For the sleuth, I'm having some problems brainstorming some internal and external goals apart from the main goal of catching the culprit or villain. I understand that both internal and external goals should be in opposition to each other, but I'm having some difficulties. Can you give some examples or guiding principles for this? Thanks.

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    Could you define internal and external goals? I'm not familiar with these literary devices and other than your idea that they should conflict, I have no clue. If it's what I think it is, it's not necessary that they conflict, but that they are just not compatible or complicate the matter.
    – hszmv
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 19:15
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    External goals, as I understand it, are more or less public motives, known generally and perhaps imposed from outside. Internal goals are more personal, individual to the character. Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 23:28
  • Interesting, as I understood it, in contrast to internal goals the achievement of external goals is not entirely under the control of the character.
    – NofP
    Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 14:00

2 Answers 2


I usually interpret external goals as those whose realization is not under the full and direct control of the character.


  1. catching the villain (clearly depends on the villain as well)
  2. foiling the plan of the villain (besides catching the villain this is often a secondary external goal in Sherlock Holmes's stories.)
  3. getting the attention of a love interest
  4. getting a promotion
  5. do harm to another character (depends whether the other character will let themselves to be harmed)

The success of internal goals, on the other hand, depends exclusively on the character.


  1. living a healthier life (in the case of a sleuth it could include: quit smoking, eat healthy, sleep eight hours each night)
  2. learning something (e.g. overcome the initial aversion for the topic and learn it, or finding the time to learn it)
  3. forgive someone
  4. keep a secret
  5. keep hating someone (despite perhaps all attempts at reconciliation made by this other character)

Note that in both cases goal 4 could be considered 'negative'. Keep in mind that a goal has nothing to do with being a better individual with respect to some moral judgment. A goal is simply a target that the character is striving to reach.


Internal and external goals may conflict, or may align, or may be sort of sidewise to each other. As the question suggests, catching the criminal is often a major external goal for a sleuth or detective.

There are many possible internal goals, depending on the nature of the story. If a detective is part of a police force or other organization, s/he may hope to be promoted for doing well on an assignment, or gain reputation that could lead to promotion. A private detective may hope for gaining reputation that will lead to more and better clients in the future.

The culprit may be one the sleuth has encountered before, and the sleuth may have a grudge to pay off. Or the crime may be similar to one that has affected the sleuth or a friend or family member in the past, so the sleuth has an emotional investment on catching the culprit or is affected by such memories. Or the sleuth may be old and tired, and does not want to do as much work as the case demands. The sleuth may have a friendship or romantic interest in one of the other sleuths or some associate. Or there could be a rivalry with another sleuth or officer. The sleuth may dislike the client or victim, and not want to work on the client's behalf. Corrupt police may put pressure on a PI to abandon a case or accept a false solution. The sleuth may be corrupt, even secretly allied with the culprit.

There are many possibilities, the above are only a few that I recall from various novels, stories, and films of this type. Much depends on the type of mystery or crime fiction this is. Police procedurals (Joe Gores, Lillian O'Donnel), cozies (Agatha Christie), classic whodunits (Dorothy Sayers), noir fiction (The Maltese Falcon, the Thin Man*), caper stories (Richard Stark), series detective stories (Rex Stout, Perry Mason), all have their separate tropes and common situations, as do other types.

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