigger than he feels. Perhaps he’s acting on feelings leftover from his childhood. Perhaps he has a deep need to be accepted for something. Anything. Your antagonist’s objectives are just as important as the protagonist’s, they just aren’t usually as obvious to the reader. But you must know them and you must know them well.

In addition to those main characters, you also have secondary characters with their own Objectives. These may help or hinder the main character. These sideline Objectives add tension to your story because they represent the stray bullet that can’t be predicted. The cop’s boss may not like her handling of the case because it puts heat on someone higher up, so he pulls her from it. His Objective is to keep his job, keep the brass happy, and yet it sets the protag several steps back in reaching her own Objective.

Objectives can be fun to add unexpected turns to your story. If you can be true to your characters, all of them, and learn what they each want or need, you’ll be able to see the different directions your story can take; you can find all the hidden twists which will stun and delight your readers.

Watch for the next installment of Story Elements, where we’ll be talking about villains! Love a good talk about the bad guys!

Missed some of the What I’ve Learn series? Find all the WIL posts!

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  • Reply
    Gabrielle Faust
    February 15, 2008 at 9:02 am

    I just wanted to let you know that I am passing on the “Excellent Blog Award” to you! You can pick up the award badge on my site in the post about the award. Keep up the great work!

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  • Reply
    February 15, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    Excellent! You’ve got me hooked on your posts. You explain things so wonderfully for those of us that need help! haha.

  • Reply
    February 20, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    Excellent advice.

    I’m constantly researching ways to refine and enhance my writing. As I’m working on my own novel, I struggle in particular with the internal objectives – making them sound natural and authentic. Plot twisters are great, but I have to make the characters believable yet not predictable.

    I’m hooked too. Looking forward to most posts. =)

  • Reply
    February 23, 2008 at 10:02 am

    Between my morning TODO list, I managed to read all of your WIL-tagged posts.

    Thanks for the concise, yet instructive thoughts.

  • Reply
    Venessa G.
    February 23, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    Gabrielle – Thanks so much for the award! I’m a little late in my thanks, but I wanted to make sure I mentioned it here! 🙂

    Tamara – I appreciate your kind words 🙂 And, honestly, I write these posts just as much for myself too. I definitely need the refreshers!!

    Mewie – One of the future WIL posts is going to be about dialog, which I think is very important to making characters believable. Right now, I’m struggling with internal dialog – when to use it and how to use it. I have to get a handle on that before I post about it though 😉

    Periapex – I’m glad you’re finding the posts helpful! Most of what I put in those posts are things I’ve learned in my writing program and, I swear, every time I go for the on campus residency each term, I feel like I’ve learned so much that it’s poring out my ears. So.. uhm… yes, you’re all getting brain run-off in this blog.

    Okay, I should probably stop right there! 😉


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