How to Tell if Your Protagonist Needs a Better Goal

How to Tell if Your Protagonist Needs a Better Goal

Did you know your protagonist isn’t as special as you think? Special means unusual or set apart. And amidst all the many awesome characters in your story, your protagonist may well be just one cool dude among many. So why is he the protagonist? Why not your gorgeous love interest? Why not your brainy sidekick? What one qualifier makes your protagonist the protagonist?

Your protagonist’s goal is what sets him apart. His story goal is what makes this story his. In practical terms, what this means is that your protag has something he wants and he’s going to move through the obstacles in every scene in an attempt to eventually reach that overall story goal. The only reason he engages in (and thus prolongs) the conflict is because he wants this pot of gold at the end of his rainbow. If he doesn’t want anything, then—at the very least—the conflict becomes yawningly impersonal.

We say no conflict=no story. But no goal=no conflict.

Here’s where it gets interesting. You may indeed have a story full of conflict—without even realizing your protagonist doesn’t have a goal.

And that’s not a good thing.

What that means is that some other character’s goal is driving the conflict. This other character becomes, in all practicality, your main character, while your ostensible protagonist is reduced to nothing more than an observatory role.

You may still get a rip-snorting story out of this setup. After all, you do have all the proper ingredients. But the incorrect focal point—your goal-less “protagonist”—will end up weakening your story. At best, he will simply detract from the optimal tightness of your story’s weave. At worst, you’ll end up mistakenly adding filler scenes that focus on your current protagonist’s non-goals instead of the true thrust of your plot, as powered by your story’s true goal-driven character.

Tell me your opinion: What goal is driving your story’s conflict? Does this goal belong to your protagonist?

How to Tell if Your Protagonist Needs a Better Goal

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland's monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.
Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. That was my problem with my last story. There was TONS of conflict, but my protagonist definitely didn’t have a goal, and I grew tired of writing her story. Disappointing, and I hope to get back to it, but I feel like I’m exhausted from writing circles, trying to make my characters do something.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s a certain amount of truth to the idea that we can’t “make” our characters do anything. If we don’t have important playing pieces – like the protagonist’s goal – set up from the start, the rest of the story won’t flow like it should.

  2. Christopher says:

    My protagonist and my antagonist both have goals, but the pro’s is built on the fact that EVERYTHING has been set into motion by the ant’s.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Often, the protagonist’s goal will be set in motion as a reaction to the antagonist’s.

  3. Amalia Zeichnerin says:

    The main characters in my story share a specific goal and team up to get it. But in the course of the story, their goal changes completely because of the later revealed antagonist’s goal.

  4. I thought, every character should have a goal. A character without a goal, except for the real minor parts, shouldn’t be in the story. Or am I wrong? Should the protagonists goal be more important, than the goal of other characters?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always handy to think of every character being the hero of his own story. So from that perspective, yes, every character needs to have his own agenda. But the protagonist’s goal is most important in the sense that the story is focused around it. It’s what drives the plot, especially when it comes into opposition with other characters’ goals.

  5. My protagonist’s goal is to protect the two people he cares about most. His conflict is they each want something different from him and he doesn’t think he can have both. Then toss in the brother who abandoned him, who is now back in his life, and he’s even more confused. There is no way at all for him to have all three of them in his life the way he wants.

    His love interest’s goal is to marry him and have a family with them, but to do that she has to give up living with the rest of her family (who she just got back after not seeing them for almost 15 years) and she’s not ready to do it. I write science fiction romance, and H&H live and have their core families on different planets.

    Of course he has to choose between them at the end, and both will be threatened over the course of the story, and leave him feeling helpless and lost.

    • The best stories are usually the result of characters having to make decisions in which either outcome is equally good or bad. When the decisions aren’t clear-cut, the story gets delightfully deep and twisty.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      I remember the discussion the other day with you…

      The Representative is also set in outer space – and concerns a family at its heart.

      • The book I referenced the other day was number one in the series, and this one is number four. The first one will be out September 12th.

        No matter what decision Taran makes, he’s going to lose someone he loves. And no matter what decision Ren makes, she’s going to lose someone she loves.

        • thomas h cullen says:

          That was lovely symmetry. (The Representative’s already out – self-published, on Lulu).

          Croyan’s decision’s already made:

          Everything he’s set to lose, doesn’t matter – what he has to gain’s too insurmountably magnificent.

  6. For a short post this is just so helpful, thank you…have been writing nonfiction for almost 15 years and making a transition to fiction…I think I have a good goal formulated for my protagonist but what I’m struggling with is what I think is a related matter: stakes. For example, in mysteries it seems the protagonist have an *inherent* goal that attends to the genre: solving a crime. But it’s his/her personal stakes that I struggle with – what happens to the protagonist if he *doesn’t* solve the crime? The story I’m working on is kind of an “Innocence Project” case but set in the 1870s…the stakes are obviously high for the wrongfully convicted man and I have a worthy goal for my protagonist (helping free the wrongfully convicted man) as well as some good antagonists, but I’m struggling with identifying the the personal stakes for the protagonist…I guess my question is: is the goal enough? Reading your “Structuring Your Novel” right now and really enjoying it! Thanks so much! Jim

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Many mysteries have relatively low stakes for their characters–especially in a series. The character takes the case, solves it (or not), and moves onto the next one. Usually, the stakes are professional, with perhaps some survival stakes thrown in the mix if the hunt for the antagonist gets too personal. But you can up the ante by giving the protagonist a personal subplot, in which his pride, self-worth, optimism, faith, family, or livelihood all hinge upon the outcome of the case.

    • Or, you could make sure to give your protagonist a weakness- which most mysteries don’t do. Truby talks about giving a protagonist both a psychological weakness (something they’re doing that is hurting themselves), and a moral need (i.e. something that they are doing that is hurting other people).

      Then, you tie the goal in by making it so that by solving their goal, the protagonist also solves their need.

      For a mystery, he suggests that the MC should actually find out that he is responsible in some way for the crime he is investigating. That could mean literally, as in Vertigo, or through their own moral need, as in Les Miserables, with Inspector Javert.

  7. Are you reading my mind, Katie? :-)

    I asked myself this same question last night. I realized her goal wasn’t linked to or a result of the conflicts in the story and even some of the scenes. YIKES! It explained my critique partner’s comments about the scenes of the story. Although well written, didn’t fit the character’s personal journey.

    I got so caught up writing the scenes I forgot the most important thing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Happens to the best of us! One of the toughest things about any story is keeping it focused.

  8. As always, great advice!! Saving this for future reference.

  9. I would say this is true, but I guess I’m wondering what you think about traveling angel stories? Because in those the main character isn’t the one driving the action – it’s really the traveling angel.

    I think that the only way it can work (in a novel at least – I imagine a movie would be different), is to give the protagonist and the antagonist a goal – and each one is dependent on the other.

    Silver Linings Playbook is an excellent example of this, I think. Pat wants to get letters to his wife, and Tiffany agrees to do it – if he’s willing to do the dance contest with her. Of course her real goal is to get him to love her, so I think a bit of subterfuge on the part of the antagonist (who is the traveling angel) is necessary.

    Me Before You is the same thing: she wants to convince him to not to kill himself, and he wants to show her a better world than than the one she’s trapped herself in. So here she does have strong desire line, even though he accomplishes his goal of making her more cultured and focused about her life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In these instances, the traveling angel often *is* the protagonist, in a technical sense, even if he doesn’t have a POV. But it’s still important for the other character to have a strong goal–as you’ve demonstrated in your examples.

  10. Okay, so this was pretty much perfection! A HUGE light bulb went off in my head as I read this, and it is still shining as bright as ever! How could I not think to give my protagonist(s) a goal?? I think subconsciously I have, but I have never really sat down and gave my protagonists personal goals! I am working on a novel right now that has been driving me absolutely bananas! My protagonist was just not strong enough. Now that I have read this post, I know exactly what I need to do!

    Thank you for this excellent entry!

    Amber

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Often, the problem is that we come up with scenes in which interesting things are happening to our protagonists, rather than scenes in which things are happening as a result of the protagonists’ actions. Just that one little shift in perspective can transform a story.

  11. thomas h cullen says:

    Croyan’s is the most impressive, and grand of goals.

    It’s also however one which is most ironic:

    His enemy’s the one who gives him the opportunity to achieve it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The antagonist always informs the goal. Sometimes the protagonist wouldn’t have come up with the goal *without* the antagonist’s pressure in his life. And sometimes the antagonist merely refines the goal through his opposition.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        The goal, Croyan wants to achieve isn’t because of Krenok; as a problem, in need of a solution, it exists anyway.

        It’s that by in Krenok permitting the choice of Croyan, he’s enabled him to inadvertently be the solution.

        The goal, Katie – it’s greatness is beyond expression.

  12. Whoa, bullseye! You diagnosed the problem with my story precisely. Time for an overhaul.

  13. In my current YA wip, my character is a track star from a small high school. His goal is to gain a scholarship to college. A car accident at the beginning starts his troubles. Then I realized I needed more, so I dropped in an antagonist who is also a top runner in the same school. As unlikely as it is for a small high school to have two of the fastest boys in the state, it had to be done. His goal will change after the midpoint, but I needed to keep the tension going with the track competition. This is the challenge I’m finding with YA. Goals are often trivial to the reader–get the girl, be popular, etc.–so we have to find a greater need that the protag doesn’t realize until later. This was well done in The Fault in Our Stars. The protag’s goal to meet her writer hero changed after actually meeting him (and finding out he was a drunken louse). She didn’t really have a goal after that, but her need was to embrace what little life she had remaining–her “little infinity.” That’s the kind of story I shoot for in a YA.

    • Characters’ external goals often change over the course of story – especially in change arcs. They discover that what they thought they waned couldn’t fulfill them or fix their problems after all. But the overall underlying goal (to be whole, to find peace, etc.) doesn’t change.

  14. When picking up a protagonist, sometimes I’m torn between one that has a bigger goal, and higher stakes that promising intense action, or the other that has a simpler goal but more personal which creates an interesting conflict ?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Why not both? You could feature both characters–or combine the stakes into one character.

  15. Hi!

    I just found your blog as I was trying to fix some things for my first script. In my story, I’ve set a goal that is pretty important for the two of my MCs, but to reach that goal, I need to set up some background first so the viewers would know them before having them encounter the ultimate goal that is the main plot of the story.

    I just am afraid to write “too much” introduction for the MCs, and not knowing how to integrate gradually the apparition of the antagonist (sorry if it sounds weird, English it’s not my first language), that will reveal the real goal.

    I don’t want the viewers to be bored, but I really do think that it’s important to develop my charas before presenting them the real danger. How much introduction is too much?

    In essence, writing a book it’s the same as writing a script, so I would love to hear your pov about this. Thanks a lot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Generally, a good rule of thumb is to structure the story as follows: First Act (first quarter of the story) is about setup. The inciting event (which sets the conflict in motion) should show up halfway through the First Act, with the key event (which draws the protagonist irrevocably into that conflict) being the First Plot Point at the end of the First Act. That gives you just the first 1/8 of the book to do straight character introductions (including their basic personal goals) before revving up to introduce the conflict.

      • Thank you so much!
        I’ve done my research, character creation and planning, but when I started writing, the texts just went another way around and the scenes are getting longer than I thought. However, now that I read this, it’s just a matter of planning again, not the whole thing, but having in mind how many episodes I want to have, and place the events accordingly!
        You’ve been a great help, count me in as an avid reader of your blog :D

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I often end up outlining not just my first drafts, but my rewrites as well. We have to give our creativity room to run wild on the page, but we also have to be able to corral it with logic.

  16. Great post! This is something I see quite often in writers’ work I’ve reviewed. I think the biggest trap is starting with the protagonist essentially having achieved his goal and the story is basically about the antagonist trying to take it away. This renders the protagonist reactive and less interesting. After all, MACBETH would be far less compelling if it simply started with Macbeth as king of Scotland.

    The other challenge is that many authors write stories where the protagonist is a substitute for themselves and is arguably only present in the story because they are telling it. It’s the first person trap, where the narrator has no arc but just happens to be along for the ride of a more interesting story,

    This, I think, is the greatest feat in GATSBY: Nick is not just a passive observer. He has his own story that is taking place alongside Gatsby’s. (the recent film removes the Jordan/ Nick romance which removes arguably Nick’s key decision).

    Thanks and glad I found this site.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      GREAT point about the pitfall of stories in which the protagonist has already gained his goal. Also, I haven’t yet seen the recent Gatsby, but that’s disappoint about the Jordan character.

  17. This was so helpful! Made me realize that my sci-fi story has NOT truly started yet.

  18. My protagonist has a negative goal, which is basically to avoid all her problems in life and be left alone. Obviously, the story comes out of her goal never being achieved and having to get involved in things. How should I work with a character who has a negative goal, specifically with her arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Turn into an active goal. What does she actively have to aim for in order to escape her problems?

      • Aah, that’s tricky. Usually her goal is to show everyone how cranky and prickly she is, so they avoid her and let her brood by herself. Sometimes she gets more active, such as sabotaging a ship so it can’t go on a dangerous trip. She lives on that ship to run away from her relationships back home. Her tactics vary, and almost always backfire, but I guess her overall goal is to keep her life as quiet and controlled as possible.

        The goal seems passive, but she uses extreme means to try and achieve it. Can that work, or does the goal itself need more oomph to it?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          All goals need to evolve over the course of the story, so what you’re describing here could definitely work in a segment of the story–as long as she’s progressing in her understanding of the the goal and her motivation and her techniques in trying to achieve it.

  19. I agree with all this in spirit, especially for books with lots of action, conflict, crime, suspense, adventure. However there are many great books where the main character is carried along by the action, getting bounced around without a goal. This can be very funny, suspensful and tense for the reader. But in the very end you are right, no matter how aimless the character he or she must ultimately take action even if it is in the last act or final chapter. I am thinking about THE HOBBIT, ONE FLEW OVER THE COOKOO’S NEST, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, CATCH 22.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good examples. What ultimately matters is that the character possess some kind of goal (whether it’s active or relatively inactive) that keeps him from being a truly passive character – however much he may seem to be controlled by outside events.

  20. Actually in my current WIP, my story started with a goal of my protagonist. To never be hungry again in life, nor does she wants to ever bother again with the prize tag of anything she want.
    This goal alone seems lousy, but with a backstory of alcoholic and abusive mother and extreme hunger in her life, her this kind of thinking gets justified.

  21. I have been having a lot of trouble putting down my story. I started working on one story and then a prequel pushed it’s way into center stage. I thought I knew all there was to know about the characters in the first story but I just couldn’t get it on paper. My protagonist is fighting me every step of the way, while the protagonist from the afterthought prequel practically wrote her own story. This post helped me realize why. My original protagonist doesn’t have a focused goal. My second knows exactly what she wants and is willing to lose everything to get it.
    Thank you so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Characters who know what they want are so much more fun to write – if only because they make it easier for us to know what kind of obstacles to put in front of them!

    • thomas h cullen says:

      That speaks of Croyan, Julie. The reason for The Representative’s intense functionality is the same – knowing exactly the protagonists raison d’etre.

Trackbacks

  1. […] — K.M. Weiland, quote from How to Tell if Your Protagonist Needs a Better Goal […]

Speak Your Mind

*