Figuring Out Your Protagonist’s Goal

Whether readers care about a protagonist almost always rests upon whether they care about that character's goal.

Your protagonist must have a goal that's vital to her (or him) and hard to reach so she'll need to spend the entire novel struggling to achieve it.

Ask yourself: Where does your protagonist desperately want or need to be by the end of the novel?

Not only must your protagonist have a goal, she needs strong reasons for wanting or needing to achieve it. Otherwise the story will fall flat.

In short, the protagonist must care.

Heightening The Protagonist's Motivation

As an example, let's start with a goal with low stakes that many readers might not identify with.

If my main character’s goal is to get into a summer internship program in Boston at an international company, but she’d be equally happy to live with her parents all summer and work with her friends as a lifeguard at the local pool, the story won’t be compelling.

If she doesn’t care, neither will the reader.

On the other hand, imagine she has the same goal but the following are also true:

  • her student loans are coming due
  • after thirty interviews she hasn’t gotten a single job offer
  • she’s always wanted to live in Boston
  • the internship has a good chance of leading to full-time employment

Now we have a goal she (and the reader) will care about.

If you want to up the stakes, let’s say:

  • her parents both got laid off from their jobs last year
  • they moved to a one-bedroom apartment in a rural area
  • she’s sleeping on the couch and living far from any urban area with the types of jobs that she trained for
  • she can only afford plane tickets to this one last interview

Now we really have a conflict and so a story.

Active v. Passive

To be engaging, your protagonist must strive for her goal.

That doesn’t mean you need a superhero for a main character. In fact, as I talk about in Super Simple Story Structure, in a battle with the antagonist, your protagonist generally should be the underdog.

It does mean your protagonist must do as much as she or he possibly can to move forward within the limits of the world and the character you’ve created.

Goals And The Terminator

WARNING – Spoilers for the first Terminator film below!

In the first half of The Terminator, from an action hero perspective, Sarah Connor is not particularly active. She doesn’t know how to fight or have any special skills or knowledge.

But for who she is and where she is in life, she does everything she can.

When she’s out at a bar and grill and sees a television news report that two women named Sarah Connor have been murdered, she immediately tries to call the police. The payphone, the only option in the 80s for calling when you’re away from home, is broken.

She’s made a big deal about seeing the news report, which might make it obvious she’s worried. So Sarah leaves the bar and grill, blending with a crowd and staying alert.

When she realizes someone is following her, she enters a nightclub, paying a cover charge just to get in and use the payphone. She persists in trying to reach the correct person at the police station despite being transferred all over. She follows the instructions she gets from the police, then follows the instructions of a stranger, Kyle Reese, when he’s able to fend off the Terminator. She also listens to Reese’s explanation despite how crazy it sounds.

In other words, Sarah Connor is the opposite of the idiot in the horror movie who is alone in a strange house at night, hears noises coming from the attic, and heads right up the stairs to have her throat slit.

Writer Heal Thyself

Ironically, though most of the above advice–including The Terminator analysis–came from my own book on story structure, I had trouble in my latest novel with the protagonist's goal and motivation.

In my early drafts of The Worried Man, a mystery that will be out May 1, 2018, my main character found her boyfriend's dead body in his apartment. The police suspected suicide or accidental overdose. She and the boyfriend's son rejected the thought that either had happened, and the protagonist set out to uncover the truth.

These aspects of the book haven't changed.

But in the early drafts she had met the man a few months before and dated him, but they hadn't spent much time together. She didn't meet the son until after the boyfriend died.

While she had a family history that made her identify with the son, it wasn't clear what that history was.

The feedback from agents I ran the story past and the story editor I worked with was the same:

The main character didn't have a strong enough reason to investigate the death or to doubt that the police detectives in her city (Chicago) could do a good job.

In the current version, I made these changes:

  • the protagonist and the boyfriend are about to move in together
  • she finds his dead body the night before the move
  • she has a close relationship with the son and just finished renovating her condo to create a sleeping loft for him
  • her mother emotionally abandoned her as a child, and she's determined the son won't grow up believing his father did anything that contributed to his own death and left the son without him
  • police investigated her parents for a crime they didn't commit and never uncovered the truth, so she doesn't trust the police to do their jobs or to be fair

My first reader of the final version had no idea of the feedback I'd gotten about the lack of motivation. He also didn't know what changes I'd made in response.

I was very happy–and vastly relieved–when his first comment was how much he identified with the main character and how he completely got why she took the investigation into her own hands.

For the next book in the series, I hope I'll remember what I learned!

Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you're looking for articles about your goals as a writer or marketer/publisher, try Set A Single Goal (And Stop Managing Your Time) or Hitting Publish: Why Your First Goal Isn't To Sell Books.


Using Discovery To Make Your Novel More Layered (And To Write It Faster)

I’m a planner when it comes to novel writing — no surprise if you’ve read Super Simple Story Structure.

Once I have my overall plot in mind, I first draft pretty quickly. But finishing a novel always takes longer than I expect.

I think I finally know why.

I tend to forget about the time and effort needed to go from the initial idea for a novel to figuring out the plot.

There’s a name for this phase of writing a novel (or other type of story).

It’s called discovery. Until recently, I was mostly unaware I was doing it, so I failed to set aside enough time for it.

What Is Discovery?

I first heard the term “the discovery phase of writing” a year or two ago. I had a bad reaction to it because in law, discovery is a process that can be drawn out, frustrating, and stressful.

In litigation, discovery means asking the other side to give you information about its case and evidence. Attorneys argue a lot about what needs to be handed over to the other side.

That type of conflict is only fun for people who like to argue and make life difficult for everyone. (Not all attorneys like that! Seriously.)

In fiction, the discovery process is much more fun because you’re finding out about and expanding your characters, settings, themes, and story.

When I was practicing law full-time, I didn’t realize I was engaging in discovery for my fiction because it happened in odd moments.

At court while waiting for my case to be called I'd scribble notes about my character on a legal pad. Later, standing in line at a Corner Bakery, I might look at the people around me and imagine what they were thinking.

I thought of what I was doing as “daydreaming.” It didn’t seem like part of the writing process. It was a way to entertain myself when I was bored.

It also was a way to feel I was making progress on my novel despite having little time to put words on the page.

What I didn’t realize was it wasn’t just an illusion to make myself feel better. I really was making progress on my novel.

How To Do Discovery

Now that I’m devoting most of my time to writing, the discovery process is more purposeful and I’m more aware of it.

Some things you might do in discovery:

  • Read Non-Fiction

This reading is different from research on specific topics. It's about big picture topics and themes that might or might not help generate more ideas or prompt turns and twists in your story.

For my second mystery in my new series, I've been reading websites aimed at immigrants to the U.S. from various countries and paying attention to newspaper articles about immigration. A missing woman in the book is an immigrant who overstayed her student visa.

(For more on the creative pluses of reading rather than watching the news, check out Reading The Newspaper Can Spark Ideas For Your Novel.)

I’m also reading books about causes of death (the photo at the top of this article is from a recent trip to the library).

  • Images

Before so many images were available on the Internet I used to page through magazines and tear out photos of people who either looked like my characters or whom I found striking for one reason or another.

On the right is a photo of a magazine page that inspired the character of Erik Holmes, a wealthy CEO with an obsession about the end of the world and obscure religious cults in my Awakening series.

I also saved photos of outdoor and indoor scenes that evoked strong feelings.

Now I do the same thing but online through sites like Instagram and Pinterest. These sites also allow me to post and organize photos I take that relate somehow to my novels.

  • Documentaries

Watching documentaries is also great for prompting ideas and scenes.

Though I had no plan of including snake handling in my Awakening series, I happened to see a documentary on it. It solved an issue I had, which was how to put my protagonist in great danger without it being clear who was behind it. I chose a setting where snake handling was still practiced and plunged her into an underground cavern filled with rattlesnakes.

  • Music

Many writers create collections of songs that fit their stories or characters.

It doesn’t mean that these songs would need to be played as a soundtrack if your book were a movie, though you can create a soundtrack if you like. But they are songs that suit a particular mood or character.

Choosing them helps figure out how the characters feel and what's happening in their lives.

Free Writing/Talking

I like to scribble in a notebook or on scratch paper, or type quickly into a document, random thoughts about my story and characters. Often I never look at these notes again.

The thoughts might or might not be directly related to the story. It's a way to hang out with my characters or explore how possible twists and turns might affect them.

Sometimes rather than writing, I pace and talk.

Attending Events

Concerts, art exhibits, garden or city walks, sporting events, and just about anything you attend that stimulates your mind and helps you relax can also be part of the discovery process. All trigger emotions and set your mind free to wander.

It doesn't matter if you love the event of not. Some of my best ideas for characters and plot developments came to me while sitting through a concert that bored me nearly to tears.

Why Do It

Embracing the discovery process can save you a lot of time later.

With my first mystery I had what I thought was a pretty solid first third of the book finished and a rough draft of the rest.

To my surprise, when I sent it to my story editor, her main response was that the mechanics of the plot seemed fine but, basically, who cares? Why does your main character do what she does and why does it matter to the reader?

Had I allowed myself more time for discovery, I likely would have developed more layered and engaging characters before plotting the book and writing the draft. But I didn't, so my rewriting process took three or four times as long as I'd expected.

Taking time to read and daydream and look at photos (or anything else from the above list) pushes me to really get to know my characters and consider different plot turns and twists I might have otherwise overlooked.

Though “push” is really the wrong word.

When I let myself spend time in discovery I don’t feel pushed at all. Instead, I feel relaxed and happy to be spending time with my characters in a place that isn’t about hitting word counts.

It reminds me of how I feel when I’m reading a novel I really love. It’s as if I am living in another world that’s amazing, fascinating, and heart wrenching.

If that’s the experience I want my readers to have, and it is, I need to be able to go there myself first.

I started this purposeful discovery process about two weeks ago for my second mystery novel (working title The Charming Man).

I’ve been shifting between creating a rough outline and doing more reading, meandering, and discovering. We’ll see if overall this results in less rewriting than I did for the first one.

That’s all for now.

Until next Friday —

L. M. Lilly

P.S. For help on developing your characters, you can download my Free Character Creation Tip Sheet.

Scarlett O’Hara, Lizzy Bennet, And Character Values

What we value drives all our decisions, from the friends we choose to the jobs we take to where we live or what types of families we have.

This is also true of your characters.

You don't need to know everything your character values, but the more you know, the better you'll understand who your character is and what drives her (or him or it).

Also, the more easily you'll be able to create conflict. That matters because without conflict, there's no story.

Values-Driven Conflict

You can create conflict by starting with a character you’re drawn to, figuring out that person's values, then choosing conflicting values for another character who opposes the first.

For example, if you want to write about a protagonist who highly values peace and getting along with others, you might give him an antagonist who believes that disputing every point is the best way to get to the truth or to foster the most honest relationship.

This difference can create great conflict—and so spark a story—whether you’re writing romance, horror, literary fiction, or any other genre.

On the other hand, if you have a plot but no characters yet, you can start with what values your significant characters would need to serve that plot.

Lizzy Bennet

In Pride and Prejudice, protagonist Elizabeth Bennet highly values happiness and love in marriage, as well as compatibility, having seen her parents’ unhappiness.

Those values place her at great conflict with the practical realities of her life.

We learn on page one of the book that she is one of five Bennet sisters who, along with their mother, face homelessness and poverty when their father dies, as his estate passes to a distant cousin.

Nonetheless, Elizabeth, defying her mother’s wishes, refuses to marry the cousin.

The marriage would ensure she, her mother, and her sisters will be protected upon the father’s death. If Elizabeth didn’t value happiness—or perhaps avoiding definite unhappiness—in marriage so highly, she’d accept the proposal to protect herself and her family. But there would be no conflict, so no story.

And Scarlett O'Hara

As another example, in Gone With The Wind Scarlett marries her sister's fiancé to get money to support the family's home.


Her highest values are saving her family’s plantation and keeping her family from starving. She's sure that if her sister marries the man, his money will not go toward the family or their home but toward the sister alone.

Someone whose highest value was loyalty to her sister would make a different choice, as would someone who valued romantic love above all.

Love Scarlett or hate her, admire her or criticize her, does anyone doubt that she would marry her sister's beau in those circumstances? Not for a second. That's a character with strong, clear values. Gone With The Wind is full of conflict as a result.

Think about the protagonist and antagonist in a story you're writing or plotting.

What do they value most? Do those values conflict? If not, is there a way you can alter their values so that they do?

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on developing characters, check out my Free Character Creation Tip Sheet.

Strong Characters And Stephen King

While being known as the Master of Horror, what many readers love about Stephen King is not how scary his books are but how he writes characters whose lives and stories matter. A great place to explore how King creates compelling and memorable characters is the Stephen King Cast.

The podcast explore and reviews each King book and often covers the movie adaptation as well in a follow-up episode.

I'm tempted to recommend two episodes about The Dead Zone because that's my personal favorite of all of King's novels. But an even better episode for learning about creating compelling characters is The Shining movie episode. (If you have time, listen to the book review episode as well.)

In The Shining movie review, the host of the Stephen King Cast compares the book and the movie. This comparison includes rating each major character in the book versus the same character in the movie, voting on which works better, and giving specific reasons why.


What's so valuable is that the Stephen King Cast host speaks as a reader and a viewer rather than as an author, as in the end it's readers who decide what stories are most compelling.

Until Sunday, when I'll talk about creating conflict through characters with competing goals.


L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you're struggling with developing characters, you can also check out Writing As A Second Career's Free Character Creation Tip Sheet for questions to ask yourself that might help.

Learning About Point Of View From Donald Trump And James Comey

This past Thursday, during time I’d scheduled to work on my current novel The Worried Man, I found myself glued to the TV instead. I watched former FBI Director Comey testify about conversations with the President.

When the testimony was done, I flipped between commentators on different channels, then listened to the President's personal lawyer give a rebuttal.

I felt like a slacker until it hit me—I might not be writing, but I was learning a lot about point of view.

Who Has The Most At Stake

A good rule of thumb in fiction is to write from the point of view of the character with the most at stake.

If, for example, an employee is called into the boss' office on Friday at 5 PM to talk about an issue that might get her fired, odds are she has more at stake than the boss.

But it's all a question of perspective.

If the boss is being scrutinized by her supervisor for unfair hiring and firing practices, she may have a lot on the line too.

The stakes of a story or a scene rest on a lot of factors. Going back to the hearing I watched, since we can't know for certain what the facts are in the real life theater of United States politics, let's imagine we’re writing a novel about a fictional President Grump and former FBI Director Spumy.

If President Grump really did or said something that could get him impeached, that’s high stakes for him. That would make watching the Spumy testimony through his eyes compelling.

Grump would anticipate every question, sweat over every answer, and worry about what words would come out of Spumy’s mouth next.

Spumy, on the other hand, has already been fired. That suggests that the stakes for him are pretty low. Using that set up, writing from Grump’s point of view is a no-brainer.

But it’s not hard to shift the scenario if you as the writer want to do that. If our fictional FBI Director Spumy is lying, he could be exposed as a fraud or eventually convicted of perjury.

To add to the imbalance, let's say our fictional president is a lot like Jed Bartlet of the West Wing. Our Bartlet-like Grump would have acted in the best interests of the country at all times, and his confidence that nothing bad would come to light would be well founded. He wouldn’t sweat through the testimony.

In that scenario, Spumy’s point of view is hands down more interesting to the reader because he's the one with the most at stake.

When Everyone’s Risking Something

The best novels–and scenes–are when both the protagonist and antagonist have a lot at stake.

In our example, let’s say Spumy is telling the truth as he sees it. He can still be stressed. His reputation is on the line.

To further raise the stakes, you could create a fictional former FBI director who feels strongly about being seen as truthful and reliable and, to up it even more, who dislikes the spotlight. (This is fiction, remember.)

All of the above would make testifying nerve racking for Spumy.

Similarly, even if Grump did nothing wrong but the way he conducts himself makes everyone think he did, he could still be in hot water. After all, it’s often the appearance of a cover up, not a bad act itself, that gets a politician in trouble.

So our fictional president might believe he did everything right but still worry about impeachment and watch the testimony with his phone on speaker with a direct line to his lawyer. (Perhaps with his hands cuffed behind his back to keep him away from his Twitter account.)

With these fictional characters, I’d write the scene first from one point of view and then the other. The contrast between how the two men see the same event and the same testimony would draw the reader in and make it fascinating to read the same scene twice.

Who's the hero and who's the villain? That's for the reader to decide.

Until Friday-


L.M. Lilly