A Compelling Novel Centers On the Protagonist’s Goal

Do you want to write a compelling story? Think of the word compel. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has a great definition: “to drive or urge forcefully; to cause to do or occur by overwhelming pressure.”

Have you ever read a novel that drove you forcefully to turn page after page? That caused you, by overwhelming pressure, to neglect your chores, your dinner, your kids, in order to get to that last page to see how the book ended? If that’s the kind of novel you want to build, then you need to be sure all the elements of your story work together for one main purpose. What purpose?

You Gotta Have Goal

To follow your protagonist as he strives to reach a goal. Huh? Does that sound too pat to you? I imagine it does, to many writers—especially beginners. Of course, this is just my opinion, and you’re welcome to disagree with me (although plenty of writing instructors would be nodding their heads enthusiastically), but the key to a compelling novel is constructing a story in which the hero or heroine is chasing after a goal.

I’ve written many posts on this in the past (you can read some of them here, here, and here), and I could write an entire year-long course just on this topic. In fact, we just covered the first of twelve key pillars in the last few posts—concept with a kicker—and that topic as well could be discussed for a year. But we have twelve pillars to cover in twelve months, so we’re plowing ahead.

In setting up this series, I introduced the twelve key pillars of novel construction. We briefly touched on the need to first focus on the four essential corner pillars—concept with a kicker, protagonist with a goal, theme with a heart, and conflict with high stakes. We’re going to delve now into the important aspects to creating a compelling protagonist and how this goal of his or hers is the linchpin of the four supportive pillars.

If you don’t know what a linchpin is, it’s a pin that holds all the parts together. Without it, whatever you are building will fall apart, collapse. If you write a novel without a protagonist who is after a goal, your novel will fall flat. Yes, I will be so bold as to say that is the absolute truth.

Well, What Kind of Goal?

A visible one. Yep. That’s the first requirement. Screenwriting consultant Michael Hauge really nails this down in his workshops and best-selling book Writing Screenplays That Sell. Your goal for your main character can’t be nebulous, like “she wants to find love in the end.” She needs a very specific goal readers can picture. You should be able to describe your hero’s goal to someone in a way that they can see it played out in their mind as if on the silver screen. Why is this important?

Because your novel is a specific story about specific characters needing and wanting something specific. There is no novel without characters. And if the characters don’t have any goals, then what is the point to your story? Characters have to have deep core needs, desires, secret fears, impossible dreams. These are the factors that drive the story, like fuel for an engine. Hauge claims there are five basic goals (see another post I wrote on this that goes into more detail):

  • The need to win (competition, the love of another, etc.)
  • The need to stop (someone, something bad from happening, etc.)
  • The need to escape
  • The need to deliver (a message, one’s self, an item, etc.)
  • The need to retrieve—(a magic ring, a hidden or lost treasure, a lost love, etc.)

This may seem so simplistic, it might be hard to believe. And maybe you think it doesn’t even need to be discussed, since it’s so obvious. But . . . few novels that I critique and edit actually portray a protagonist with a clear goal.

A Great Novel Is Not Just a String of Events

Without that goal set up in the beginning of your book and which the protagonist strives for until the end, all you have is a string of events. Scenes one after the other in which stuff happens—sometimes interesting, sometimes boring. But if there is no goal established at the outset for the hero, then these scenes serve no purpose and have no point. They frequently meander around like lost sheep. They lack power and fail to stir up interest. In short, they are not compelling.

Does there have to be a point to the novel? Yes. If you can’t think of “the point” of your novel, just what are you writing about? Oh, yeah. You have an idea. A cool idea. Well, what have you learned about ideas in these last few posts? Don’t remember? (Here they are, if you need to refresh your memory.) Ideas are a dime a dozen. Ideas do not a great novel make. I think I need some T-shirts made up with these slogans. We writers should drill these truths into our minds.

Every Story Features a Protagonist with a Goal

Let me just say this: If you have a great idea for a novel, and have come up with a compelling concept with a kicker, and it doesn’t include a protagonist with a visible goal, I would sure like to hear about it! I have yet to ever read, in my entire life, a great novel that did not have a protagonist pursuing a goal. Maybe with a literary masterpiece that goal is subtle and not so visible. But I will venture to say it’s there, perhaps buried under the beautiful writing.

Ask yourself about your favorite novel or two: What did the hero or heroine of the story want? What was she striving after? Did the climax and ending of the book show her either reaching her goal or failing to reach it? More than likely.

So, today we’re just dipping our toes in here regarding the protagonist of your novel. We’ll go more in depth next week.

And, as I introduced last week, here is your Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker, consisting of twelve (groups of) questions you must answer to “pass inspection” regarding your novel’s concept. Checklist #1 makes you take a deep look at your concept to make sure it’s not just a nice idea. With each of the twelve pillars, you will get a checklist that you can print out and use with every novel you write. If you can answer all the questions satisfactorily (based on what you’re learning here in this course), you’ll be sure you have sound structural support that will “hold up” your story.

Any thoughts on today’s post? Does your protagonist have a goal for the book? Feel free to share some thoughts about that goal in the comments. If your hero doesn’t have a goal, spend some time (a lot of time) really thinking through the point of the novel and what your protagonist really wants more than anything else. He has to have a core need and a specific, visible goal. It’s a key pillar to strong novel construction!

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  1. This is great stuff, especially for a rookie author. Thank you. I found you on the blog Angela and Becca do (the authors of the Emotions Thesaurus). I am buying the book they recommended “write” now. (hey, I’m old, and puns provide meaning to my life. lol.)

    Steve Jennette, Grand Rapids, Michigan

    1. Thanks, Steve. We live in a great time when there is so much great instruction online for free. I have learned tons of great things from my fellow author-bloggers and subscribe to many of the blogs available for writers.

  2. Thanks for another great post! I was wondering how you feel about protagonists with multiple (albeit related) goals. For example, Jason Bourne was a protagonist with two primary goals: to uncover his past, and to win his freedom. I guess it partly depends on the skill of the writer in question, but I was just curious – given your experience – how you felt about this. Does it tend to bolster the novel, or just muddy the water?

    1. All characters can have many goals, small and large. Real people do. I like to think of these as plot layers (See the posts I’ve written on this by searching “plot layers”). But there is one primary goal that drives a story. Bourne’s desire to be free is tied in with uncovering who he really is, so essentially this is one goal. One is the goal, the other the method or task that will help him reach that goal. By uncovering his past, he will reach his goal of freedom. Make sense?

      1. Thanks, that makes perfect sense (and answers my question about the importance of a single Primary Goal)…I’ll definitely go and check out your other posts on ‘plot layers’!

  3. I discovered your blog a short while ago and I’m absolutely LOVING it!! You have SO many wonderful posts sure to help me grow as a writer. I’m editing right now and I’ve discovered, if I follow the advice offered here, it’s steering me in the right direction. I just wanted to thank you for the valuable advice!!

  4. I just came to your blog via writers helping writers. It looks great. Thank you. I have just started writing my second novel, and I was glad to see that one of the five basic goals was the need to escape. In my coming-of-age novel, the main character wants to escape the confines of his dysfunctional family and the larger societal expectations of what he should do with his life upon graduation from high school (i.e., go to college, get a job, get married, have kids, etc.). Bruce Springsteen said that a lot of his early songs were about “the perpetual yearning for somewhere else.” I want to capture this feeling in my book. Do you believe that a goal needs to be even more concrete and specific than “I want to get out of this place and find somewhere I belong”?

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Michael. That’s a perfect goal for the character and at the beginning of the story, he won’t know just what that visible goal looks like yet, but perhaps by the end of the book he’ll have a clearer idea. Yet, if he spends the whole book just wandering around without any specific plan or direction, the book will drag and/or the reader will feel confused. Be careful you don’t end up with just a string of scenes, albeit interesting ones in which interesting things happen to your character. Keep theme in mind–the point you want to get across by telling this story. Even if the theme has to do with the futility of trying to escape the norm. In other words, if you only show a disillusioned character in scene after scene without an intriguing “goal” and a clear central conflict opposing him (not just his inner feelings), you risk having a weak story.

    1. Well, you would never want your protagonist to be a villain or evil. I have a post coming up in a couple of weeks on dark heroes or protagonists, and that might be what you are talking about, but if you want your reader to love and root for your protagonist, he can’t be a vile, hateful person. I like seeing antagonist’s that are vulnerable and human, but you still want to hate them because they mean harm to your protagonist. Hope this makes sense.

  5. Another excellent post!

    I believe the need for a character (s) that has a clear purpose consistent with our own human condition of always having a goal, a purpose .

    Within our minds, we all have a purpose. Even people who pretend not to have it, have some .

    Somehow, our very existence is built to have a goal. Realize that sometimes people seek answers in the occult, in religion, in psychics or any thing similar to this. It is the human condition itself seeking the answer to something we don’t understand. Just as we feel depressed when we do not find an answer to a question.

    And good writers know how to exploit it. They should know .

    Maybe so – just as you said – we feel empty when a book or film does not present a compelling character in search of a goal. That is, if we as human beings are always in search of a clear goal, a goal for our lives, a book must present such characteristics. In other words, our eternal quest for the logic.

    Thanks again Miss Lakin!

  6. As new writer your recent posts on the twelve pillars have made me really delve into the WIP and I seem to be going deeper than I thought possible. THANKS!

  7. All I can say is “Thank you” so much for putting this stuff down into words. A writer friend and I constantly help each other out with our writing, and this post sums up what I’ve been trying to tell her for (what seems like) ages. Characters meandering does not a story make.

  8. Susanne,

    This is so thought provoking. I don’t know how you can write any story and not have the protagonist have a goal. I don’t know how the story could move forward unless it is toward something. It would end up just ramblings of events. There could be no clear end.

    To me this makes me define my goal clearer and to make sure it is stated to the reader – not to hit them over the head but by dialogue and action. That is the real challenge.

    I always look forward to your posts. Will I ever stop editing and picking with this novel??

    1. Thanks, yep, I hear you. You can mess with a novel for years but at some point it needs to be done. It does help to get a critique so you can be sure you haven’t missed things or have weak sections. I find having critiques by author friends really helps me see if I truly am done.

  9. This post was helpful; it was instrumental in the current writing of my novel because I was having difficulty with just “who” should be the major protagonist. The blogs section entitled “Every Story Features a Protagonist with a Goal” lit the light for me. I was on my 5th draft. It wasn’t working any better than the previous four. And I read this blog. Voila! I changed the major protagonist to the man who definitely had goals. I find each of your posts give me at least one valid item to examine in my works. Lisa, thank you for your blog. Outstanding work.

  10. My apology for addressing and thanking you as “Lisa.” I had just finished a telephone conversation discussing this post, to my good friend – Lisa.
    I was just too excited about resolving a major drawback in writing and revising my novel.
    Thank you Ms. cslakin…

  11. Great post as usual. But what about the serials or series having same characters? Like in the romance serials i wrote, the mail goal of protagonist was to get her hero at the end, and the books just had small goals and needs.
    What do you suggest on this?

  12. The need for a goal was something my story was definitely lacking but with a goal, I can see how I will shape the scenes, the way she interacts with people and construct (did I just say construct?) my overall story arc. I guess I’m learning and that’s huge for me, thank you as always for keeping it real or just telling me what I need to know about writing a good novel.

  13. Hey there! First and foremost, I’d like to thank you for this series of posts. They’ve helped me reflect upon the content of my novel in progress – which is, by the way, my first one.

    I’d like to ask something related to the subject in question.

    In my story, the female protagonist has a terrible relationship with her father, in which he gives her little to no attention and has no interest in uncovering her personality layers. She then engages in flamboyant and often dangerous and self destructive behavior. As I see it, that could be a goal of capturing the attention of her father, even though this might occasionaly be unconscious to her.

    Am I making a mess out of this process or am I getting it somewhat right?

    Once again, thank you!

    1. That sounds wholly believable. If you read my past posts on the lie, the fear, and the need, I give a similar example. People who are denied love when young develop all kinds of self-destructive behavior to get love, all the while feeling they are undeserving.

  14. I wish I had discovered you before I published my first book. I’m now working on revising my second, a YA novel, and find your advice and checklists real lifesavers. I’ve also ordered Writing the Heart of Your Story and Shoot Your Novel. I’m reading Writing the Heart of Your Story now. Thank you for sharing your expertise with us so freely. When I have my book to a fairly decent place, I will be taking advantage of your critique services. I may not make back my investment in the book, but I still want to write the best book I can.

    1. Thanks so much! I hope my books help, and I’m always so humbled and grateful to hear remarks like this. It is a lot of work writing the blog, but I aim to share with writers all that I’ve learned over my thirty-year journey in writing and publishing, and want writers to avoid making the mistakes I made!

  15. Have been learning so much from your posts. In this one, it occurred to me, maybe authors fail to dive so deeply into the goals and lives of their characters because they are unable to release control of the story. I’m finding this out with my book. When I opened up to the characters to answer the questions and find out the goals, the story took a whole different turn. Not at all what I wanted or necessarily liked. I felt a loss over the story that was – is not going to happen. It was hard to embrace where the characters were taking me and the story. The story I wanted isn’t what is was anymore. But have to let go to reach the story that will stand on both legs (or the 4 key of 12 pillars).

  16. Loved reading your information. You’ve generally had the force, my dear, you just needed to learn it for yourself. One kid, one educator, one book, and one pen can change the world.

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