Alright, men and women. Day Two of Boot Camp!
You have your novel idea. Now it’s time to fill it page in and page out with various events that keep the reader’s interest. How exactly do you do that?
Novels don’t just spill themselves onto the page (or at least they shouldn’t!). It’s best to make sure that on every page, in every scene, and in the novel as a whole, every character has their own set of goals that they’re striving for and obstacles in their way.
Goals and obstacles. Goals and obstacles. It’s crucial to know what your characters want and what is thwarting them.
Step 1: What does your protagonist want? It could be to save the world, it could be closure on an especially difficult issue, it could be romance, it could be to finally figure out who the Cylons are no seriously this time. But even better if your protagonist wants more than one thing, and these things could very well be at odds with each other at times. The ultimate, most important thing they want should be achieved (or not achieved) in the climax.
Step 2: What is standing in your protagonist’s way? Obstacles reveal the true personality of a character. Are they ingenious? Stubborn? Clever? The way someone deals with conflict and adversity shows a great deal about their true character. Placing roadblocks in front of your characters at (nearly) every opportunity will show you and the reader who they really are. The biggest obstacle in their way should be faced in the climax.
Step 3: What do they value the most? Your protagonist should be in conflict not just with the world, but also within themselves. The battles and travails along the way should reveal the things that they care most about and their true qualities. Best of all, they should have to give up something important in order to get the thing they want the most.
And don’t stop with your protagonist! Every character should have their own set of goals, obstacles, and ultimate values.
Jonathan Franzen is a master of goals and obstacles. If you look at nearly every scene in Freedom, every character has a goal that they approach a scene with (and it’s a goal that the reader clearly understands), and we read on to see if they will obtain it. Often they are blocked by not only another character, but also by themselves.
When in doubt while you’re writing your novel: throw an obstacle in your protagonist’s path. Your reader will thank you for it.
For further reading: