This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.
Why Characters Need Super-Objectives for Their Story Arcs
External goals are the backbone of your character’s story arc, and they give the reader something active to follow.
But what exactly are external goals, and why are they so important?
What is an external goal?
This has been called by different things: Super-Objectives, Character Purpose, Character Direction, or simply Goal.
They all mean the same thing—your character has an overarching objective/goal/purpose for the book that he is trying to achieve.
An external goal has a definite ending—a point at which the character knows when he has either succeeded or failed. It can’t be a vague desire or hope. It has to be a concrete, solid, physical something the character is striving for.
In Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors, Brandilyn Collins states the character’s Super-Objective in terms of action. A character’s external goal should be some form of action.
Why your character needs an external goal
An external goal gives the reader a reason to cheer your character on, a reason to follow him in the story to see if he gets his goal or not.
External goals bring action and desire into the character’s story arc. A character who simply reacts to the things that happen to him is not as interesting a figure in fiction as a character who is proactive.
Achieving his external goal
The character doesn’t necessarily have to achieve his external goal.
Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer (chapter seven) gives a good exposition on achieving or not achieving goals and why both are good.
It’s not so much the goal that’s important as it is the character discovering his deeper needs and meeting them—perhaps with his external goal, but perhaps by failing to achieve his goal and discovering fulfillment in some other way.
An example of an external goal and character arc
Terry wants financial success. But “financial success” is a rather vague external goal. A good external goal should be something more concrete, something Terry can hold in his hands.
So instead of having “financial success” be his external goal, you have Terry strive for something physical that embodies his desire for financial success.
Say “financial success” for Terry means that he owns a house in the prestigious new Springdale development on the outskirts of town. Only the highest class of people are moving there. Houses are being sold like hotcakes, and there are only a few left.
Terry’s external goal is for him to own a house in Springdale. He has a ticking clock—there are only a few houses left—and the physical aspect of “financial success” for him means holding the papers for his new home.
Does Terry achieve his external goal? That’s up to the writer and the theme of the story. Maybe the story is about persevering to achieve your dreams—showing Terry overcoming insurmountable odds to get that house. Or maybe the story is about finding fulfillment not in wealth but in love—and Terry sacrifices his chance to buy the house in order to buy a smaller house to win the woman he loves.
Either way, the external goal at the start of the story is owning that house. Terry’s story arc takes it from there, and achieving the goal or not is intertwined in Terry’s personal issues.
Look at your own character’s external goal.
Is it concrete or vague? Does it have a definite ending? Is it something the character pursues throughout the story, to either succeed or fail in the climax?
A strong external goal is like the spine of a skeleton—it forms the backbone of your story. Without it, a story will seem vague and aimless. With it, your reader won’t be able to stop reading.