The Holy Trinity of Character: Goals, Obstacles and Stakes

A guest post by Art Holcomb

These three components – goals, obstacles and stakes – are nothing short of the holy trinity of character.

Nothing – I repeat, NOTHING – is more important to your character than understanding these three points.

• They are the basis of all characterization.
• They keep your character on track throughout the story.
• They make understanding the motivation of the character easier and clearer at every point in the narrative
• Whenever you get lost in the story, turning back to these three points will get you back on track.

Remember: we want our characters to have the power and inner-life of real humans, so as to better connect with our audience.

This begins with each character having a MISSION in your story – a point that Larry makes to you all the time. Every character must have a purpose, a reason behind every action. They must be moved to accomplish something – whether it is to persuade, obstruct, endear, accompany, reflect, emote or act.

It’s such a simple thing, and yet so many writers get caught up in the need to describe what’s happening, that they completely forget that their characters’ actions require a reason – a motivation – make sense of what they do.

That motivation must be clear to the reader.

Especially since most of the time, a well-written character is not consciously aware of their own motivation, a very important fact to consider when you realize that your hero should undergo some kind of emotional change which leads to their growth in most stories (there are exceptions, but probably not as many as you might imagine!)

(In my practice with my private clients and university students, I drive home this trinity as a basic fundamental of all writing. Regardless of the experience of my writers — which runs the gamut from published novelists/produced screenwriters all the way down to beginning and aspiring writers – we never stop honing and perfecting our understanding of this concept.)

Now, for how you can use this concept in your own writing:

It will take just a moment for you to use this form help you develop the motivations of your own characters. The insights you gain from this little exercise, I guarantee, will improve your writing.

So let’s answer some questions about your main characters, taking each one at a time:

 

CHARACTER NAME:

 

(1) Start with a ten (10) word description of the character:

 

(2) What is it that your character WANTS:

 

(3) Now, what do you think this character NEEDS out of life:

 

(4) What is this character’s GREATEST FEAR:

 

(5) Now, re-consider Question 3 above: What do you think this character REALLY NEEDS:

 

(6) Who or what is STANDING IN THE WAY of this character getting what s/he wants?

 

(7) What does this obstacle look like?

 

(8) If these obstacles cannot be overcome, what does this character stand to lose? How will this affect this character in a PROFOUND way? Describe that feeling in the character:
(9) Now, how do these answers affect or change your idea of the character?

 

So . . . Let’s sum up:

Conscious Need:

 

Emotional Need:

 

Primary Obstacle:

 

Real-Life Stakes:

 

If s/he SUCCEEDS, s/he will feel:

 

If s/he FAILS, s/he will feel:

 

Therefore this character’s vital mission is to…

 

Your NEW ten (10) word description of this character is:
Until next time – keep writing.

Art

*****
ART HOLCOMB is a screenwriter, award-winning playwright, fiction writer and comic book creator and is a regular columnist for Creative Screenwriting Magazine, called “The Best Magazine for Screenwriters” by The Los Angeles Times.

He has sold to the STAR TREK television franchise for Paramount Television and worked on projects for Gene Roddenberry and the estates of legendary actors Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando. He has also written for the critically acclaimed animation series SHADOW RAIDERS, as well as consulted for video game companies, film production companies and publishing houses.

His short story, The Perfect Bracket with acclaimed novelist Howard V. Hendrix, will appear in ANALOG Magazine in the spring of 2015. A play by the same name is currently under consideration for production by the National Actor’s Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky. A new science fiction/treasure hunt novel (with co-writer Hendrix) entitled The Strewn is scheduled for completion in 2015.

You can read more of Art’s thoughts on the craft of writing at www.artholcomb.blogspot.com

4 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

4 Responses to The Holy Trinity of Character: Goals, Obstacles and Stakes

  1. Robert Jones

    Art,

    I really have to hand it to you for breaking such things down to a simple forum. When it comes to character, how many people are using plot needs to guide them along like expositional robots rather than fusing character to plot psychologically? Too many, I fear, have substituted what they read from big name, popular authors, or blockbuster movies, rather than relying on craft essentials as Checkpoint Charlie for their stories.

    Larry has also points out the errors and pitfalls of following what you see and read over criteria essentials. Last year when I worked through Larry’s Story Coaching questionnaire, I wondered how many people might confuse the character’s wants and needs as a single entity. Because fictional people, just like their real life counterparts, often “want” something badly from life that may be twisted in their own perception as what they “need” to fulfill a goal, be happy, etc…. Because we are all too close to our own problems to view them objectively. Someone else–a best friend, for example–might see our wants as a big hot air balloon we’ve inflated to meet some type of lack in our lives, childhood trauma we’ve never gotten past, or any number of other psychosis that’s really obscuring our vision so we don’t see what we really need. Thus, wants and needs are two entirely different things.

    Characters that need to grow and overcome their inner demons face the same problems, make the same mistakes. They might just be operating on auto-pilot and never stop to think about what causes such things. Or it could be a very traumatic experience they’ve buried deep inside some hidden mental closet, totally unaware of how it effects their decision making and personal lives. Personal trauma, when buried, often becomes larger in the mind than it really is. It becomes a huge mountain of fear. And villains embody such fears, seem to understand what traumatizes our hero and has no qualms about using such things against them.

    I know some people who love video games. Both life and fiction embody certain aspects of gaming–which is why it is also a popular form of escapism. Like fiction, it emulates a certain psychological criteria. In order to move on to the next level, there’s always a degree of work to be done to figure out how to get past the obstacles on the level they reside. Then what happens when they move on to the next level? There’s an even greater obstacle to overcome. In life and in fiction, such obstacles often represent our own fears…or that of our hero. And when they do, the emotional impact is much greater than simply creating a cool, yet generic obstacle.

    Indiana Jones has his fear of snakes caused by a childhood incident.

    Kryptonite, ironically, is a piece of Superman’s destroyed home planet.

    I read a novel where the hero had imaginary arguments with his dead father because he feared becoming the ultimate failure his father became in life.

    There’s always an emotional twist to those inner demons. Which gives them power over the hero. One might even say that Art’s trinity casts a shadow of another trinity that both fuels and blocks a character’s motivation (or lack thereof) when facing “goals, obstacles and stakes:”

    Want, Fear, and Need.

    “Wants” are immediate desires obstructed by “Fear” which blinds/blocks a hero to his true “Needs.” Or, you could say that fear is the mountain that stands between want and need. It looks immovable to the hero, impossible to climb without risking imminent death. Yet, climb it the hero must in order to see a clear path towards their ultimate story goal. And all this must take place, often symbolically, while the plot marches ever onward.

    The craft of writing is interesting on every level. It’s a universe that is infinitely expansible. Which is why some of the greats have said a lifetime is too short to learn it all and get it right. On the other hand, it can be a road one never need lose interest in traveling upon…provided they keep their mind open to exploring the possibilities.

  2. Nice post dear . I like your post thanks for sharing .

  3. Its informative i like it. It’s a good article. Its more attractive and effective for people.

  4. Art, any time a complex endeavor (character creation) can be broken down and illuminated by utilizing a process, we all become better writers. Thank you. Mindy Halleck