In his opening song for Into the Woods appropriately titled, I Wish, Stephen Sondheim has his characters tell the audience what they want:
[STEMOTHER & STEPSISTERS]
To see the King-
[JACK & MOTHER]
To sell the cow-
[BAKER & WIFE]
To make the potion-
To go to the Festival-!
Into the woods!
Into the woods!
Into the woods,
Then out of the woods,
And home before dark!
That, in a nutshell, is what a story is about: your protagonist’s wish to sell, to get, to bring, to make, etc., and make it home before dark. Your job as a novelist is to stop them.
The best way to understand any character is to see how he reacts to difficulties. Not to mention the fact that the struggle to reach the final objective while overcoming all sort of challenges along the way is what we call ‘plot’.
If the character wants something and simply gets it that’s called… boring.
Before we look at the obstacles let’s first examine the goals because you can’t have one without the other. As you’ll see from the Sondheim lyrics, these goals don’t have to be elaborate. Cinderella wants to go to the festival. Jack and his mother want to sell the cow, and so on. Now, these aren’t exactly lofty ambitions, but, then, these people aren’t living lofty lives.
Which brings me to a fairly obvious point:
The characters’ goals ought to be credible, compelling and concrete. That is to say, the reader should have no doubt about what your protagonist wants and they should want the hero to succeed. This is true even if you’re writing about an anti-hero and he’s trying to pull off a heist (the The Italian Job or Ocean’s Eleven); or commit a murder, for instance, Hamlet. They should also feel the hero’s goals make sense for that character.
Cinderella wants to go to the ball. She’s a servant to a harsh and unsympathetic stepmother, bullied by her stepsisters, and has been cheated out of her rightful place as her father’s heir. Going to the ball seems like a very small thing really, but it’s entirely credible that Cinders should desperately want it. It’s also a compelling goal. As with other fairy tales, there’s no question here about who’s the heroine and who’s the villain. We want Cinderella to get to the ball because we sympathise with her. And we’d also like to see her stepmother get her comeuppance. And there’s no ambiguity here, either. Going to the ball will change Cinderella’s life forever, but right now she doesn’t know that. All she knows is she wants one night to be a girl and have some fun. I mean, it worked for Cyndi Lauper…
The reader must be able to relate to the characters and the stories which means they have to connect with their goals and sympathise with their difficulties. As Bruno Bettleheim said about fairy tales:
First, Stick your Hero Up a Tree…
There’s an old piece of writing wisdom that says you should stick your hero up a tree. Then set fire to it. I think Tolkein took that advice literally when he wrote The Hobbit. The point is that once the hero has an objective, your job is to make sure he doesn’t achieve it. At least not for a couple of hundred pages.
Despite their slight goals, our fairy tale heroes are thwarted along the way. Cinderella’s stepmother refuses to let her go to the festival; Jack is fooled into trading the cow for beans, and so on. In these cases, the obstacles arise naturally from their circumstances. We already know Cinderella’s stepmother is jealous and nasty, so her refusing to let Cinderella do something she really wants in entirely in character. Likewise, we know from the outset that Jack’s not exactly a rocket-scientist so it’s entirely credible that he’d be fooled by an unscrupulous conman. Even if the beans do turn out to be magical. Let’s look at the sort of obstacles your hero might face.
Types of Obstacles
There are any number of things that can get in the way of the hero or heroine reaching their goals, but they fall into two broad categories. These are external forces and internal forces.
This is a huge list. Weather, geography, finances, machines, society, villains… All of these things can keep the hero from success. Dorothy is on her way home after running away, but there’s a tornado and she ends up in Oz. Oops. Frodo needs to destroy the One Ring but has to cross dangerous vistas in order to reach the mountain where he can complete his task. Yossarian wants to go home but the US Army says he has to fight. Van Helsing wants to destroy Dracula, but the Drac-man has other plans. Cinderella has that pesky stepmum…
In each case, there’s a compelling external force that keeps the hero from success. Unless you’re writing an epic like The Lord of the Rings you should try to limit the type of obstacles to one or two big ones which send ripples through the plot. For instance, think of the obstacles facing Frodo: black riders, Saruman, the naivety of the other hobbits, the treachery of Boromir, Saruman, wargs, Gollum, Sauron… That’s an awful lot for one little hobbit to deal with, even in a three-volume epic.
Now think about Dorothy in Oz. The first thing that happens is the tornado that transports her from Kansas to Oz. The house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East and vengeance is sworn by her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West. All the challenges faced by Dorothy arise from this initial situation.
Ideally, ‘Because’ should lead the reader logically from one conclusion to the next. Because Jane Eyre is poor and an orphan her aunt hates her. Because her aunt hates her she sends Jane to Lowood Institution. Because Jane is a fighter and a survivor she overcomes all the awful things that happen at Lowood’s. Because she survives she gets an education. Because she’s educated and a fighter she gets a job as a governess. And because she gets that job she meets Mr Rochester who she eventually marries.
It’s important not to make the protagonist a piece of straw being blown by the wind of circumstances. Although Jane has no say in becoming an orphan or being sent to a dreadful institution, she becomes the architect of her own deliverance. Your characters shouldn’t be like a ball in a pinball machine pinging from one disaster to the next, but should give the hero a chance to face each challenge and overcome it by virtue of their courage, resourcefulness, intelligence, or other virtue. Or they can overcome disaster by guile, crime or other vice if that’s their nature. Just so long as they take the initiative.
The tools used by the heroes to overcome their difficulties is what defines them. Cinderella – yes, her again – is a bit wet, but at least she has the guts to defy her stepmother and go to the damn ball anyway, even though she knows step-mommie dearest will be there. Frodo agrees to carry the One Ring even though he loathes it and he doesn’t know the way to Mordor. In other words, they don’t shy away from the problems but face up to them.
Even more difficult for your heroes are those challenges that are internal. Think of the man who gets in his own way: Hamlet, Coriolanus, Othello – all of them are destroyed by the fatal flaws in their characters. Or the woman who’s fickleness leads to her undoing, like Madame Bovary; or the woman guided by passion such as Anna Karenina; or the man tormented by his own failures, such as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
With the exception of Brick, all the characters listed above ended in tragedy. Anna and Mme B commit suicide; the Shakespearean heroes die violently. These are characters who don’t really need external difficulties, they have more than enough of their own making. Hamlet spends five acts trying to decide if, when and how to murder his uncle. Othello’s jealousy leads him to murder his wife. The reason Brick survives is because he faces up to his own demons and decides to stop hiding in a bottle of alcohol. Although Tennessee Williams leaves his ultimate fate somewhat ambiguous, the ending is very hopeful (more so in the film than in the original play.)
You need to decide if the hero or heroine’s psychological makeup will lead to their ultimate undoing, or if they will be able to overcome those demons and survive.
Not Either / Or
You don’t, of course, need to choose between internal or external conflict, you can have both. Scarlett O’Hara’s selfishness is at the heart of Gone With The Wind, but that didn’t mean author Margaret Mitchell felt she should skip the American Civil War.
Success or Failure?
One of the big questions you need to think about as you’re writing is if you should let your hero succeed. There are several ways to proceed:
Have the hero fail. Frodo wants to destroy the ring and return to a peaceful life in the Shire. What happens? He finds himself unable to throw the ring into the fire and it’s only Gollum’s actions that lead to the ring’s destruction. And though he returns to the Shire he’s been too damaged by events to find peace. “The Shire has been saved, Sam, but not for me…” he says.
Give the hero what he wants when he no longer wants it. In Gone With the Wind, hero Rhett Butler is compelled by the thrill of wanting a woman who doesn’t want him back. By the time Scarlett comes round, he’s lost interest. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Likewise, by the time Ashley Wilkes is willing to accept Scarlett as a love interest she has realised how bad a choice he is.
Leave the heroes in limbo: Vladimir and Estragon spend the whole play waiting for Godot (the clue’s in the title) and – spoiler alert! – he never arrives. They end the play just as they began, still waiting, because that’s their state of being. No, I’m not going to try to analyse Beckett for you. You could fill a library with all that’s been written on the subject.
The heroine succeeds but at a great price: Antigone manages to accomplish her goal and bury her brother but because her act is in violation of the king’s command she must die.
Or give the hero what he wants. Van Helsing kills Dracula; Dorothy returns home to Kansas; Yossarian escapes the war.
Whatever you choose, it’s all good. Just make them work for it.