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–
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.