Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Goal-oriented Charactrers, Loitering with Intent

goal--a desired achievement or destination for a character; an ability, excellence of performance, or arrival at status desired and striven for by a participant in a story; recognition or reward for performance.

Goals cover a wide variety of targets, a reminder that their very existence imparts attitudes and judgments about those who strive; in story, they are particularly visible in their absence. Characters need goals to gain admission into the terrain of story; a character who wants nothing or who says he has everything he wants needs to either reconsider or get used to an undramatic life. In Walter Tevis' The Hustler, Fast Eddie Felson set for his goal being acknowledged as the best pool hustler in America. Eric Stoner wants to be the best draw poker player in Richard Jessup's novel, The Cincinnati Kid. Becky Sharp wanted to rise up the social ranks in William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair; Dorothy Gale wants to get home in L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. All of these goals completely recognizable, primal in their nature.

A character with a goal is a character that readers can root for or against, either option being a method for drawing the reader into the story and its outcome. The reader may be overwhelmed by Ahab's goal of revenge upon the whale, but certainly the implications of Ahab's vendetta propel the reader deeper into the murky consequences of Moby-Dick. Similarly, the reader of Les Miserable is drawn along by Inspector Jaivert's obsessive goal of returning Jean Valjean to prison, while Caspar Gutman's goal of securing the alleged riches of the statue in The Maltese Falcon sets a swirl and eddy of consequences that cause murder, duplicity, and betrayal.

Goal is the capstone of story. What do the characters want? What are they willing to do to get what they want?


intent--dramatic inertia; a character's plan to perform or not perform a specific act; the desire or need to do or not do a specific thing.

All characters come on stage with some form of intent, which is either abetted, challenged, ignored, misunderstood, shunted/deflected, producing a spectrum of possible responses which will either become apparent or submerged in subtext. Without intent, the character's dramatic purpose is left undefined. One character may intend staying at a party only for a few moments, another may come with the intent of seeing another character, yet another may intend to ask a particular favor of a particular person known to be attending the party.

What happens if the character's intentions are blunted or overcome or perhaps shift because of some surprise or reversal? For the writer, knowing a character's intent in a particular scene or situation is similar to broadcasting an aura about that individual, an aura that contacts and collides with the intentions of other characters.

See agenda.

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