Protagonist Goals: 4 Keys to Character Development

The reader must feel the danger!
© Barbara V. Evers, All rights reserved.
Intriguing character development requires the establishment of clear goals that compel your character to act.

This often becomes the foundation of your story's conflict. Your protagonist pursues a goal that probably goes against his nature.

Do you have a full and nuanced goal established for your protagonist or something generalized? If you can't state it, your story might meander to and fro, going nowhere.

You should know this goal, be able to state it in a few sentences, and your reader should feel the tug of it, too.

What Goes Into a Character Goal?

In the corporate world, people create SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-based). Establishing a SMART goal helps them stay focused on their priorities instead of getting lost in the weeds of interruptions and non-essential tasks.

In creative writing, characters need SPUN goals (Specific, Powerful, Urgent, Needs-Based). This goal will drive them to act against all odds. If you feel like you know their goal, check to see if it fits the SPUN requirements. In many cases, you might be missing some of these elements, or the goal is too generalized.

Let's look at each aspect of SPUN.


A goal must be specific or we don't know where we're going or how to get there. Same for your characters. What does she want? Maybe your character wants to find a killer. Besides the obvious reason that she wants to stop murders in general, why does she want to catch this specific killer?


To continue the killer example above, is the need to catch the killer powerful? Is it personal? Why is your character the one who needs to find the killer? Maybe the murders remind him of something that happened in his childhood. Or they ignite a protective instinct for certain people such as children, the elderly, etc. Identify that protective instinct and it's impact in this situation. You need to state the powerful reason driving him to find this killer. BUT, this reason needs to be powerful enough to make him act against his own interests. He has to step outside of his comfort zones.


If the need to catch the killer doesn't create some urgency in your character, then you need to crank up the stakes. What happens if she doesn't catch this killer soon? She needs to feel the ticking clock, the deadline that can't be missed. Your reader needs to hang onto the edge of their seat with her as she tries to track down this killer before ... ?

  • Before the next victim dies?
  • Before a close family member becomes the next one?
  • Before the killer comes after your character?
  • Before ?

N=A Need Your Character Wants

We know your protagonist wants to locate the killer, but what else does he need? Maybe he's been reprimanded for messing up his last investigation and assigned to desk duty. He wants to regain honor and respect from his peers, so he ignores the order to stay off the case. Why would he do that? Maybe, he secretly loves the next suspected victim. What will finding the killer give him that he wants so bad it's become a driving force?

Cover All of the Bases

For example:

Our protagonist, Joe, wants to catch the killer targeting kids on the South side of town where he grew up. When he was nine, his best friend was murdered on the streets and the killer never found. These murders are similar. But, Joe let his emotions get in the way of a major investigation recently, and the killer walked due to his mistakes. He's been assigned a regular beat for now. He wants to repair his reputation and find the murderer of his childhood friend. He'll lose his job if they find out he's working on this. He might let his emotions get in the way of another investigation, too, letting another killer walk free.

If you write a character who has a specific, powerful, and urgent need to achieve this goal while gaining something missing in his life, you have a character with the framework for an intriguing story. Make sure you develop these four keys, so your reader feels the need to meet this goal, too. That will keep them reading and unwilling to put your book down.

Other Characters

Don't forget, your antagonist and other characters need a SPUN goal, too. Many of your characters' pursuits may be at odds with the protagonist's goal.  That's good. It complicates the protagonist's efforts to achieve her goal.

I used a thriller/murder theme to explain this, but SPUN applies to all fiction, and possibly narrative fiction. The stakes don't have to be someone dies, but those stakes need to be something "dangerous" for your protagonist.

Use the four keys to set your protagonist's solid goal, and your character development becomes much easier.


Popular posts from this blog

Skin Tone: Describing Your Characters

Character Development: Using the Johari Window

Should Christians Watch The Hunger Games?