Top Ten (Okay Eleven) Things You Should Know About Your Own Book, Part Three


While writing a novel, and particularly when we finish a book—especially that first book—there is usually an intense joy and pride and utter feeling of success and accomplishment. Unfortunately, that finished project, that *the end* we type at the bottom of the last page, is really only the beginning. The first draft—sometimes a very rough first draft—needs polishing, rewriting, often (dare I say always?) a professional editing before the reading public takes a look at it.

But there are things we can do ourselves before we start with the actual rewriting, and that is to know as much about our book/plot/character/conflict as we possibly can. It is simple stuff, but if your WIP or WF (work finished) is missing that vital something, that special element that sets it apart from other unpublished books on the market (or hopefully someday on the bookstore shelves) perhaps you’ll spot it here. The better we know our books, the more likely they will interest an agent or editor, and the better they will interest the reading public. Knowing our books well makes us more confident writers, and gives us the self-assurance to approach an agent or editor. And if we discover that we can’t answer a question or two, that is an area of weakness that we can address now, before an agent sees our baby.

06. Primary goals: What is the protag’s (MC – main character’s) primary goal? What is antag’s (BBU – Big Bad Ugly’s) main goal?

We need to remember that, despite what is on the first page, the story itself actually begins the moment the conflict appears. Conflict is all about the needs and wants of the main characters, the MC and BBU. The MC needs to want-desire-need something that is difficult to obtain. Something (the BBU, usually) must be in the way, with goals, aims, needs, and desires of his own. This is conflict.

But, you say, what if the BBU is, for instance, a huge storm (man versus nature)? This *BBU’s needs* concept can be discounted to a large degree. However, in that case, you – the writer – must then want something for the BBU, in the BBU’s stead. You want that storm (or whatever) to destroy the desires of the MC, and you need to craft a story where the storm comes for the MC as if it has a will and desires of its own. It’s a lot less simple and a lot less easy if the BBU is intelligent, and that is this post is about – primary needs and the way they work against each other to create conflict.

We talk about conflict a lot here at MW. Just do a search for conflict. J And yes, this post is about primary goals. But primary and opposing goals always create conflict. The ability to see and state your characters’ primary needs, and how those needs create conflict, can show you a road map to keep the tension building and the conflict sharp.

For the first Jane Yellowrock novel, Skinwalker, Jane’s primary goal is fairly simple at the start of the novel: Take a job and make a good paycheck by tracking down and killing an insane rogue-vampire who was killing and eating people. The nonhuman but intelligent BBU’s primary goal is to find a way to regain his fluctuating and diminishing sanity—find a source of blood that is strong enough to reverse his loss of emotional and mental control. As their primary goals bring them into closer proximity, the conflict and tension ratchet up because the BBU is no unknown subject, but someone who is close to the heart of the hunt.

In the AKA’s (Gwen’s) novel Shadow Valley, the MC, who was beaten, buried in a cairn of rocks, and left for dead, wants to find her daughter, who was kidnapped by the man who hurt her. The BBU wants to keep the girl, force a marriage, and replace his dead wife. This creates conflict: To do reach his goal, the BBU has to escape across the Appalachian Mountains on horseback, girl in tow, outwitting and hiding from the search and rescue groups who chase him, the MC as part of that rescue party.

In Gwen’s novel Delayed Diagnosis, Rhea Lynch, M.D. wants to find what happened to her best friend, who appears to have had a stroke. The BBU wants to keep Rhea away from the victim, so that the doctor can’t discover that it wasn’t a stroke at all, but a premeditated attack. Rhea gets close to the victim, and discovers the truth, which puts her on a collision course with the BBU and danger.

I just stated my character’s primary goals in one or two sentences, and then indicated how those goals created conflict. It’s just another way of looking at my novel.

Wanna try?



36 comments to Top Ten (Okay Eleven) Things You Should Know About Your Own Book, Part Three

  • sagablessed

    My MC’s two main issues are to help revive his nephew’s girlfriend, as well as come to grips with the fact his nephew, Roger, has grown up.
    We have another conflict with Roger’s old girlfriend hiding her Skills at magick; that secret could kill them all.
    (OK, here is a spoiler.)
    BBU’s conflict is trying to re-animate her dead child, and MC is getting in the way.

  • Great post, Faith. I don’t have the focus to think through these questions for my protagonist right now, but I will 🙂

  • Mikaela

    I am pantsing my current WIP( =messy).
    But, I can say that My MC has two main goals: Find out who kidnapped her cousin (first half) and stop the dragons ( second half).

  • Saga-*D*, I’ve heard this story posased in several ways now, and I like this one best. It is clean and concise and narrows it down to the basics. Excellent!

    AJ, the misery/pain/muzzy-headed-feeling will get better. I promise! We are thinking of you.

    Mikaela, This exercise is perfect for pantsers. I have a friend whose *outlines* were her primeries’ goals and motivations on sticky notes on her computer screen. Any scene that took her away from the goals was rewritten or cut. With that in mind, you might want to put the kidnapper’s goals and the dragons’ goals in here too, to keep it streamlined.

  • My BBU is pretty easy and straightforward: he wants to assume absolute authority over the government, commit genocide (or, in his mind, provide for a final defense of his own people, though his approach is irrational and violent) and achieve literal immortality. These three goals are the driving motivation behind almost everything the BBU does. My MC is more difficult, because her goals and motivations changes over time as her situation changes. Initially, she’s grief-stricken because of the death of her father, and she’s driven to understand why he was killed. At the same time, she wants to avoid a forced marriage. Later, she’s just trying to survive and stay alive, and to understand what’s going on. By the end she’s evolved, having been exposed to a much wider world, and resolves to help the work of an underground movement to end the conflict by which the BBU is driven and restore democracy. It is when she comes under the tutelage of a leader in this underground movement that her goals come into direct conflict with the BBU.

  • Steven, I bet you’ve done this, but just for others: In cases where the MC’s goals are staying alive and growing as a person/character, it’s easy for the reader to lose focus. Editors like to see the initial primary goal of the MC brought through to the end, perhaps a few comments a third of the way through and then again at two/thirds, about how far she’s come (in this case, avoiding marriage, understanding her father’s death, etc) and then maybe wrapped up in the epilogue or something. A cyclical thing.

  • Yeah, I’ve already got a scene planned at about the two-thirds point which brings the MC full circle, where she is able to confront her initial problems directly at last (she returns to the village where her story began). The question of what happened to her father dogs her through most of the story, because the answer to that creates a whole new set of questions for her – which helps her resolve her convictions for the final confrontation with the BBU.

  • My MC’s primary goal has always been to help others and make the universe a safer place. Raised and trained as a Killer, she believed that she was doing that by eliminating criminals and terrorists who escaped punishment from the legal system. Then she learned that the Killer unit was corrupt. Now she wants to start a new life and learn different ways to make the world better.

    The BBU is actually a conspiracy, but thinking about this made me realize that the main antagonist is the other former Killer in the story. He blames the MC for the downfall of the Killer unit and ruining his way of life. He wants revenge.

  • KR1L3Y

    This was a great exercise for me. I have never formalized the primary goals within my WIP. My main character has multiple objectives. His overall goal is to understand his new found skills, get control of them, learn about the past that has been kept from him, figure out why the BBU wants him dead, and introduce a new technology / power (Eitr) to the world. There are multiple adventures which give the MC specific goals i.e. (master the skill, retrieve the item, slay the beast, uncover the secret, save the victim, etc…). Each of these relates directly to one or more of the overall goals and many work to interfere with the BBU’s major objective. The BBU wants to gain control of objects that will allow him to command both demons and angels and eliminate those who can utilize Eitr, especially the MC.

  • Knyspelle> Deor wants to find her faerie father, get him to acknowledge her, probably kick him in the shins (or other places) and go home. The BBU doesn’t want her to find her father (the king)–BBU told her father that she’s dead–also doesn’t want her close to the authorities who might reconize her, and wants her, her father, and the other MC, Rafe, dead. Rafe wants to do his duty, which right now means being the heir to the king, since the king has no heir (he was told she died, Rafe never knew she existed), but he wants to stay head of the army–he has no desire to be king.

    Hell Mary> Mary wants to get rid of her hellfire powers before they get loose and destroy the world (she’s really afraid they’ll kill her). BBU is a demon who wants Mary’s powers back so she can bring hell to earth. Thomas (antagonist) wants wealth, power, and beauty from the demon, and doesn’t think about the consequences. BBU is planning on using him until he’s done being useful and then she’ll be done with him.

  • Stephen — perfect.

    SiSi, very cool re the antag! Now you have a new way of looking at it, and new way to introduce tension. I am a bit confused re the MC. Does the book start during the end of the Killer unit or after it is finished? The timeline in the Killer unit will change the primary’s wants and needs. If killer unit is still functional at start of book, it sounds like she wants to tear down something (her old unit and way of life) she feels was wrong and remake her world, which changes the first goal by a hair. If the story opens after the unit is gone, then we need to see a lot of tiny vignettes interspersed throughout the book on life-in-unit, and the unfolding of the character’s past will add a huge amount of tension. It’s what I do with the Jane Yellowrock books — unfold her past bit by bit.

    KR, the BBU’s goals are well thought out and will provide a linear progression of tension through the book. However, the way they are written, the MC’s goals are more haphazard, appearing as secondary goals that happen along as events unfold. I *think* the last two >>figure out why the BBU wants him dead, and introduce a new technology / power (Eitr) to the world>> are the most important, one being survival and the other altruistic or mercenary. (I am betting on altruistic.) If you pick one as your primary it will give the book more intensity, even if the other is a close second. Also, if you are doing the *power one* as an altruistic gesture, then you can make it quite political with the powers-that-be not wanting a new power source introduced at all, because they will lose finiancially.

  • Pea, Kynspelle has a lot punch written this way! The layered goals make for a lot of tension and building relationships. I like. It *feels* more commercial than HellMary, but that is just a feeling, not something that I can even articulate.

    HellMary is more twisted, and might actually make a better conflict/resolution novel than Kynspelle, but written this way, the BBU’s goals feel a lot less focused. Right now, I am wanting to read Kynspelle. 🙂

  • TwilightHero

    This exercise was refreshingly easy. I guess I have a fair idea what my characters are after by now.

    MC’s goals:

    2) Learn to master his new-found powers while coming to terms with having to use them for violence.

    2) Protect his sister and his best friend – both of whom can (eventually) protect themselves, but that’s another story – and fight off their pursuers in order to reach the capital and warn the higher powers about the BBU.

    BBU’s goals:

    1) Stop the MC & co. from reaching the capital. (See above.)

    2) He’s also in the middle of creating superhumans specifically made to kill power-users, as the vanguard of an army set to sweep through the lands and conquer all. But for now, this being the first book and all, this is really just the basis for goal 1.

  • TwilightHero

    Whoops, typo on the goal numbering. I don’t know how that happened 🙂

  • Twilight, Nicely done! Considering the BBU’s goals, all these seem political and oft-done. Why not step out a pace or two and share his/her personal needs and goals? 🙂 *Why* does he want to take over the world? Even if it isn’t a part of the book, I am curious, as this plays into the next post on this series, motivation.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Okay, I’d like to attempt this for mine, but I apologize ahead of time for the length. Clear goals is something that I’ve struggled with.

    First, the BBU rules the city and primarily wants to maintain a fearful populace, believing that is the best way to maintain stability and control. But the resistance has recently changed to tactics that are much more direct and violent and so must be hunted down and eliminated.

    Three protagonists.
    The first is Chysa, born into one of the city’s noble families, she now wants to escape the corrupt people who betrayed and imprisoned her. Her goal eventually changes to rescuing others she discovers who have been forced into slavery.

    Second, Lailah is a commoner whose primary goal is to join the resistance and exact vengeance on the Guard for the murder of her father. However, the resistance is operating under the burden of conflicting goals. They are currently pursuing a plot to wreak havoc amongst the Guard and eventually take out the Queen, but their long-term, primary goal has always been to aid and protect the common folk.

    Third, Jhohann has recently joined the Guard because he also wants to protect, and his initial goal is to find his place amongst the Guard. However, after the murders they’ve committed, the resistance is his direct enemy, and he may instead have to join the Queen’s inner circle to gain sufficient power to hope to quell further violence.

  • Hep — lovely, well layered, and full of possibility. Well done.

  • Unicorn

    I’m enjoying this series of posts, Faith – they really make me think about the basics of my story and as I’m (still!!) trying to write its second draft, that’s very helpful. Thanks.
    The story keeps on morphing into something different, but currently at least the characters have clear goals.

    The BBU wants to kill the two protagonists and their families. The BBU is a strange beast driven to murder and destruction by the grief of his mate’s death. Hence, he wants vengeance on his mate’s killer’s descendants – the youngest of which are the two protagonists.

    Of the two protags, one is really the main character, the other being a bit of a sidekick. The MC desperately wants to protect his friends and family from the BBU. Being an insecure, outcast teenager in the throes of trying to grow up, he also has the secondary, almost subconscious goals of being accepted and respected.

    Now if only I can get those nice clear goals hammered into my beloved, messy story.

  • My book starts just after the Killer unit has been disbanded, and the MC did play a role in bringing it down although only a few people know that. I’m trying to show bits and pieces of the MC’s past throughout the book much like you’ve done with Jane’s past. I’m still not sure I’ll be able to pull it off, but that’s the plan!

    I think what I wrote earlier was confusing because of yet another insight I had while thinking about this. I’ve always thought that the MC’s main goal is to escape her past and start a new life, but this really helped me clarify why she wants to do that. Her desire to be of service and help others hasn’t changed, but now she has to figure out another way to do that since it turned out her first way wasn’t always as good as she thought. These posts are really helping me to focus and clarify my own thinking.

  • ajp88

    At the start, my MC is only looking to avenge his father’s murder. Having accomplished that, he wants to move beyond his broken past (orphaned after his mother committed suicide) and spend time with the only family he has left: an adopted sister a hundred leagues away. As war erupts right where he knew she had last been, he wants to find her or learn what happened to her and fight against those that did it.

    The BBU wants to unite the world under his rule, one of more open equality and stricter punishment, by any means necessary. As he sees it, the world leaders and their citizens are to blame for the disparaging levels of equality and injustice so he would unite those who have been spat upon, eradicate society, and start anew.

    As the MC discovers that his sister was a mere casualty of the BBU’s war, he leads the coalition to stop him thus coming directly under the BBU’s reticule.

    I think that made sense…

  • KnyghtSpelle > everything Pea said. I’d add that Deor also wants to get her faerie magic back (it’s started to fade) without having to be a faerie; she’s content as a human. The BBU doesn’t directly clash with this goal in one way or another, but the achievement of her other goals does, so there’s a conflict within the MC’s character. (Pea and I are co-writing this one, in case anyone wondered why I was adding to someone else’s story.)

    New Shiny Epic Fantasy (no idea of title yet) > the MC wants to fulfill her vow to deliver a dying man’s last message so that she is free to become a full sister-in-the-sword of the Sisters of Mercy. Her friend Eresh wants to promote the heretical men’s movement which is becoming a source of schism in the faith and a tool of political rebellion. The Princess Temna wants to use friendship with the MC as cover for her affair with Eresh. The dead man’s message, which she is goddess bound to deliver, may aid the Emperor’s enemies, including his exiled chief general. Sister Riall, a high ranking warrior sister who the MC fears and admires, suspects the MC of being complicit in the heresy and the political chaos that is erupting.

    (You see the problem I’ve created. None of these people are BBUs. In my head this all adds up to compelling drama and intrigue. On paper it might be a dull mess of politics. Clearly I need to kill someone.)

  • This is a wonderful post, Faith. I sometimes forget to stop and consider these deceptively simple and incredibly important questions. I know my characters and villains have their wants and needs, but it can be so helpful when writing to have them at the fore of our thinking. Thanks for the reminder. I would go ahead and plug in the info for THIEFTAKER but it’s been a long day, and it’s about time for me to get dinner going.

  • Unicorn, this is perfectly stated and a lovely book concept. 🙂 I like. As long as you keep those goals in the forefront of every scene, you will have a simple way to increase tension.

    SiSi, that is great! I am so glad these are helping.

    AP, I think I got it this time. Excellent! I like! One very tiny thing, and likely a typo, of which I make many. But I think that a reticule is a handbag. It gave me a mental picture of the MC being banged by a big purse. 🙂

  • Sarah, I agree, that for genre fiction, it will be much easier to create a satisyfing read if there is a distinct BBU, even if that BBU is a bad guy in disguise as a good guy. Or … Hmmm. Why not a heretical man? Something to think about.

    David, thank you. Yes, it has been a long day for me too. A long week, actually. And I hear another hot salty tub soak calling my name. Yes. My house is magical. It talks to me. Or I am insane, to which I have much evidence. Happy dinner.

  • ajp88

    Haha Faith! That was a gaming reference (I used to compete at tournaments). Reticule as in the aiming sights on the screen for your weapon.

  • sagablessed

    Faith, we are wirters, published or not. Of course you are insane. But you stand in good company. :^)

  • TwilightHero

    Thanks Faith 🙂 If you really want to know…the person introduced as the BBU is really just a servant of the real BBU; this conquering-the-lands thing is in large part a giant test for him, and he knows it. This puts him under a great deal of pressure to succeed, especially since at heart he’s really more of the evil scholar/intellectual/likes to tinker with things to see what happens type. Though ambitious, martial leadership isn’t exactly his strong suit, and it shows. I only reveal the ‘servant of the real villain’ thing at the end, as one of the final twists, so I didn’t think to mention it.

    Actually, most of that is only planned for my second book, where the main villain becomes a POV character and has his own plotline. The focus in the first book is more on his own servants, the aforementioned superhumans, who each have their own reasons for serving the villain/pursuing the protagonists. This one believes the main villain is the true messiah of their people (which the villain is posing as); that one doesn’t believe this at all, knowing the villain is a fake but following anyway because he’s a cynic and thinks it makes no difference; another one doesn’t care about any of this, simply wanting to kill the MC’s best friend, who managed to kill his brother upon their first encounter…you get the idea.

  • Saga. (nods head, agreeing)

    Twilight, that helps a lot!

  • This felt like it was a challenge to answer, if only because my BBU isn’t present in this, the first book of a trilogy. So the BBU of this book is one of his henchminions, operating on his behalf. But the goal remains the same, even if he’s trying to get someone else to do it first (I guess sort of like what Saga’s got): He wants my main character dead, to ensure that she doesn’t try to take back her throne. Henchminion wants the usurper king/BBU’s respect, and more importantly the hand of his daughter, as that will lead to ultimate power, so his goal is pretty much the same.

    My main character’s conflicts are:

    1) That she doesn’t want the throne, even when she keeps receiving signs that she should take it.

    2) The guy she’s stuck traveling with is looking for the lost princess to achieve that purpose, except he doesn’t know that the princess is her. She can’t tell him the truth because for most of the story, their goals are at odds, and to make matters worse, she’s starting to fall for him.

  • djstipe

    Stuck in the middle of my book, first time here. This series of posts made me realize a couple flaws…most important that my BBU was lacking motivation. Thank you Faith – can’t wait for 1 through 5. My goals:

    MC – once he finds out there is something in the water – needs to escape the Hayward Peninsula (post “Big One” island created that includes part of what was San Francisco) – to the mainland, and save his best friend from a mysterious set of medical experimentation on the Peninsula.

    BBU is Council of the Water, de facto leader of the Hayward Council.  His goal is to find a way to mass treat humanity for what is believed to be an outbreak of pschitsophrenia (but is actually evolution, humans just haven’t figured out the benefits of the mutation).  While this goal is shared with the Council as a whole, BBU also believes the mainland to be morally and spiritually corrupt and his personal goal is to retain the island’s sovereignty at all costs.

  • djstipe

    I have to apologize for my spelling….it was a late night writing after a late night of working and I was on my iPad with limited spell-check. Besides that, I have no excuse. 🙂

  • Hi Laura. Sorry — I just saw this.
    I giggled over henchminion.
    I think this sounds like a love story in the making, and hope that is a large part of the evolving story arc… Yes?

  • DJ, I was tied up all weekend and I just saw this one. We must have cross-posted!
    I love si-fi like this, and I think you did a good job explaining the BBU’s goals. Excellent!

    I don’t want you to give anything away, but I have a feeling that there is a lot more to the MC’s goals/needs/motivations, or that they change and develop through the course of the conflict as MC discovers more info. Yes? I say this because the *best friend expermentation*, sounds tenuous, but I rather think there is much more to it. So if I may make a suggestion: make a timelilne of the MC’s needs/goals as they change through the book, and make certain that as the plot develops, the needs and goals grow more in danger of failure. You don’t have to post it here, of course, but use your inner judge to evaluate it.

  • Faith – ditto, I just saw your reply. (Spent the weekend synopsisizing.) Yup, the love story is *definitely* one of the things that evolves over the trilogy, especially when things get, uhh, complicated. 😉

  • djstipe

    Thank you for the response Faith, I appreciate it! You are correct – the goals/motivation change for MC with increased discovery – drastically once he is off the Peninsula. Looking forward to that, as I think about your advice I do see a lack of conflict about half way through. I think finding ways to raise the level “danger” along the timeline will help ensure a stronger story arc. Thank you!