A Protagonist Must Have a Goal

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Doing Revisions

Every protagonist must have a goal. Your protagonist (Frodo Baggins) wants to throw the Ring in the fires of Mt. Doom or, in the case of Harry Potter, defeat the evil Lord Voldemort. These are the protagonists’ “big picture” goals. A big picture goal describes the entire arc of the novel, from the instant a protagonist conceives of the goal, to his first tentative steps to achieve it, to his final success or failure.

An equally important concept, however, is that the protagonist must be driving the action in every single scene, not just in the book as a whole.

As Kurt Vonnegut famously put it, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

Now, why am I bringing this up? I’m bringing it up because I recently attended a writing workshop led by Donald Maass.

Thanks to Maass’s sharp eye, I learned that I was not always giving agency to my protagonist. Psychologists call a person’s efforts to achieve his/her goals “having agency.” Overall, yes, I did have my main character making efforts to achieve his goals, but I was not doing that in every single scene. According to Maass, scenes where the protagonist isn’t directing the action have no tension.

A Protagonist Must Have “Agency”

The novel I’m revising is The Vermillion Sea. You can download an excerpt here. Noël, the protagonist, has one, overarching goal. He wants to bring back the first pictures of Baja California.

The novel takes place in 1769. Noël, the protagonist, is a sixteen-year-old dwarf and an art student at the prestigious Royal Academy in Paris. He hopes his pictures will be engraved and that the engravings will hang in the King’s Royal Salon, a yearly event attended by Parisians, as well as by art buyers from other countries.

Noel, Alexandre Jean, protagonist and artist

Entitled “Two Indians from California,” this was one of the drawings my protagonist made when he was in Baja California. He was the first formally trained artist to bring back images of this distant land. (original NOEL Alexandre Jean française Fonds des dessins et miniatures. © 2012 – Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques)

In Chapter 3 of my novel,  Noël has finally landed on the beach in San Jose del Cabo.

Is Noël thinking of the pictures he could be making? Not at all. Even though his ultimate goal is to bring back images of indigenous people and exotic plants and animals, he’s more concerned with feeling cold and hungry.

The need to start a fire and get something to eat are what could be driving his actions in the scene. But, did I do that? No. He’s thinking about how hungry and cold he is, but he doesn’t take action. Instead, he gets into a minor tiff with one of his companions and goes walking off down the beach.

This walk down the beach takes him away from the conflict with his companion–nothing gets resolved–and Noël is then like a man in a room alone, meaning he’s in his own head. Nothing much is happening. He’s not in any danger, nor is he making fatal errors of judgment. Noël is just waiting for his situation to change. That means he’s passive.

If I compare Noël to Frodo in Lord of the Rings, I cannot think of a single scene where Frodo wasn’t trying to make something happen, or reacting and trying to defend himself from a setback. Not a single scene.

Ditto, Harry Potter. Neither of these characters walks off in the middle of the action.

Revising to Give a Protagonist More Agency

What can I do to improve this scene? I can make Noël gather firewood and start a fire. If that doesn’t seem right, then I can have him try to get someone else to do it, let’s say have him try to get his lazy and complaining companion Dubois to get up off his duff and help out.

I could have Noël not just walk down the beach, but take a walk with the specific objective of finding food. I can make his hunger so urgent that he can’t wait one more minute to satisfy his growling stomach.

When my protagonist has his primary needs met, he can immediately focus on his main task. He can take out his sketchbook and have some thoughts like the following: “I’m finally here. I was beginning to wonder if we’d ever make it. But, now that I’m warmer and have food in my stomach, I can take out my sketchbook and redouble my efforts to record every single thing I see. I know that whenever I find myself in a new place, I only have one chance to see it afresh. After that, the extraordinary moment fades, and I won’t see it in quite the same way.”

How a Scene Goal Relates to the Plot

Of course, I wouldn’t state that in such an obvious way, but I want to just illustrate that three things need to happen.

  • Create an immediate scene goal for the protagonist.
  • Let the protagonist take action. (All the better if you can find a way to have his action thwarted.)
  • Give the protagonist thoughts and (very important!) feelings about how the scene’s goal relates to his/her bigger goal.

In an earlier post I wrote about a simple way to think about the plot. But, while you’re thinking about the plot as a whole, make sure your protagonist has an objective, a driving desire, or an action that places him or her at the very core of that’s scene’s purpose.

Avoid Passive Protagonists

You want to avoid any situation where your protagonist appears to be a passive person, someone to whom “bad things happen.” Readers invest themselves emotionally in protagonists with gumption, characters who are striving to reach their goals. A sure way to create tension on the page is to show the character wanting something and trying to get it. (For more on revising for tension, read this post.)

Donald Maass is a literary agent and author of several books about the craft of writing, including Writing the Breakout Novel and The Emotional Craft of Fiction. In this interview with Joanna Penn, he covers a few of his core ideas. Donald Maass offers workshops through Free Expressions. You can find out more about them by going here: https://www.free-expressions.com/





  • Marylee MacDonald

    Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, BODY LANGUAGE, and THE BIG BOOK OF SMALL PRESSES AND INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, a Wishing Shelf Book Award, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.

4 Responses to “A Protagonist Must Have a Goal”

  1. Diana Kempton says:

    Marylee, this is GREAT info. I have a lot of revisions to do to some scenes in my book where I seem passive as things happen, but actually had goals or needs I was trying to meet. Even shy, young kids have motivations for acting or not acting, and I need to get those across.

    • Kids, because they’re “powerless” in terms of the earning a living or even directing their own lives, still have dreams. Their lives are all in the future, and they’re moving toward that future, even if they only have a vague sense of it. Perhaps, we authors should look to their dreams and aspirations, and even their misconceptions, for the motivations that drive their actions.

  2. Margaret Morse says:

    I find this article to be timely and helpful, because I can always use a reminder of how to punch up a scene. How often have I finished a scene only to realize there’s no real conflict and no striving. Revise! Thanks.

    • Tension, conflict, and striving—all great and necessary things for a scene. To those I would add that obfuscation, deception, lying, and self-delusion are also great tools to introduce inner tension, even when not much is going on in the outer world.