“There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.”
George Bernard Shaw was right when he penned these words. Both outcomes share a common denominator: each comes with a cost. That’s why objective plays such an integral role in developing conflict in fiction. The objective, as defined by James Scott Bell in Conflict and Suspense, is the lead’s desire “to get something or to get away from something.” Whichever form it takes, the objective will be the main character’s ultimate goal, and anything less feels like failure to the character and to the reader. Once we identify a lead worth following and invest ourselves in his welfare, we want to see him obtain his heart’s desire. Think about it. Audiences cheer when Rocky gets into the ring; they exult when Frodo makes it to Mordor and Sauron is defeated; they even lean back in their seats with a contented smile when Jack Sparrow is reunited with the Black Pearl. These characters achieved their goals, and that makes us happy.
Still, that’s not enough to keep us watching. The purpose of conflict is to add difficulty to the pursuit. Few good things in life come easily. Having to fight for a dream only increases its worth, and losing it altogether can devastate. Watching this struggle come to life on page or screen gives us a stake in the outcome. We understand the need to fulfill the desire and experience the grief when that need goes unmet. In fiction, failing to obtain the objective must always result in death. It doesn’t have to be a physical death. It can be emotional or spiritual or professional, but, regardless of its form, the death must be real.
Let’s use our lead from last week as an example. George Bailey’s objective is made clear early in the movie. He wants to get away from Bedford Falls and travel the world, but the opportunities keep slipping through his fingers. He postpones college to take over the building and loan after his father has a stroke. George later encourages his brother Harry to accept a high-paying position in the city that will keep Harry close to his wife’s family. And when Mr. Potter offers him a job with salary, benefits, and travel, George turns it down because he knows Potter will do more harm than good to the community.
Though George didn’t have to do any of those things, we admire him for putting others before himself. Even so, we ache for him because we understand that his objective is moving further and further out of his reach. When his Uncle Billy loses $8,000 of the building and loan’s money, George loses all hope. We sit, helpless, as he walks through the valley of the shadow of death—the psychological death of his aspirations for himself and his town, the professional death of his father’s company, and the physical death he believes is now more appealing than his ruined life.
We don’t just grieve for this man, we grieve with him because we’ve become part of the story. The outcome is now critical, and we hang on to the very end, hoping for the best. Death of any kind commands attention, and that’s why creating an objective with death overhanging keeps readers and viewers coming back for more.
What are some of the objectives of your favorite characters? What kind of death do they experience? Share them with me in the comments section, and check in next week to see what this process looks like with a negative lead instead of a positive one.