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You’ve started writing your book, but your character seems to be drifting. Their interest in the plot isn’t as sincere and you can’t help but force them to play their part. Be it a protagonist or antagonist, this problem with purpose is common in writing. I am going to show you a five-step method to give your character purpose in your novel.
Let’s jump into it!
1: What is your character’s goal?
Before you can give your character drive you need to give them a destination. What are their wants and desires? Which particular goal do they have in your plot?
A simple question, but can be made complex by the role the character has in your novel as well as the type of novel you are writing. For example, let us say that your character is the protagonist. Their role in your novel is to defeat an antagonist or overcome some obstacles. Yet, their desire, their true goal, is something personal.
It is this goal that shapes your character’s personality and decides their actions in your novel. Let us create a hypothetical:
The protagonist is a knight. The role they play in the novel is that of law bringer, bringing justice to those who deserve it. Yet, their deep desire is fame. The knight wishes to hear stories of themselves in every city.
With the character’s goal established, you can easily decide their dialogue and actions. In this hypothetical, the knight’s goal is different from their role. Their purpose is clear now, we just need to give them drive. Drive is far more difficult to establish in a novel, but the next step will make that easy.
2: Why does your character desire such a goal?
You’ve chosen a goal and role, but your character still lacks a reason for pursuing it. The drive of a character is important, it is what gives them the energy to do the things they do and say the things they say.
Step 2 is to give them a reason. Purpose without reason is empty and unrealistic. The reader cannot even attempt to understand the character’s goal if you don’t give your character a story behind their goal.
Let us use the same hypothetical as before:
The knight has a strong desire to achieve fame. A desire that grew from the insecurity of being forgotten. The knight, in their youth, saw how other knights were treated and talked about. The knight believed they could achieve their desire to be remembered through achieving fame as a knight.
We have given our character some drive, but their actions are not as defined as they should be. Our character needs obstacles to make their purpose more than some passing desire. There needs to be a challenge, a conflict for the character before their purpose means anything to the plot or to the reader.
3: What are the physical obstacles?
There are many obstacles along a character’s path, be it the protagonist or antagonist. In most cases, the obstacle is the opposing character. However, there are many other types of obstacles a character can face aside from another character.
Your character could lack the ability to overcome an obstacle, in which case, their next trial is to learn how. Let us continue with the same hypothetical knight.
The knight lacks the physical strength to be a knight. The armor they wear weighs them down and they can only draw their sword behind them. The knight works hard to grow stronger, as the foes they face are far more experienced and able in physical conflict.
Our character grows more interesting with each step. We can already picture the knight, burdened by the tools of a knight, but driven by their desire to known and remembered. Yet, a character needs more than external obstacles to slow them down.
4: What are the internal obstacles?
Depending on your genre, this step might be more important than the third. The third step is a typical step in more adventure novels, with characters jumping around and throwing punches. Yet, in more realistic novels, a character is usually safe from evil bandits or gun-toting super-villains.
We now need to address the mental or emotional conflicts our character could be facing. Now, this need not be something as crippling as a true mental issue. Your character can face such problems, but let’s suppose your character just needs to realize a fundamental truth about themselves and the world around them.
With that in mind, let’s continue with the hypothetical knight:
The knight, troubled by their physical weakness, does not realize their true asset; their mind. The knight has a sharp mind, which they use to defeat their foes. As the knight faces each obstacle they slowly learn that they will never be the kind of knight they want to be, but be their own kind of knight instead.
A simple conflict for our character to face, but their purpose is growing clear. We know what they are about, we know what they desire and how they plan on achieving their goal. Yet, we need to round out their purpose with one final step.
5: What are the consequences, win or lose?
We have established much about our character. Steps 1 to 4 have helped build our character as well as their purpose. Yet, while their purpose is clear, we need to ensure the character and reader understand the price of success or the pitfalls of failure.
Step 5 is important for establishing the importance of the goal, as well as the tension of the plot. In any great story a risk must be taken, a risk that the character might lose something meaningful, even their life if that is being put at risk.
Yet, by that same token, you need your character to see what happens if they succeed in their endeavors. You have given your character a desire, now you need to define it as the novel continues. Make victory seem so sweet and within their reach.
Let us finish the hypothetical knight’s purpose:
The knight is faced with a final foe and they have a choice.
The knight can abandon the sword and armor, choosing to face the knight armed with their keen mind. Yet, the knight knows there is a chance that the image the citizens have of them can be broken in doing so. Perhaps the fame the knight attained will be broken with it and they will be eventually forgotten.
Or, the knight can face their foe, with sword and armor and most certainly perish attempting to fight a way they cannot. Yet, in death, the knight might be remembered for their courage.
The knight can lose their fame or their life. Yet, the best-case scenario is that they defeat their foe with only their mind and are still remembered. Not as a Knight of Steel, but a Knight of Cunning.
With that, we have rounded out our character’s purpose and drive. All that remains is a plot, a series of scenes to turn this knight’s story into a novel. With these five steps, you can do the same for your character. Approach their purpose in your novel with this amount of forethought and you cannot go wrong in establishing them in your novel.
In addition, remember that you can use these five steps with your antagonists and side-characters. I recommend you do, to create an alive and vibrant world through the written word.
Thank you for reading and as always…
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!
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Thank you for reading!
Matthew Dewey, Writer
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