Okay, so our house has a plan, and it has people. Now what is its purpose? For some , the answer is obvious--to be lived in! But that wasn't quite enough for my husband and I. We wanted a home our one day grown children would want to come back to--to visit. We wanted them to feel welcome there. To have things to do (hence, we have a farm, a game room, a theater--all still in various levels of completion), and we wanted them to feel like there was room for them and their families (several bedrooms). Hence, our goal became: We wanted a gathering place.
Understandably, this is not everyone's "house" goal, nor should it be. But what is important is that we have a goal and we are working toward it. It's the same with the characters in our stories.
Every well-structured story must contain two MAIN goals, or "problems"; i.e., a "surface" problem and an "inner conflict." In simple terms, this means that your protagonist must have a goal she desperately wants to accomplish, and she must grow--emotionally or phsychologically--as she reaches for it.
Consider these examples:
In Disney's "Mulan," the protagonist, Mulan, seeks to save her father from going to war and later seeks to save her country (her surface problem). She also doesn't understand who she is, nor does she recognize her self-worth. This is her inner conflict.
If you know this story well, you can readily see how her struggle to complete her surface problem leads to the resolution of her inner conflict.
When the classic movie, "The African Queen," opens, the main character, Rosie, is religiously staunch, naive, and totally dependant on her preacher brother. This is her inner conflict--or where her "character" begins.
Inevitably, however, her brother dies, and she is thrust into the "care" of an uncouth ship captain. Together, they decide on the story's surface goal--to sink a german warship. This goal is not easy--which is the way we, the audience, want it--and as they work together, Rosie and the captain not only fall in love, but Rosie's character grows; she learns independance, acceptance, and how to love unconditionally.
In both these examples, the protagonist's inner conflict was "introduced," not "thoroughly discussed" prior to the surface goal. There is a reason for that. Inner conflict is directly related to the character, and these two stories are character driven stories. If you are writing a plot driven story, however, it might be appropriate to begin with the surface problem. In fact, that is how my short stories for the Friend usually begin, but I say that with caution, especially in relation to books, because, it is a story's character combined with his problem that "hooks" readers.
And that, after all, is the writer's initial goal. To hook readers.