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Story Math: Does Goal Equal Character?

What can we tell about a character by what they want to achieve?

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by Naomi in character, screenwriting

I often talk about “doing the math” of your story. Using what you know now to figure out what you don’t yet know. Putting the puzzle together piece by piece until you have the whole, cohesive picture.

And today we’ll look at one more way to do that.

In any good story, plot and character development are intertwined. Plot events act on a character and force change. The changing character makes choices that drive plot direction.

Since you know plot and character should feed off each other, you can use what you know about the plot to lead you to character. Specifically, you can work backward from the story goal to figure out some things about your protagonist.

Now, it’s not actually math. There’s no single right answer. But you can use the goal the story is built around to explore options for the character who will pursue that goal. The story goal will lead you to some possibilities, and then your choices will create and express your unique story and voice.

Starting with story goal

A quick recap: “Story goal” refers to what the protagonist is trying to achieve by the end of the movie. Watching the character attempt to achieve this thing – whatever that goal is – that’s the movie.

It could be a guy trying to win over the love of his life, a couple of brothers robbing a series of small-town banks in order to save the family farm, or a lowly assistant trying to hang onto her job long enough to advance her career. It could be a concrete, external goal – like “to free the hostages” in Die Hard, or something more abstract or intangible – like “to open up about her trauma” in Short Term 12.

You might very well be starting your screenplay development here. If you came up with an intriguing “what if,” or if you simply know you’re writing a heist movie, or a movie about winning the girl, or winning the championship, or stopping a serial killer, then you have a goal to start from. One piece of the puzzle, and it’ll help you find others.

What kind of person does that?

In movies, the story goal is usually a big, audacious, dangerous, and/or scary thing. Even in a little indie drama like Short Term 12, the goal isn’t physically dangerous, but emotionally it’s the most frightening thing the protagonist can imagine.

So what kind of person would attempt to achieve the big, audacious, dangerous, scary thing at the center of your story?

Your protagonist, specifically. Which means that knowing the story goal can tell us some things about the protagonist. Or, at least, give us some options.

For example, say you wanted to write a screenplay about a guy who gets trapped in an office building with a group of terrorists who’ve just taken everyone else hostage. You know your protagonist is the one who’s going to go up against the terrorists to save the hostages. But who is this guy?

What kind of person does that?

Let’s brainstorm options:

  • Someone who’s trained in hostage negotiation
  • Someone with a military background
  • Someone in law enforcement
  • Someone close to one of the hostages
  • Someone whose livelihood depends on one of the hostages surviving
  • Someone who’s responsible for building security

Keep in mind, in your brainstorming you can think about who could realistically take on the goal, and you can also think about who would want to take on that goal (even if they’re unqualified or unprepared to do so). And, after you’ve brainstormed from both directions, you can mix and match until you have something that you like and that feels right for the story you want to tell.

Now, you know the version of this story called Die Hard, so you know the choices that were actually made. But imagine you’re creating this story from scratch. You get to do whatever you want. Make your own choices.

Maybe you’d lean into the action-comedy genre by going with someone who’s close to one of the hostages, but you’d make him (or her!) totally inexperienced with the “action hero” element.

Maybe you’d make the protagonist the teenage daughter of the office manager, who happens to be there for Take Your Daughter To Work Day. Somehow this teenager has to figure out how to beat the terrorists in order to save her mom.

This story is going to play out differently than Die Hard — and that’s the point. Character begets plot, which begets character, and so on. And your choices create your unique story.

A character’s motivation

The “why” behind someone’s actions can tell us who they are, what’s important to them, what they believe. So exploring why a character takes on a goal can help you develop the character further.

And there’s another benefit to digging deeper and thinking about the why: understanding the why taps into our empathy and helps us go along with a character on his pursuit of the big, audacious, dangerous, scary thing.

When we understand the character’s motivation and empathize with him – even if we don’t agree with the goal he’s pursuing – we’re able to get on board and go along on the journey, i.e. continue reading the script or watching the movie. If we don’t understand why the character’s doing what he’s doing then we’ll probably check out and choose to read or watch something else.

So, back to our teenager-takes-on-the-terrorists example. Why would our teenage girl choose to pursue this goal? Why might it be important to her?

Off the top of my head (and you can brainstorm many more options):

  • Her mom (one of the hostages) is a single mom and the only family the girl has.
  • The girl and her mother have just reunited after a long estrangement and are trying to start their relationship over again.
  • The girl and her mom have had a fight, and the girl doesn’t want her last words to her mom to be, “I hate you!”

One of these just might feel right and help you add more shape and dimension to the protagonist character you’re developing. Because zeroing in on this why can help lead you to character arc.

Think about what this “why” could tell us about the character, and what lesson or realization she might need to get from this experience.

  • If our teen protagonist is overly dependent on mom, for example, maybe she needs to learn she’s stronger than she realized and capable of taking care of herself.
  • Or if they’ve just reunited, maybe the experience of fighting for and saving mom teaches the girl just how much she wants mom in her life, and helps her let go of the past.
  • Or maybe our teen girl just needs to grow up, and this experience will make her a little wiser (and kinder to mom)!

It’s a match game

Whether you come to a screenplay idea from plot or character, in the development process you’ll want to design a logical match between plot and character. Knowing the story goal that your screenplay is built around, you can think about what kind of character could or would take on that challenge.

And then dig deeper into the why – what makes the goal important or urgent or meaningful to the character. Sound emotional logic will get the audience engaged and invested. And thinking about the characteristics you’ve already identified can also lead you organically to character arc and theme.

We know that good stories are cohesive. All the elements weave together into one big picture that is greater than the sum of its parts.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe