Posted by: Jess | January 21, 2009

Unattainable Goals

Character goals are awesome. I really think that all good characters should have some kind of goal to aim towards – whether that’s a tangible objective like ‘invent a ____’ or ‘get to ____’, or a more roleplay-centric objective like ‘get married’, ‘grow up’, or something similar. After all, the majority of people have goals, even if they don’t strictly think of them in these terms.

Let’s be honest, though – some of the things we have our heart set on are unattainable. When it comes to our characters, this is less often the case – after all, it’s usually not as fun for us if they’re in a constant state of angst over not being able to get what they want out of life.

And yet, consider it this way: most citizens of Azeroth are going to be living shattered lives right now. They’ve all suffered through a lot, and lost things of importance to them – family members, their home, their culture, all kinds of things. Many of them are going to have goals or things they were aiming towards prior to these events which are now in tatters. Some of them will recognise that these are now impossible and move on, while others will hold on to the unattainable dream, in the hopes that it might still be available.

This all comes down to one major point, however. How do you keep the pursuit of an unattainable goal interesting?

If a goal is completely unattainable, is there really any more to the plotline than a stream of failure? In other words, doesn’t it all come down to angst and repetitive plotlines? How can that be interesting?

I posit that it can be very interesting, if you pursue it correctly. For a start, the most important thing (I would think) is that you keep the play relatively subtle. If it is a constant, overpowering factor in the character that is never resolved, it may get a little overbearing, and become increasingly less interesting. More interesting is the underlying factor that comes up occasionally when relevant, but is not constantly being referenced.

The other key problem when it comes to keeping an unattainable goal is stasis. It’s easy to fall into a period where nothing is changing, when the goal is essentially unattainable – after all, the driving force of all this is the knowledge that it’s never really going to change. However, it needs to change a little in order to keep the plot fresh and interesting – and change relating to a goal doesn’t have to happen as a result of actually achieving it.

Let’s take the example of my Forsaken mage, who really wanted to get married and have that kind of a relationship with someone, before she became Forsaken. It’s not impossible for her to achieve that, but I put the odds on that happening around equivalent with the odds of the plot of Day of the Triffids actually coming true within the next twenty years: in other words, it’s an unattainable goal for all intents and purposes.

As far as I can see, there are two main ways that you can keep an underlying plot like this changing. The first would be to change the character’s perceptions of the goal, over time; in the example, this would be the character giving up on the idea of marriage, or channeling this towards something else in her life, or learning to be comfortable with what she has. This can work with a variety of unattainable goal plots.

The other is to keep it moving in an unexpected direction. Sean calls the way I did this, “An act of pure bastardry.”

I disagree. All she did was throw away the first gift she received from only person from beyond the grave who ever loved her, so she could steal another woman’s wedding ring.

In her defense, the other woman was even deader than Forsaken.

But you see the point; progressing the plot of the unattainable goal need not actually involve achieving the goal. A person whose unattainable goal is to have children may adopt, or found a charity for needy children, or kidnap a child from someone else and care for it in secret; a person whose goal is to exact revenge for some wrong committed against them in the past may exact small acts of revenge on people who remind them of the original wrong-doer.

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