101 character goals that don’t involve anyone’s dead wife

There are a lot of pieces of writing advice you can ignore, but here’s one you really shouldn’t: you need to include character goals in your story. A character without some type of goal or motivation is just wandering through time and space, waxing poetic and navel gazing as they contemplate the nebulous tide of their existence.

And while there are some books that make this work, they’re few and far between. Even a slice of life narrative has a character who wants something. Your navel gazer is likely reflecting on some unfilled desire that challenges their troubled heart, anyway.

In case you’re wondering about the title of this article, the ‘Wife in Refrigerator’ trope, also sometimes called ‘fridging’, is considered a sexist and tired way to motivate a male character. And we don’t do that sort of thing around here.

Writing advice you can take or leave (but I suggest you take)

One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received is that your character’s motivation should be evident within the first chapter of your story. It doesn’t need to be much—it can be a line or a few words, but by revealing this want in your character, you immediately set up the bond with your reader and give them a reason to care about your protagonist.

Sometimes this advice will work and sometimes it won’t, but heed the spirit of this idea and make your character’s goal clear somewhere near the beginning of your story.

Why are character goals important?

The reason character goals are so important is they’re what drive the story. Without some kind of want or need in your main character, they have no reason to act or pursue the obstacles you throw in their way. Without giving them a raison d’etre, they’re going to do a terrible job of helping you create a compelling plot.

Types of Character Goals

There are two main types of character goals.

External

External goals are the types that the outside world can see. Think of a fantasy novel where there is a quest or an object of desire your hero must recover. It could be their goal to take down an evil overlord or find their soulmate. Other characters are aware of the goal and might even help your protagonist achieve it.

Internal

Internal goals are ones only your protagonist knows. Perhaps they’re planning to commit a crime and they’ve kept that little fact to themselves. Perhaps they’re pining to escape a loveless marriage or secretly want to become a superhero.

This type of goal might be particularly useful in an unreliable narrator type of scenario where not even the reader knows entirely what your protagonist is after. In this case, they might have an external goal that everyone, including the reader, believes to be true, while your character secretly knows they have additional intentions.

Obstacles and failure

Obviously, for a story to be interesting and compelling, your character’s goal needs to be difficult to achieve. If they’re able to get to their end point with nary a scratch, then your tale is going to be a snoozer. (Snoozer is, in fact, an official literary term BTW.)

So you’ll want to consider what kinds of obstacles are standing in their way. Are they external forces, like a curse they need to break or a fortress they need to storm? Or is it something internal, like in the case of a romance novel where their lack of trust is impeding the relationship?

Either way, consider how you’ll make it really, really hard to get there. And then, when they’re almost there, consider how you’ll throw them a curve ball one last time on their way to fulfillment.

Their goals and their inability to achieve them can also relate to their flaws, which helps give more depth to your characters’ personalities.

Scene goals versus story goals

Not only does your character have a goal for the whole novel, they also have smaller goals for every scene or chapter you write. This helps keep your story and your protagonist moving forward and helps engage your reader.

These can be small or big, depending on the scene, but you’ll often hear people say that every chapter or scene should have some purpose—by tying a goal to them, you can ensure you’re following through on that advice.

List of goals

Obviously, the list of possible things your character can strive for are endless, but here is a list to help get you started:

  1. Change a law or injustice
  2. Appease a deity or higher power
  3. Free a loved one from captivity
  4. Become the strongest/richest/most powerful
  5. Retrieve a stolen item
  6. Break a curse
  7. Assassinate a king/queen or head of state
  8. Fall in love
  9. Solve a murder
  10. Uncover a secret treasure
  11. Make others suffer
  12. Invent something that changes the world
  13. Manipulate an established system
  14. Live happily ever after
  15. Free a helpless victim
  16. Shake up their current life
  17. Find a muse
  18. Establish their own cult
  19. Lead a rebellion
  20. Steal from the rich and give to the poor
  21. Form their own country or nation
  22. Overcome their self doubt
  23. End a feud
  24. Get themselves out of prison
  25. Start or end a war or conflict
  26. Learn to trust others
  27. Win the admiration of others
  28. Protect their homeland
  29. Change the past
  30. Champion a cause
  31. Reveal a secret plot
  32. Regain a lost title or legacy
  33. Bring down their enemies
  34. Get a new job
  35. Move to a new place
  36. Settle a debt
  37. Control others
  38. Retreat to solitude
  39. Overcome their fears
  40. Be remembered after their death
  41. Explore the world
  42. Find fulfillment in their work
  43. Explore their creativity
  44. Live a healthier life
  45. Become more thoughtful
  46. Save Christmas or another holiday
  47. Live in a fairytale
  48. Protect the environment
  49. Learn a new skill
  50. Overthrow evil
  51. Get fired from their job
  52. Stand up to peer pressure
  53. Eradicate a scourge
  54. Recover from an injury
  55. Betray a sibling
  56. Stop abuse of themselves or someone else
  57. Get out of financial distress
  58. Dump their partner
  59. Get revenge on someone who stole something from them
  60. Find a place to belong
  61. Care for a sick loved one
  62. Find their parents or lost family
  63. Overcome an addiction
  64. Fulfill a prophecy
  65. Move out of someone’s shadow
  66. Clean up a dangerous neighborhood
  67. Become revered or respected
  68. Find a new direction in life
  69. Initiate a successful corporate merger
  70. Recover an ancient artifact
  71. Face their guilt for a past wrong
  72. Make amends with someone
  73. Seek revenge
  74. Escape their destiny
  75. Get back home
  76. Sacrifice themselves to save someone else
  77. Overcome fear of judgment
  78. Become more than their outward appearance
  79. Uncover a stalker
  80. Write a book (ahem)
  81. Lead people to change
  82. Wreak havoc
  83. Challenge the status quo
  84. Catch a criminal
  85. Tempt someone into ruin
  86. Steal someone’s identity or life
  87. Have a child
  88. Get elected to public office
  89. Overcome social anxiety
  90. Win a contest or competition
  91. Learn a new language
  92. Save the world
  93. Live forever
  94. Become a supernatural being
  95. Make contact with a foreign species
  96. Travel to a distant land
  97. Enchant an object
  98. Kill someone
  99. Atone for past sins
  100. Find religion
  101. Destroy someone else’s relationship

Hopefully, that’s enough to get you started. As you can see, goals and motivation can come in many forms.

To keep track of your characters and their goals, you can make use of Dabble’s Story Notes and take a look at this article on how to write compelling characters for some more ideas.

Try it yourself and write your way to characters who will keep your story moving forward. To try all Dabble’s premium features for free for fourteen days, click here. No credit card required.

Nisha Tuli

Nisha J Tuli is a YA and adult fantasy and romance author who specializes in glitter-strewn settings and angst-filled kissing scenes. Give her a feisty heroine, a windswept castle, and a dash of true love and she’ll be lost in the pages forever. When Nisha isn’t writing, it’s probably because one of her two kids needs something (but she loves them anyway). After they’re finally asleep, she can be found curled up with her Kobo or knitting sweaters and scarves, perfect for surviving a Canadian winter.