Thursday, August 8, 2013


When Sandra Orchard wrote this post, she had no idea she was writing to, and about, me. I'm one of those writers who has trouble determining my main character's goal. If she'd asked me what Cory's goal is, I'd have said to get the girl. Or I may have asked ... when? before he meets Bretta or after? Before he realizes his life is about to change, or after it changes? Okay, I tend to complicate things--as you see, so Sandra's use of the word urgent really helps. To read an excerpt of her books Fatal Inheritance and Deadly Devotion just click the titles. And feel free to ask questions!

by Sandra Orchard

Your novel’s main character needs a goal.

You know this, right?

But do you really understand what it means?

At a writer's conference I recently attended, I asked every single writer who had an appointment with me this question: What is your hero's goal for the story?

Only one out of eight gave me a satisfactory answer. Most had a lot to say about what the hero or heroine would learn through the story, especially spiritually, since we're talking Christian fiction, but very few of the writers I talked to had nailed down a concrete, visible, urgent story goal for their main character.

If you're writing commercial fiction, and want to be published, your hero needs a goal.

A concrete goal.

New writers often get confused by the lingo. Writing teachers talk about long-term and short-term goals, internal goals and external goals, needs and wants, not to mention scene goals.

I find that most Christian writers don't have a problem with the character's long-term goal, which often tends to be abstract. It's what the character wants (or needs) out of life in general.

Where writers run into trouble is in identifying what is often called the "short-term goal". I prefer to call it the character's story goal, to differentiate it from the very short-term changing goals the character has in each scene.

The character's story goal not only needs to be concrete, it needs to be achievable within the time constraints of the story. The story is over when your main character reaches his/her goal or fails to reach it.

Now, if you're thinking, I write romance…the hero's goal is to win the girl, think again.

Okay, occasionally, winning the girl is the singular story goal, but it's not enough for the goal to simply be concrete and achievable.

It needs to be urgent.

If the hero could wait until next month or next year to pursue his goal or solve the problem then there's no urgency to propel the story forward.

We suspense writers like to call this urgency the ticking bomb. If the hero doesn't reach the goal by a certain time, boom.

In my newest release, Fatal Inheritance, my heroine's goal is to hang onto the century farmhouse she's inherited from her recently deceased grandparents.

Her sister and brother-in-law are fighting the will. Land developers are vying for the land. One of them, or maybe someone else, wants her out of the house so desperately, he or she goes to great lengths to scare Becki Graw into leaving.

As for urgency…

Since the house is in a rural community, that isn't a commutable distance from where Becki worked, she quit her job. She planned to live on her savings until she found a job nearby. However, she hadn't counted on necessary house repair expenses, nor on the suppressed economy in the area that makes finding a job near impossible.

Added to that, her sister's threat to break the will cannot be ignored. She is determined to make it happen yesterday.

Then when Becki cannot be persuaded to go quietly into the night, the threats mount and her choices morph to give up the house or die. Which of course, adds urgency to the cop-next-door's goal to catch the person behind the threats.

When choosing a goal for your main character, be sure his or her motivation is strong. He or she must have something significant enough at stake to keep pushing forward when it would be easier to just quit. But that’s a lesson for another day.

Any questions? 


Sandra Orchard is a multi-award-winning Canadian author of inspirational romantic suspense/mysteries. Her summer releases include: Fatal Inheritance (Aug, Love Inspired Suspense) and Deadly Devotion (June, Revell). She is an active member in American Christian Fiction Writers, The Word Guild, and Romance Writers of America. To find out more about her novels, or read interesting bonus features, please visit or connect at



  1. Hi Jess, thanks so much for the invitation to be your guest. I'm delighted to hear that the post resonated with you.

  2. I thought I'd mention for the benefit of blog readers...
    For one more day on my Facebook page (the top pinned post), I'm collecting nominations from people for a friend or loved who'd they'd like to see receive a complimentary copy of my book. I thought it would be a fun alternative to the usual kind of giveaways. If you'd like to nominate someone, please pop over from the link in my bio. Then check the "other" folder of your FB messages Sunday afternoon to see if your nominee was one of those selected. Thanks!

  3. Timely and useful post, Sandra. Thank you. The more important the goal is to the character, the better the story. Just last week my agent and I were discussing my hero's goal which felt too easy and wimpy to me. Now, I've beefed it up and made it HARD. I love making my characters work for what they want. :-) And I think readers like reading about the struggle.

  4. Great interview! And the post is one I need to remind myself of with every new story, Sandra! Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Isn't that the truth for all of us, I think?! You're welcome, Janet. I have several prominent post-its that never leave my desk. They include: "make it matter" and "need a clearly defined goal for the hero to reach" As Linda said, I think I'm going to add to that "the harder the better". Poor guys, how we love to torment them. :)

  5. I'm another one who struggles to articulate the character goals, and I like how you've broken this down to urgent and within the scope of the story timeline. Do you differentiate between a character's story goal and his/her problem? Is the problem internal instead?

    1. We might be dancing around a semantics question, since different authors and how to books have different names for similar things. Since I write inspirational romantic suspense or mysteries, I'm juggling a lot of threads. There's an internal character arc and the external arc of the mystery, as well as romantic arc and a spiritual arc, which is usually closely tied to one or all of the above. Ideally, they are all closely tied. That is to say that the external arc leads to an internal shift that gives the character what is missing in himself or herself, which is reflected in the relationship and enables a resolution of the external conflict. Continuing series with a sleuth protagonist, for example, would have a much smaller character arc in any given story in the series, otherwise, he or she will come off looking like a total mental case. Romance novels obviously put a lot of emphasis on the internal shift (and so, in answer to your question, would probably appear to be the "problem" that the story is centered around). Action novels, like action movies, spend a lot less time on the internal, and so we generally tend to look at the "problem" of the story in terms of the external...related to the huge public stakes (meteors hitting the earth, rather than a relationship that won't matter if you can't stop the meteor).

      A non-romance example that still involves relationships might help to illustrate what I mean. In the movie, Lethal Weapon, with Mel Gibson. Riggs (Gibson) is grieving the death of his wife and taking tons of chances with his own, because it has no value to him anymore. Murtaugh gets saddled with him as a partner and the external thrust of the movie is that they have to stop a deadly drug cartel. Over the course of the movie, Riggs has a lot of internal growth, most importantly that he learns to value life, including his own. But the internal shift that matters to the external plot is that he needs to learn to trust and so does Murtaugh. Once they learn to trust, they can work together as a team. Once they work as a team they can succeed at taking down the cartel. see at the end the effect of the story on his life (perhaps the equivalent in Christian fiction of the spiritual epiphany), the revelation of the theme--choose life. He visits his wife's grave and talks to her. Then he gives the special bullet he'd planned to kill himself with to Murtaugh, who invites him to join his family for Christmas dinner.

      Okay, I think that was another whole blog post. LOL

  6. Enjoyed this post. Even the comments have been helpful!

  7. Love this, Sandra! This gave me good things to think about, and I think I can honestly say my next hero does have a great concrete goal to carry him through. But that is only because I have learned how to do that from you. ;) You're the best! Hugs!

  8. So true. Every main character needs a goal. And if it puts him/her at odds with the others, even better. ;-P