You may have heard of the SMART acronym for setting and achieving personal goals. Any goal should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-constrained. It (or some version of it) is repeated like a mantra in self-help literature and workshops. But as a writer, I’ve found this can be useful tool for developing stories, characters and even writing blubs.
A story in its most basic form is about a character trying to obtain a goal. In striving for that goal the character changes (or maybe the world around them changes). From the experience of the struggle within the story, the reader grows in some way. And that’s one of my goals as a writer–to write stories that people gain something positive from.
So how does a SMART goal work for a character in a novel?
A general goal might be “survive a crash landing on an alien planet.” Okay, sure. That works for a while. But simple “survival” can quickly get bogged down, because in any absence of immediate threat, there’s nothing for the character to work toward, there’s no strategy to play out that the reader can think about, to agree or disagree with. At any point that binary switch might flip, regardless of what action the character takes. And that can lead to reader apathy. The key then is to define goals as specifically as possible. So you throw in a safe spot for the characters to get to. Maybe another downed spaceship, but one with a working radio. The characters them survive by getting to the safe spaceship.
A specific goal can also be articulated quickly and succinctly, so the reader knows exactly what the character needs to accomplish. At the end of the story, the reader will also have a clear understanding of whether or not the goal has been met.
One of the staples of post-apocalyptic fiction is usually a character or set of characters trying to get home. In high fantasy fiction, it’s often a quest. Journeys like this can be measured in miles or leagues or at least kingdoms passed through on the way to the volcano. In romance ,the goals is usually development of a relationship (meet-cute, first date, setback, reconciliation, commitment) . If you look at the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen needs to survive a game of elimination that is scored in lives lost.
The point here is that your readers need to have some means of marking progress toward the goal. This will allow the reader to track what works and what doesn’t, understand when there’s a setback, and contemplate strategies for moving forward.
Here’s one where there’s some subtle differences between personal goal-setting and setting goals for your characters. In real life, you need to assess your circumstances and make sure your goal is actually achievable. In fiction, things can be a little different.
In fiction, the reader has to be convinced that character has a shot at obtaining the goal. They have to know that whatever traits and flaws that character possess, somewhere inside that character has the tools necessary to get the job done. That’s not to guarantee it will happen. Like the first scene in an action movie where the hero takes down some thugs just to prove how awesome they are, it’s kind of boring if it takes too long. Conclusions can’t be foregone.
But neither can the goal be so impossible that the reader will no longer suspend disbelief. If the goal is too lofty, the reader starts to think the only way it will happen is if the writer is going to pull a fast one, a deus ex machina, and then the game doesn’t seem fair.
So long as there’s a question in the reader’s mind as to whether the goal will be achieved or not, they’re going to be along for the ride.
Here’s where it pays big time to know your genre well and read as much as you can. Your character’s goals need to be consistent with reader expectations. (This R can also stand for research.)
It’s important to remember that character goals can change as the story progresses too. In some stories, the initial goal as the character understands it, may be the exact opposite of what that character needs for growth. When you’re revising and you’ve identified the theme of the story, it’s important to go back and revisit initial goals. Do they make sense in the context of the greater story? In the context of the genre?
Is the goal consistent with your other priorities in life? If it’s a smaller, short-term goal, does it jive with your bigger picture, and longer-term goals? The R can also stand for research, making sure that you understand the details of what you’re planning to pursue and this can in turn help to determine how realistic the goal is.
Ticking clocks add suspense.
In addition to knowing what the goal is, the reader also needs a sense of time and how urgently the goal needs to be met. Readers care a lot more about a character caught in a traffic jam when she’s on her way to an interview that starts in 15 minutes. The time limitation starts a game of strategies. What should she be willing to risk to get there? A ticket for driving too fast? Should she run a red light? Hop out of the van and take the kid’s bicycle in the back? A reader thinking in these terms is completely engaged in the story.
So that’s it. That’s a handy tool to have in your writer’s toolbox. As a side note, if you can write all of this out and put it together in a few hundred words, that also makes for a decent method to answer that dreaded question: so what’s your story about?