Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Explanation (All protagonists have a goal), part of Writing: The Craft of Story.
Everyone has an agenda, you, me, and every protagonist worth their salt. That's because we're wired to be goal-driven, the better to achieve our primary objective, physical, and social survival. As far as our brain is concerned, without a goal everything is meaningless. That's why in a story, the reader immediately needs to know what the protagonist's agenda is, since that's what gives meaning to every single thing that happens. So the first question you need to ask is: what does my protagonist want? Surprisingly, this is something that writers often miss.
So I want to say it strongly, every story begins with a protagonist who wants something very, very badly, even if what they want is to stay exactly the same, like Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit. Remember what we said about the readers slipping into the protagonist's skin and feeling what the protagonist feels. Well, those feelings all stem from the protagonist's driving desire and what he has to overcome to achieve his goal. We then gauge everything based on whether it brings him closer to his goal or puts him further away.
Without a goal, there is no yardstick by which to measure your pilgrim's progress and no context to give it meaning. But there is a bit more to it than that. Because the protagonist actually has two goals: one is external, and the other is internal. What does he want? That's the external goal. Why does he want it? That's the internal goal. The external goal is the actual plot level thing he wants, a million dollars or the love of a beautiful woman or not to change an iota.
Protagonists tend to believe that by getting their external goal, their internal goal will be met, the money will make you feel like a success, her love will make him feel worthy, and not changing an iota will make him feel safe. Often the protagonist's internal goal is a secret, sometimes from everyone else in the story, sometimes even from himself, but never from the reader, because it's the protagonist's internal goal that gives meaning to what he does. The reader must be aware of it.
Once you have a solid understanding of what your protagonist wants, what it means to him, and what long-standing fear he has to overcome to have a shot of success, your story has a shot of giving readers what they come for.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots