Selecting the Character’s Objective

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This article focuses on another dramatic choice, namely, what the character wants. What is the conscious intent of the character? This element is commonly called the objective or intention. It is also called the inner action or subtext. Motivation and goal are other labels sometimes used for the objective.

The selection process for the objective or intention is a critical part of the story telling process. Why? Because the essence and purpose of the entire story is carried forward by, what each character wants. While one character pursues a given goal, their objective faces counter thrusts by other characters or forces within the story, and thus creates conflict. Without this conflict, there would be little dramatic structure to the story to engage and entertain the audience.

Selecting the wrong intention or not conveying the intention to the audience can distort an entire scene and possibly the whole play. It can leave the scene with little or no conflict and thus no purpose. On the other hand, an inspired and well-developed intention can illuminate a scene to fantastic heights making it forever memorable in the mind of the audience.

How do you select the objective of the character? Where do you find the clues about what it might be? Look first to the script for it might be openly expressed in the dialogue. It might also be hid in the stage directions. It could also be concluded from information revealed later in the story. Another clue may lie in the wants of opposing characters.

One of the pitfalls in selecting an objective is to follow blindly the intentions indicated by the dialogue or stage directions. They are not always correct. The intention can be a contradiction to the character’s dialogue and action. In life, people do not always reveal their true intentions and the result can be quite dramatic. Delaying such a revelation can make the story structurally stronger, especially when it deals in fraud or deception.

There are many other factors to consider in selecting the objective such as, who are you in the story, your relationship with other characters, and the non-character obstacles you face. Are you the protagonist, the one we root for, or the antagonist, the one creating the obstacles? Or are you a minor character with an incidental function in the story?

The type of actor you are also has a bearing on which objective is best. For instance, Clint Eastwood would probably select a different objective than would Brad Pitt were Brad Pitt playing the same role. Likewise, the type of play you are doing is also a consideration. A scene played as a comedy versus one played as a drama might result in a different set of objectives for the characters.

Once you have read the entire script and have determined how your scene fits into the over all story, you should have a set of possibilities. Which one is the best? Which one will make the scene come alive? Some actors select an objective that is comfortable for them to portray. Instead, the choice should be one that supports the relationships, the scene, and the story.

To make strong dramatic choices, one needs to follow some analytical guidelines. First ask yourself, whose objective is it you are seeking? From whose viewpoint? Certainly, it is not the director’s. Not yours, the actor. The objective is selected from the viewpoint of the character you are playing. What the character thinks he or she wants at that given moment in the play.

Next, the objective should be formulated in active terms such as: To obtain…to have… to do… It should be short simple phases in the character’s own language and worded in such a way that the character wants to do something specific. Moreover, behind each intention, each objective, there a reason or motivation that moves the character toward action.

Look first to intentions with selfish motives. In credible drama, as in life, you won’t find noble motives. When it comes down to the decisive moment, we are all looking out for number one, ourselves. So make your characters real by seeking selfish wants.

At this point, let’s look at some objectives and evaluate them. Before looking ahead, attempt to identify the most common faults.


1. To introduce Howard to Ellen so Howard won’t be around so much and then Amy and I can get together at the apartment I share with Howard.

2. To get my mother into the hospital for an emergency operation

3. To make my character reveal his true intentions

4. To make the audience laugh at this character

5. To indicate the struggle of my character

Compare your analysis of the objective with the faults identified below:

1. To long, not specific, to many objectives, not actable. Better objective: To get Howard out.

2. Weak objective, not specific, not selfish. Better objective: To save my mother.

3. Made from actor’s viewpoint, not in the character’s own words. Better objective: To tell the truth.

4. From the playwright or director’s viewpoint, not in the character’s own words. Plays a result and not character’s wants. Better objective: To get some respect.

5. From the actor’s viewpoint, not in the character’s own words, not selfish, and lacks motivation from character. Better objective: To get out alive.

Once you have chosen the character’s objective, check that the scene or even the play provides enough dramatic resistance. This resistance may be the counter intention of another character. It may also be internal hurdles such as self-doubts, beliefs, commitments, or phobias. Other obstacles such as the nature’s elements, time restrictions, or physical barriers may have a bearing on how the objective is selected.

Usually, in a two-character scene, the other character provides the opposition. The following example demonstrates how dramatic conflict is obtained through opposing intentions and emotions. Note how certain choices support the dramatic equation, risk vs. consequences, and propel the story to its greatest potential.

An armed psychopathic killer escapes, hitches a ride and attempts to persuade the women driver of his innocence. To pass through the roadblocks, he needs her help. Which pair of intentions would result in the most dramatic scene?

Intention/Emotion Pairings

1. Him: To escape/Fear

1. Her: To help him escape/Anticipation

2. Him: To convince her/Determination

2. Her: To find the truth/Determination

3. Him: To keep from killing her/Rage

3. Her: To save myself/Terror

In the first pairings, the intentions converge on a common objective, and the main obstacle becomes the roadblocks and the police. The protagonist/antagonist boundaries become murky and we are not sure for whom to root.

The second pairings has the intentions in conflict, but the stakes are not high enough to pull in the audience.

In the third pairings, the stakes are much higher for the intentions ignite a kill or be killed, do or die crisis. The killer must hold back his rage having to depend on the woman to get him through the roadblocks. The woman driver, however, is not convinced of his story and therefore, knows he will likely kill again. She must act to save her own life.


The next consideration is how long do you stay with one objective? Do you keep the same objective throughout the scene or does a scene contain a number of objectives? Here again, some general guidelines should be followed.

As a rule, select one dominant objective for the scene. Stay with that objective until you succeed or fail, or until something comes to change it. Let’s use the above example to illustrate this process.

Suppose at the roadblock, the police officer asks the woman to unlatch the trunk so he can check inside. She about to flick the remote switch opening the trunk when instead she hands him the ignition keys. Something has changed and calls for a new set of objectives. Now her objective has changed from being passive to taking action. It might be to signal the police officer in some way and her emotion might change to determination. Your choices may be different in this scene, yet the principles remain the same. Select one dominant objective for the scene. Stay with that objective until your character succeeds or fails, or until something comes to change it. You would then select another objective, one befitting the situation and your character’s role in the story.

To aid in the selection process, I’ve compiled a list of intentions from various workshop scenes. This list provides examples and the proper format for stating the intention. They are listed according to worthiness.

The next article addresses how the actor implements these choices.

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