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.