Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If you’ve been immersed in the writing life for some time now, you’ve probably heard that it’s important to determine what your characters want. As a species, though, humans seem to have a hard time figuring out what we want, much less what our fictional characters want. With that in mind, let’s borrow a concept from the world of theater – the ‘super objective’ – to see if we can dig deep and find our characters’ ultimate aims.
Finding a character’s super objective adds momentum, complexity, and authenticity to the character and to the world of your story. What is the underlying goal that drives all other decisions and frustrations? If you can answer that question, you’ll unlock the secret to richer and more believable writing.
What is a super objective?
Following the seminal work of actor/director/writer/teacher Konstantin Stanislavski, drama buffs shifted away from results-oriented acting (‘I want to look sad’) to motive-oriented acting (‘I want what the character wants, and if I feel that fully, it will show.’)
For the former, picture the wide-armed, face-painted melodrama of La Bohème or Carmen. Operas are a throw back to the time when exaggeration was necessary to convey subtle emotions across a huge audience without the benefits of screens and sound systems. Modern-day Broadway retains a bit of this tendency, because the theaters are enormous and people in the rafters want to know if Elphaba is happy or angry without having to pack binoculars.
Intimate theaters, though, and screen acting, have adopted Stanislavski’s motive-based acting techniques. Here, think of Anne Hathaway in Tom Hooper’s recent rendition of Les Miserables. With about eighteen inches between the camera and Hathaway’s face, ‘Fantine is sad right now’ isn’t going to cut it. The emotion has be subtle and raw, without a hint of fakery. At that distance, it has to come from internal motivation.
Internal motivation, in Stanislanski’s directing, is divided into a ‘scene objective’ and a ‘super objective.’ The former is pretty self-explanatory: what does that character want more than anything else in that scene? The latter becomes clear by comparison: what does the character want more than anything else throughout the play?
This distinction is important. A scene objective might be in service of or in conflict with a character’s super objective. A scene objective is temporary, powerful, and overt – that is, it’s fairly obvious. It might be something like: convince Mom and Dad to let me get my driver’s license. Or: kill the target without getting caught. Or: buy a cappuccino from the cute guy at the Italian café. These are short-term goals. They are powerful, meaning the character is likely to follow through (or attempt to follow through) on them, and they are self-evident. If a character walks into a café with a $10 bill and orders a cappuccino, it’s pretty obvious what they ‘want’ in that moment. If they make Bambi eyes at the guy behind the counter, that scene objective will also show through. But what they want in life? Not so obvious.
There is some flexibility here. A character’s scene goal might be very short (call 911!) or slightly longer (convince the jury my client is innocent.) It might be powerful (I need to get out of this burning house) or less so (I really want a carton of Haagen-Dazs, but maybe not badly enough to drive to the store…) It may be obvious (ordering the cappuccino) or a little subtler (crushing on the café guy.) The point is: by comparison, the super objectives are 1) long term, 2) variable in their degree of influence, and 3) subtler.
A character’s super objective is unlikely to change over the course of a story, and if it does, it’ll be a BIG deal (in Les Miserables, for example, Javert’s realization that his super objective is immoral drives him to suicide.) That’s not to say that the super objective exerts a completely consistent influence – characters will often question their overall goal, especially when pursuing it gets tough. Finally, the super objective can be incredibly subtle. Other characters may not see it, the audience may not know it for most of the story, and even the character may not be fully cognizant of what they want. In this sense, an author’s responsibility is to know the characters’ super objectives whether the characters know them or not.
Applying the super objective to your writing
The relationship between an author and a character parallels the relationship between an actor and a character. The actor’s job is to know the character so intimately that they can behave as that character rather than as themselves. The author’s job is to know the character so intimately that they can separate that character’s behavior from their own. Knowing the character includes knowing the character’s ‘scene’ and ‘super’ objectives – what they want on this page, in this scene, this chapter, this book, and even after this book is over.
Usually figuring out the scene objective is relatively easy. This is true in writing and in life: we know what we want now, we might not know what we want in the next twenty to sixty years. In a book, it’s easy enough to figure out character’s surface-level or temporary goals: get the bad guy, win the love interest, find the treasure. Beyond that, what do they want? Fame, success, early retirement? Freedom from addiction? Recovery from childhood trauma? A better environment? To alleviate world hunger?
This question is obviously crucial for a series, where what the character wants long term will carry over from one book to the next, but it’s vital for single installations as well. Imagine a character, Tom Thompson, whose scene objective in chapter one is to escape a hitman; in chapter two, he’s trying to get his abusive ex-wife to leave the house; chapter three, hitman returns, etc. These desires must tie into his super objective; in this case, the type of life he wants once the unusual events cease. If he wants fame and money and adrenaline, he will make very different choices than if he wants peace and solitude and his own espresso machine. In a pinch, an author could write about Tom Thompson’s escape from the hitman and messy divorce without knowing what good ol’ Tom wants after the last page, but the character will lack authenticity and the ending may feel a little cliché.
What if Pi Patel from Life of Pi had no super objective? What if surviving on the raft was all he wanted and his character had no depth or development beyond necessary backstory? His desire for harmony (super objective) with the world helps account for:
- helping Richard Parker get on the raft in the first place,
- his emotional response to what happens with Orange Juice,
- his interactions with Richard Parker,
- his mental and emotional survival mechanisms,
- the way he experiences nature even as it nearly kills him,
- the way he tells the story,
- his views on God, especially as they relate to his experiences.
Without these nuances, the book is a dry plot: first the wreck, then the raft, then he survives x and y and z, then he’s safe on land, the end. It would be bland and episodic instead of rich and riveting.
If it feels like your story or the people in it lack depth, ask yourself about your characters’ super objectives. What do they want from life and how do their wants inform their daily choices? To get a feel for this, read Life of Pi or another highly acclaimed book with this framework in mind. Can you tell what the characters want outside the scope of the plot? Can you see momentary manifestations of those long-term goals?
How to find the super objective
The best way to find a character’s super objective is to get to know your character inside and out. Create a character profile in which you flesh out likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, technological capabilities, career history, artistic interests, academic tendencies, friends, enemies, family, wealth, physical attributes, romantic involvements, ethical values, and so on. Try profiling your characters according to personality tests. Google lists of getting-to-know-you questions and answer them for your characters. Look at everything you know about a character and ask: what do you want in life?
If, with all the background and personality profiling you’ve done on your character, no answer presents itself, try answering the question in several different ways and see which is the most congruent with the other things you know about your character. If you’re still at a loss, maybe your character doesn’t know what they want. Use that to build depth into their choices. You might discover their super objective along the way, but allow them to remain lost for a while. Lack of clear purpose in life is one of the most powerful contributors to a person’s life decisions.
Keeping it real
To give a story and its characters life, the characters must have the same kinds of desires as real people, including momentary, superficial desires and long-term, in-depth desires that they wrestle with or try to fulfill in all their other life decisions.
Are you in touch with your characters’ super objectives? How did you get there? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. You can also check out Why Your Characters Need To Have A Goal and How To Give Your Hero Some Personality for more on this topic.