Questionable: Positive and Negative Goals

Robena asked:

I remember that you wrote about negative and positive goals some years ago, but I forget what you said. Can you explain why Courtney wanting to keep her job is a negative goal? I’m thinking it might be why my current protagonist story isn’t exciting me.

The push in your story comes from your protagonist going after her or his goal.

Okay, look at those verbs: “push,” “going after.” They’re active, they move forward, they exert pressure. That’s what a positive goal does: it gives the protagonist something to pursue, it makes her move forward (and with her, the plot), it sends her actively after something concrete.

A negative goal often pretends to be a positive goal, but the verbs give it away. Courtney wants to keep her job. The goal itself is specific and concrete, the job, but look at the verb: “keep.” Not “go after,” not “achieve,” but “keep,” stay in one place, don’t change, avoid action.

A positive goal forces the protagonist into action against the antagonist which moves the plot and leads to character change.

A negative goal forces the protagonist to stay in one place and prevents her from changing while the plot stalls around her.

A positive goal means the protagonist says, “I want that and I MUST HAVE IT!”

A negative goal means the protagonist says, “I’m not going to change, no, I won’t do that, no, I won’t do that, either, no, I’m definitely not going to do that. Leave me alone, I want everything to stay the same.”

For some perverse reason, I almost always begin with a negative goal. Courtney doesn’t want to lose her job. Zelda doesn’t want to stay at Rosemore. Liz doesn’t want to go home. Alice doesn’t want to sell the house. Zo doesn’t want anybody to notice her or her foster kids. It’s like a mental tic with me, they all say, “JUST LEAVE ME ALONE.” So that means I have had to learn to turn negative goals into positive goals which is just a pain in the ass, but that’s writing for you.


Negative: Courtney doesn’t want to lose her job.
Positive: Courtney wants to find the proof to unmask her duplicitous manager, Jordan, for the thieving, employee-framing douchebag he is.

Negative: Zelda doesn’t want to stay at Rosemore.
Positive: Zelda wants to find out who her father is because she has a blood disease.

Negative: Liz doesn’t want to go home.
Positive: Liz wants to clean up her mother’s life in twenty-four hours so she can drive to Chicago without guilt and make a lot of money.

Negative: Alice doesn’t want to sell the house.
Positive: Alice wants to exorcise the ghost of her Aunt May before the fake parapsychologist who wants to buy the place gets somebody killed.

Negative: Zo doesn’t want anybody to notice her or her foster kids.
Positive: Zo wants to establish her foster kids in a safe house, but the only one available to her is full of killer magic robots and is possessed by an AI with a split personality.

Whether you like the positive goals or not, they’re all a helluva lot more interesting because they’re about people wanting something specific that they’re going to have to struggle to get.

Negative goals kill story. Positive goals power story.

24 thoughts on “Questionable: Positive and Negative Goals

  1. I bet you start with the negative goal first because you need to know what it is the character is trying to keep/maintain in their life (stable thing) before you know how to push them out of that comfort zone into the situation that forces them forward into change. That makes sense in my brain.

    1. I think it’s because I’m protecting them. They’re My Girls, I love them, I just want to keep them safe, which of course is the exact opposite of what I need to do to make a story.

  2. Excuse me. “Zo doesn’t want anybody to notice her or her foster kids.” ???

    Have I been off in LaLaLand again and you talked about a story that I did not see OR
    have you been consorting with a story that you haven’t told us about?

    1. You know, I don’t know. This is the fantasy alternate world/Fairy Tale Lies stuff.
      I have no idea what I’ve told you about actually. Mind like a sieve here.
      Oh, wait it’s part of the series of the stories that has The Frog Principle in it. Remember the one about Petal kissing the guy who turned into a frog? That’s the third story/chapter in the book. Zo’s the main character.
      Although now that you mention it, there’s Petal who doesn’t want to be arrested for turning Colin into a frog and who doesn’t want her secret identity uncovered. It’s like a curse.

  3. I do this every single time and I think it’s for the same reason (wanting to protect my main character). It drives me nuts, though, and no matter how aware of it I (think) I am, I *still* do it. The only thing that stops me from gnawing my own arm off in sheer frustration is that I remind myself that my writing heroine (AKA you!) does it, too. So, *thank you* for that.

  4. For me, the examples in the post read like menu items in a buffet.

    I’ll take this one first, please:

    “Alice wants to exorcise the ghost of her Aunt May before the fake parapsychologist who wants to buy the place gets somebody killed.”

    Followed by this:

    “Courtney wants to find the proof to unmask her duplicitous manager, Jordan, for the thieving, employee-framing douchebag he is.”

    The others look good too, but a gal can only order so much in one sitting;)

  5. Ah, so a negative goal is wanting to not do something. Hah! Trying not to get fired, rather than working at getting a promotion. This post makes it all so clear. Thank you so much.

    I spent much of last night going back over my goals for the heroine, which are positive but not really exciting, plus her motivation needs to be stronger. So, not done yet. Are we ever?

    Maybe my protagonist’s main goal is often passive because I’m passive, and a female writing about a female and I let too much of me seep in. Someone told me once that I had too much of the water element, which douses the fire. I need more fire. I’m going to look through my feng shui book, add some spices to my diet, and what else? Wear red? Stop repressing anger? Look out world!

    Thanks a million for your advice/teaching, Jenny. I appreciate you so much.

    1. “Trying not to get fired, rather than working at getting a promotion.”

      Or in my RL case, it should be rewritten to “trying to be as perfect as possible at her job…so as to not get fired.”

      This is a very helpful piece for a negative nellie like myself who can’t come up with a “this is what I WANT” sort of goal.

      I need more fire too, though my art projects haven’t brought much on of late. I am working on the District 12 sweater from Catching Fire in fire colors, though….

  6. Not to get too meta, but I think creating “negative” (stagnant) goals for women, by women, is systemic of how so many of us were raised. There’s a funny line spoken by Julia Roberts in SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT where she says that (and dammit, I can’t find the exact quote)… “Southern women are bred to have a very low bar of expectations.”

    I think so much has been drilled into us about nurturing/maintaining/throwing ourselves on the cookie grenade (stolen from Jenny from re/frab)[i.e., sacrificing for and pleasing others], that we don’t often think in positive goals. The “I want” seems pushy, selfish, and definitely risky. Be too aggressive toward a goal, and you’re not labeled “goal oriented” — you’re labeled pushy or bitchy or bossy or all of the above.

    It took me so many drafts of the current book before I finally realized that Avery had a negative goal (hide from something painful), and it was probably the most difficult transition I’ve had to make writing to figure out what she wanted, what her positive goal was, and what she’d sacrifice to get to it.

    1. I think you’re right. We want people to love our heroines so we start off by making them good girls. But good girls have lousy stories, they need to get over the good-girl thing and be amazing women.

      I remember long ago–the nineties–being on a romance board where some authors were chastising another author (actually might have been me, I can’t remember) for criticizing her publisher, saying that she wasn’t a lady. I said, “If I have to choose between being a lady and being a bitch, I’m going for bitch because ladies get walked over.” Boy howdy did I catch hell for that. I know that was twenty years ago, but I think that’s still lurking under the surface for a lot of us who’ve been around for awhile, especially baby boomers. My mother spent most of my childhood telling me to sit down, be quiet, not walk so heavy, not call attention to myself. (And thank god for that because look how I turned out even with all that repression. If she’d told me I was special snowflake and to express myself, I’d be unbearable now.) I wonder sometimes if all that messaging hasn’t gotten into my fiction subliminally.

      The thing is, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that a protagonist who actively goes after something is more interesting than a protagonist who just stays in one place and resists change. So why do I ALWAYS do it? Every damn time.

      1. I tend to read it as ‘Ah, THERE’S the corner she needs to be pushed out of.’ Starting with the negative goal brings me in for the ride on the protagonist’s discovery of what her active goal needs to be. I like to be in on that.

    2. It’s strange, I like “Something to Talk About” kind of more as a script than as a movie. I found it in a library with “Thelma & Louise” — I hadn’t even known that they were written by the same person.

      GRACE is heading to the table with two huge classes of milk. In front of JAMIE is an entire pecan pie, which he and GRACE are sharing. GRACE is relaxed and happy and smiling.

      JAMIE: I’ll say one thing, you Southern women sure are easy to please.

      GRACE (laughing): I guess that’s what comes of centuries of being bred to keep your expectations low.

      GRACE stops laughing.

  7. Oh, the self-psychoanalysis involved! My characters always start with negative goals…probably because my response to a dire situation is to withdraw from it. Time to pull up the big girl pants and take charge. ‘Charge’ can happen other places than the mall, right? So thank you, Jenny, for the list of how to make negative goals into positive ones…that’s going to get posted over the monitor where I can see it hourly.

  8. So I don’t write (I hate putting what I love in peril so my stories would start at the HEA and stay there). I do however read and think. I’ve been reading The Search by Nora Roberts and thinking about what you have been saying about conflict and starting the book where the story starts and all that stuff. Now I’m trying to figure out the goal. Can a character start a story with a negative goal and have it turn into a positive goal by the things that change in the course of the book?

    1. I don’t write either. So take this with a grain of salt.

      But wouldn’t that be character growth and the arcing?

      1. Yes, it would be character growth, but character growth isn’t story. It’s caused by story and it affect story, but story is protagonist vs. antagonist in conflict.

    2. A good storyteller can do anything, and Nora’s a terrific storyteller.
      The problem with starting with a negative goal is that your protagonist has to be absolutely fascinating to make saying, “No,” over and over again interesting. Negativity just isn’t much fun.
      The other problem is that your protagonist’s pursuit of a goal is the through line of your book, it’s the thing the reader is rooting for all the way through. So if it changes, you’re throwing her out of the story.

  9. Most people prefer the familiar to the unknown, so it makes sense that a character starts with a negative goal of wanting things to stay the same. We don’t want change unless we’re uncomfortable where we are. Didn’t you say story starts where something happens that forces the character out of a place of stability? Then the goal changes from stay the same to achieve something (so she can go back to being comfortable). It makes sense to me.

    1. A story starts when the protagonist’s stable life is disrupted or destroyed, and she has to do something about it. So basically, a negative goal is the protagonist looking at something awful and saying, “I’m not going to do anything about that and hope it goes away.” A character who wants things to stay the same is either in denial about her situation, or her story hasn’t started yet.

  10. Negative goals frequently crop up in query letters. It’s PARTICULARLY common in romance queries: “The protagonist wants to not fall in love, and then she meets the guy, and she falls in love.” (I do a lot of query critiques, so I’ve seen all the variations on this theme.)

    Except it really doesn’t work, because if she truly wants to not fall in love, and that’s her story goal, then there are really simple ways she can accomplish it, like by locking herself in a nunnery or a dungeon or just continuing to push the guy away. It’s just not a credible goal. (Of course, neither is the positive version, “to fall in love,” or “to be loved,” because it’s not something a person can control. For a positive goal to work as a story goal, it has to be something that the protagonist CAN make happen if she works hard enough at it. She can’t force herself to fall in love or force someone else to love her back, but she might be able to deal with her baggage so that she’s capable of loving and being loved. Or something like that. But I’ve seen too many romance queries that start with “the protagonist wants to be loved,” which isn’t as common as the negative goal, but it also doesn’t work, because it’s passive, not really something she can work toward or has any control over.)

    I wonder if the positive/negative goal impulse is somewhat gender-related, and male authors are more likely to start with a positive goal, for all of the conditioning reasons that have been mentioned in the comments already.

  11. Great post! I love my heroes too and don’t want them to suffer, so negative goals all around. But… for them to maintain the status quo, first they have to get that magic lamp to a jinn, and then that enchanted mare to a prince, and then defeat the evil sorceress, and only after they achieve all those goals can they return to their peaceful life in a village. That’s the formula as I see it, and I guess many others see it that way.

    1. Most stories move from stability to stability, so in a way, all protagonists are pursuing a stable life. The key is “pursuing,” not “staying in on place and hoping nothing will change.”


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