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What Does Your Protagonist Want? (And Why Can’t He Have It?)

A protagonist without a clear goal has nothing to figure out and nowhere to go. Lisa Cron in Wired for Story

All protagonists need a goal—some force that drives them onward no matter what obstacles the story throws at them. And that goal is driven by some deep inner need—the why that motivates all they do to achieve their goal.

Since stories are not about the plot, but about how the plot affects the characters, it is really the why behind the goal that keeps us reading.

If we don’t know what the protagonist’s goal is, or why it matters to him, we can’t anticipate how the plot events affect him, or what he might do about them. Which means we will quickly stop caring, toss that book aside, and watch silly cat videos instead.

Two kinds of goals

First of all, a protagonist needs an external goal—something she wants to achieve by the end of the book. She might want a promotion, she may hope to find the guy of her dreams, or she might be determined to solve the crime and nail the bad guy.

But the external goal isn’t enough to make a great story. Our protagonist needs an internal goal, too—some deep-seated need she believes will be satisfied if she achieves her external goal.  In other words, the inner goal is the why that motivates the external goal.

Two kinds of obstacles

What keeps your protagonist from her external goal? Typically, the kind of  plot-driven obstacles that writers love to make up: Rivals, misinformation, invading warlords, sudden storms, bad luck, traitors, or the kid next door. What keeps the protagonist from her internal goal? Her very own self. Some hang-up, fear, or stubbornly held belief that is part of who she is.

And this is one of the keys of a great story: In order to achieve her external story goal, the protagonist must be forced to come face-to-face with that deep inner issue she would much rather avoid.

The climax of the story hinges on her willingness to face her inner issue. Only then can she have the revelation that will enable her to achieve the goal that will bring her what she really wants (which may or may not be what she thought she wanted this whole time).

If you know what your character wants, why she wants it, and what inner issue might keep her from achieving it, you are on the way to a great story.

Do you know what your protagonist really wants, and why she can't have it? #amwriting Click To Tweet

About Lisa Betz - Talking Character

Lisa Betz is a writer, playwright and director who lives in an empty nest perched on a wooded Pennsylvania hillside. She loves to bring characters to life, both on stage and on the page.

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