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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Writing Protagonists Without Strong Wants or Goals

Often in the writing world, we are told to make sure our protagonists have strong wants. After all, the protagonist's want usually leads to a goal, and goals allow audiences to measure progress or setbacks in a story (which also helps with pacing). The protagonist's pursuit of the goal often makes up most of the plot. 

For change-arc protagonists, often what they want will be at odds with what they need. For most flat-arc protagonists, they often want the need, though sometimes they have to deal with a competing want or even lose sight of the need. (For more information on wants and needs, check out "Character's Want vs. Need") But if you aren't familiar with the want vs. need approach, no worries. Suffice it to say that the protagonist's want is almost always a key component of character arc, plot, and even theme.

So, must every protagonist absolutely have a powerful want driving them through the plot? Of course not. All "rules" are really more like guidelines. It's just that if you break that rule, it will likely come at a steep cost, since it influences so many parts.

Because of the nature of story itself, it's nearly impossible to have a protagonist who doesn't want something significant by the end. Pretty much always the protagonist will have a want by the end of Act I. If not then, she will at least have a want or goal by the midpoint, at the latest--but that's often pushing it. Rarely do protagonists make it through a whole story without having a clear significant want, though I won't go so far as to say it's impossible. And in some types of stories, you may be dealing with one significant want per section of the story.

Let's talk about some situations where the protagonist doesn't start with a driving want, goal, or hobby. 

The Protagonist Already Has What He Wants

While in many stories the protagonist will start with a burning desire, in others, the protagonist already has everything he wants--or at least, is already on track for soon getting what he wants. There are a couple of ways this can play out.

1. His Lifestyle is Threatened

If the protagonist already has what he wants, one of the easiest ways to get the story rolling is to threaten what he already has. The threat may come as the inciting incident. In Shrek, Shrek already enjoys his life of solitude in the swamp, scaring off humans and bathing in mud. The inciting incident appears as a problem that threatens this: Other fairytale creatures are invading his home. For him, this stake is too high, and he must do something about it.

Alternatively, the lifestyle may not be threatened until near the end of Act I. For example, the inciting incident might be an opportunity that the protagonist declines--he already has everything he wants. However, something big threatens--or maybe even destroys--what he has, and he responds by taking the opportunity. 

There are a few ways this can play out really, but the basic idea is that the protagonist loses, or is at risk of losing, what he already has. Often the goal is to get it back somehow--which means stopping or thwarting whatever the threat is. (However, with that said, it's not impossible to give the character a new goal either.)

2. She Discovers a New Want

It might be that the protagonist already has everything she wants, but soon discovers something new she wants as well. Maybe she didn't even know the wanted thing existed or was possible, until the inciting incident, or even a later point in the story. She thought her life was complete, but now realizes what she has isn't enough. 

I feel like this is something we see more with villains and anti-heroes--especially those depicted as spoiled, selfish, or entitled. But it doesn't have to be. It could just be that the character is satisfied with life, but now yearns for more. 

In The Hobbit, Bilbo is largely satisfied with his life--he has his creature comforts in his hobbit hole, and that's all fine and well. But it isn't until Gandalf arrives with the opportunity for adventure (and strives to persuade Bilbo into it) that Bilbo eventually embraces the fact that, in reality, he wants adventure (which, in some sense, is also what he needs).

The Protagonist is Wanting, but Lacks Vision (a Goal) 

Sometimes a protagonist isn't driven by a strong passion or goal, because he lacks vision. His life may be dissatisfying, but he can't imagine any way to change that. It's just the life he's been dealt. It feels like something is lacking, but he doesn't know what. Eventually, the character encounters something new that broadens his vision and leads to a concrete goal. The goal promises (at least to the protagonist) to fulfill what is lacking. 

In Luca, Luca appears dissatisfied with his daily life, which seems to be made up of boring and repetitious chores, but he doesn't really know of any other lifestyle. He later meets Alberto, who shows him an entirely new way of living. Soon Luca is filled with the same passions as Alberto and adopts the same goals.

Helpful Techniques

Having a story where the protagonist isn't driven by a strong want, goal, or passion can have steep costs. There often isn't a lot of tension, conflict, or driving force prior to the character gaining a want or goal. This is, again, in part because the goal helps give the plot context--if there is no goal, then what happens doesn't really matter that much. The protagonist isn't trying to get anywhere specific, and isn't having to struggle to get there. This threatens to kill pacing and lose the audience. 

Luckily, there are a few workarounds to help.

- If the protagonist already has everything he wants, open the story by showcasing how wonderful the protagonist's life is--how everything seems to be going her way. She has everything she wants, or is about to get everything she wants. Drifting in the subtext is the implication that things won’t stay this way. The audience subconsciously knows a problem is coming (after all, it's a story, and story means conflict). This creates a sort of ironic promise, where the audience is waiting for things to turn bad. 

This can be harder to pull off. Waiting for an antagonistic force to ruin things for the protagonist isn’t usually as interesting as anticipating what the protagonist is going to do next to try to get a goal. However, it can be done, and done well.

- Alternatively, if the protagonist lacks vision, open the story by showcasing how life is dissatisfying. Convey the sense that something is missing. Drifting in the subtext is the implication that things won’t stay this way. The audience subconsciously knows an opportunity is coming. They'll likely be willing to wait to see how it could fix the character's dissatisfaction.

- Cut to another viewpoint. If your story has multiple viewpoints, you can use a scene in another viewpoint to make up for the "costs" of your protagonist's current state. This might mean having a scene where the antagonist's plans promise to soon ruin things for the protagonist. This creates dramatic irony, and the audience will want to stick around to see what happens. Alternatively, you can cut to a side character who has a driving want, goal, or passion--filling in for everything the protagonist doesn't bring to the story.

- Get to the inciting incident quick. The inciting incident disrupts the established normal, either as a problem or an opportunity. This means it will disrupt, at least to some degree, your protagonist's amazing life (or dissatisfying one). It may be that the inciting incident is a problem disrupting the good things, in which case, the character will want to act to try to get things back to normal. Or, it may be the incident is an opportunity that keeps bothering the protagonist. In any case, it knocks the character off balance to some degree. 

- Start in narrative in medias res. In narrative in medias res, you bring a part from later in the story and use it to open the story. This will usually be a scene that promises big problems and/or high stakes. In The Emperor's New Groove, Kuzco pretty much starts with everything he wants and is on the trajectory to get the next thing he wants--Kuzcotopia. The story opens with narrative in medias res, pulling a scene that shows him as a llama crying in the rain in the wilderness. This contrasts the story's actual beginning so much, that audiences want to stick around to see how he went from having everything to having nothing and no one.

- Use a prologue. Similar to in medias res, you can stick a powerful or punchy prologue in at the beginning, which can help carry the audience through the setup. Contrary to what many say in the industry, the primary purpose of a prologue is to make promises to the audience about what kind of story they are about to read or watch. Prologues can work great for stories with slower or calmer openings. I already did a whole article on prologues, so won't repeat everything here, but feel free to peruse it.

- Use a teaser. Like many of the techniques listed here, a teaser makes promises to the audience about what will come later in the story, so it's just another way to pull them through the calm, peaceful, or happy (or slowly dissatisfying) setup.

- Give the protagonist scene-level goals. Just because the protagonist doesn't have a plot-level goal (yet) doesn't mean she doesn't have scene-level goals. Pretty much everyone wants something all of the time. In most scenes, your protagonist should have a goal too. It might be simply to maintain the current lifestyle. Maybe she just wants to get through her work shift without any inconveniences or without anyone discovering she secretly loves to watch K-dramas. Or maybe the goal is to make cookies for a neighbor. Or maybe it's to pass a test, or to not draw attention in class. Scene-level goals may not have as much driving force as plot-level goals, but they still help carry the story--as long as there are some stakes tied to the outcome. 

- Pair the protagonist with someone who is driven by wants, goals, and passions. I touched on this related to the viewpoint technique. Many protagonists who don't have strong wants get tied to a character (probably the Influence Character) who does. This secondary character may be more of the go-getter, pulling the protagonist into the main plot. This sort of thing happens in Luca, where Alberto is the one with the drive and passion, which Luca comes to adopt and embrace. Alberto's goals become his goals, at least through much of the first half. If the protagonist isn't driven, there is a good chance a nearby character is--or at least should be.


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