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I've been working on a story for close to two years, and have (almost) everything fleshed out — the world, the background, the characters and most scenes. I recently gave it to a friend to read, who loved everything but pointed out that my main character lacks an ultimate goal.

I'm struggling to find it, but I want to avoid a Nick Carraway-esque passive bystander narrating the story, since the character's PoV forms and defines how we see the world.

Their abstract goal is to find a place in a politically and socially changing world, but this is not it. Everybody wants this in one way or another.

I tried the suggestions in How can I figure out my main character's overall goal?. I know how she will act, depending on the situation. She has her flaws, and will iteratively overcome them, while paying some price for it. I put her in difficult situations. But she severely lacks motivation or goals. As a young adult, if asked what her future occupation would be, she would probably put down undecided. As an adult, her initial pursuits are decided by chance and absence of better options. She will slowly gain control over her life — but there is always this lack of why she does it, and why she is more than the sum of the people and events around her.

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    You say you know how she will acts in a given situation. So, do you know why she acts that way in those situations? Maybe those small motivation could be built up to something larger.
    – towr
    Feb 3 at 18:21
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    Marginalized people tend to have shorter-term goals, like food, shelter, getting ahead of the next guy, not being last, not being targeted… It is perfectly understandable if her long-term desires have been supresssed because they seem unrealistic. Should she ever get in sight of those goals, she may have conditioned herself to not get her hopes up, or more shrewdly not to signal her desire to anyone else who might compete for it or control it.
    – wetcircuit
    Feb 3 at 20:28
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    Real life people rarely have the "ultimate goal" - normally it's a collection of multiple goals, big and small. Quite often this ultimate goal is more like a dream (i.e. there is no realistic plan of achieving it). Of course there are people driven by their goals, and books are often about such people - but this is not your character's case, right?
    – Alexander
    Feb 4 at 4:54

4 Answers 4

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What is at stake?

Fundamentally, conflict is about potential loss. The character must act, or they'll lose their life, or their job, or their chance at a romantic relationship. Or maybe the conflict threatens the social status of their sister, or the livelihood of their favorite restaurant.

It doesn't matter what the loss is, as long as it's personal. All Summer in A Day is about the protagonist losing the a opportunity to see sunlight. The Blues Brothers is focused around the threat of their childhood orphanage being sold. Not particularly high stakes, but extremely personal ones.

What does your character stand to lose if they don't find their place in the world? Will their sibling cut contact if they can't find a date? Do they want an expensive surgery that they need a job to afford? Do they need to take care of their pet shrimp? What matters to them?

Nick Calloway can exist as a character the way he is because the author separated the roles of protagonist (the one who drives the plot) and main character (the one who provides the audience lens) into separate characters. If you don’t want your main character to feel like Nick does, you should make sure that you are keeping both roles in the same character.

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    It can also be a constantly changing stake per se with the ultimate theme of: the little semi-secure spot in the world they have is threatened. First their friendgroup is ditching them, then the rent for their flat is terminated etc. a bunch of smaller episodes if you will. [This has the potential to become convoluted and not-focused toug]
    – Hobbamok
    Feb 4 at 12:30
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The frame challenge is that ultimate goals are unnecessary.

They are the by-product of a society that sees people as means to achieve something. A society that values people for the sole fact that they exist, utopian if anything, would not ask for an ultimate goal.

What is the issue then?

The basic issue seems rather to be rather that the character has no growth, no epiphany, no satisfying a-ha moment.

If a reader expects an ultimate goal from a character it is most often because the world around the character seems to require one. The issue is that in your world your character is not penalized for not having a goal.

You describe her character as reactive to external cues, pigeon-holing along the path of least resistance, waiting until something presents itself, ready to be effortlessly taken.

This is fine. It is a lazy version of Forrest Gump. But there must be consequences. Missed opportunities, lagging behind. However, there must be a moment in which the character realizes that she does not want to commit, or that she just wants to go with the flow. Such a moment would be satisfying to the reader, and would make them accept that despite the character having no ultimate goal, that is exactly who they are and who they want to be, with kudos for the epiphany.

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Seems like she needs a personality. Relationships. Somebody she loves (platonically or romantically), somebody she hates.

People are motivated to do things by emotions. She wants to escape the poverty of her past. She wants to reject the wealth of her parents. She wants to avenge the death of her brother. She wants revenge against whoever raped her. She wants to save her people; or she wants equal rights for her kind.

There doesn't have to be a specific goal, just a desire she keeps pursuing. She wants to be safe, and by the end of the story, she realizes she is safe. She wants to be rich, and by the end of the story, maybe she is rich, or maybe she has found love and really doesn't care about being rich. Maybe she is working for a cause, but comes to figure out the leaders she admires are corrupt asshats, so she takes them down.

Maybe she just wants excitement in her life, so that is what she is seeking, until she (for whatever reason) decides she is no longer seeking excitement, she has found something better to do.

She needs some strong emotions to push her in some direction; so she will not be satisfied until her emotional need is met.

You may have subconsciously done this already. Figure out why she chooses to do what she does, and why she chooses NOT to do what she does not.

If you think she is the sum of the people and events around her -- Maybe she is! This is how she gets the love, acceptance, and camaraderie she craves. Maybe her overarching goal has been to serve her friends, to be there for them. She can't say no! Then her final realization is either consciously embracing that, or rejecting that -- She finds love, acceptance and camaraderie another way. She joins the military. She falls in love.

Or, the group matures and starts to pair off and break up. Her "family" leaves her behind, and she needs to find a new one.

Good luck.

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Their abstract goal is to find a place in a politically and socially changing world...

...she severely lacks motivation or goals

These two statements tell me that what she actually wants is to maintain her current situation/status quo.

If the world is changing politically and socially, and she lacks motivation or goals, it is because she either feels comfortable with how the world currently is, or doesn't find anything appealing on how the world is turning out to be. So, her struggle is against change.

In other words, maybe what your character is lacking is not an "ultimate goal", but a reason to not have one; a reason to stay where she is and to reject what the world (apparently) wants from her. It can be something personal as mentioned in another answer, but her journey will eventually end in her either accepting this new world, or finding a middle ground where she stills feel comfortable while adapting to the changes around her.

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