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

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I am really struggling with my protagonist, and I was wondering if you could help me. I have a complicated triangle: the protagonist, the antagonist, and an important side character. The antagonist is really great, the side character is really great, but I can’t settle on anything for the main character. Her back story jumps all over the place, and I still don’t know what she wants. I’ve thought about trying to eliminate her and use someone else as the main character, but I realized that she is really important: she bridges the gap and creates a complicated character-quality triangle that the other two flushed out characters don’t share, so that they all overlap in some way. Any suggestions? I am really struggling with motive and backstory.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes it’s best to work backwards. If you know where you want your story–and thus your characters–to end up, you can figure out where and who they need to be in the beginning. See if you can figure out where you want your protagonist to be at the end of her character arc. What will she have gained that will have transformed her? This will be the Thing She Needs. What limiting belief will she have overcome? This will be the Lie She Believes. And what she have ended up gaining? This will likely be the Thing She Wants.

  2. Hi. I have read your books and they have been so helpful so first I wanted to thank you for this. I am a little confused about story goal as I understand that this should be made clear in the first chapter. My MC wants safety and security but starts the story trying to achieve this by running away from something that happened in her past (what she wants). She then realises later in the story that what she needs is to find out what happened in her past as this is the only way she can move on and get closure. Can her story goal change and if so, how do I set a story goal in the beginning? Also, can the key event that takes the MC back to her childhood home be because her mother died and she must go back home for the funeral etc? She doesn’t want to as her childhood home has bad memories etc. Her going home is therefore not a decision she makes actively but rather she is forced to. Is this okay? Its only by her going home that she discovers things about her past. Sorry for the long message.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Often, the character’s main story goal will not become explicit until the Key Event/First Plot Point at the end of the First Act. This is where the main conflict gels. However, the character’s underlying Want must be clear right from the start. Even if the main goal isn’t yet in sight in the first chapter, readers need to understand the motivation that will drive the character to need to achieve that goal later on.

  3. I am writing a love story about a girl with depression and a boy that had depression. The boys goal is to make the girl happy. In the start the girls goal is to commit suicide and then it’s nothing. I can’t find a new goal for her!

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