Spend an hour with other writers or take a class and you will hear this advice: Figure out what your protagonist wants!” Variations on that question include: What does your hero desire? What does she yearn for? What does she lust for? What is her story goal?
Sounds easy enough, right? Your intelligence operative wants to stop an imminent terrorist attack. Your detective wants to solve the crime. Your au pair wants to fall in love with Mr. or Ms. X. Your corporate V.P. wants to finally earn the damn promotion! Your archaeologist wants to find the treasure after decades of searching!
Your protagonist’s “want”—or story goal—is most often something external, of the world, tangible, that can be measured, expressed actively and represented visually. This journey toward the outer goal can be thought of as a metaphor for your hero’s inner emotional journey.
“External struggles ignite reader interest and curiosity while internal and interpersonal struggles engender empathy.” Steven James, Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules
Once she’s in gear, your hero will pursue her “want” as if it’s the only thing that matters in the world. That’s because, to her, it is. Think obsession. She pretty much believes it will solve most of her problems and the problems of her world, too. It might even make her feel whole—even though she probably doesn’t realize she needs healing, and she might deny her obsession.
Chances are, at the beginning of your story, your protagonist is emotionally off-kilter, off-balance—or she’s on balance but soon to be knocked off her center. She is missing something and she probably doesn’t know what that something is—or maybe she doesn’t even acknowledge the empty place inside of her. We humans—and our fictional characters—are masters of denial.
So now, she’s convinced that by accomplishing her outer goal, her world will be in balance again. We know that’s not true, so why doesn’t she?
“Wounds are often kept secret from others because embedded within them is the lie—the untruth that the character believes about himself…” Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, Negative Trait Thesaurus
Want What Why?
It’s time to look at why she wants what she wants? Sure, it’s a detective’s job to find out who did the crime and track the perp down so he can “do the time”. But we need to look for the inner meaning your detective attaches to achieving her goal. To fit the needs of fiction, the “why” refers to the meaning the protagonist attaches to the “want”.
Remember the “want” (story goal) is most often external, visual, tangible, but the “why” is internal, emotional, and visceral. For example, your detective wants to solve the crime so she knows she can bring justice for the victim and balance seems restored to the world at least momentarily. Your au pair wants to fall in love to prove (to herself) that she’s lovable. Your corporate V.P. wants the promotion in order to feel validated in the eyes of her cohorts. And when your archaeologist finds the treasure, she is positive that it will be her life’s legacy.
Think about it, we all attach meaning to the things we want and strive for, right? (Think about why you want to sell the books you write—now there’s a bag to unpack!) Often, we can’t verbalize the internal meaning we’ve attached to our worldly goals, but—never doubt it—those meanings exist. Here comes the hitch, at least in fiction, the protagonist’s meaning is based upon a lie she believes to be true, a.k.a., a false belief.
Ghosts and Lies
Some of us are more haunted than others, but we all have “ghosts.” This is a term you might hear in a scriptwriting workshop. “Ghosts” are also called emotional “wounds”. Most of us have dated someone (or too many “someones” L) with “emotional baggage”. Use whatever term gives you the most juice. Ghosts are profound experiences in life—-traumatic, acute or chronic. They often occur early in life—the loss of a parent, the witnessing of a murder, childhood neglect or abuse, or rejection by a first love. The list of possible ghosts is endless. What matters is that this wound shapes our worldview and continues to haunt us. The same must be true for your protagonist: she has a ghost that haunts her. (I like to use the term, “hungry ghost” because, in some way, it does not allow her to rest.)
Note: Your character may never actually understand that hungry ghost, but you, author, need to understand what it is and how it drives her to make things harder for herself. P.S. You don’t have to reveal the hungry ghost to the reader—that’s your choice.
We humans fight to maintain the illusion of control—over our lives, our world, our experiences. If we’ve been victimized, we tell ourselves we are to blame in order to believe if we change something about our behavior, our appearance, our worldview, then we will protect ourselves from further victimization. We tell ourselves a lie—and we work very hard to hold onto our false belief. Our characters do the same thing. (Blaming ourselves is often preferable to believing we are at the whim of fate and world forces.) Someone who was rejected by her first love might tell herself, “I am not lovable. There is something wrong with me that I must fix in order to be lovable.” A rape survivor might tell himself, “My rapist recognized that I’m weak, so, to protect myself, I must never allow myself to be vulnerable again.” Someone who loses a sibling to illness might suffer from survivor’s guilt so intensely, she tells herself, “It’s my duty to save every soldier in the unit—or die trying.”
You get the idea. But if the inner motivation for the hero’s “want” is based on a lie, then what?
Then you—and she—need to figure out what she needs. And what she needs is the truth.
“At the heart of every story is a dilemma. If we’re not sure what our story is about, let’s consider this for a moment: Problems are solved while dilemmas are resolved through a shift in perception.” Alan Watt, The 90-day Novel
Want Versus Need—the Dilemma
In the most memorable stories, the protagonist ultimately faces a dilemma between what she wants and what she truly needs in order to become more fully human, more whole. Unfortunately for the hero—but fortunately for the storyteller—even if she accomplishes her worldly goal, she will still feel empty. Your au pair may seduce the man or woman of her dreams—only to realize that she still does not feel worthy of love. Her “hungry ghost” will continue driving her to pursue external validation; it will feed her the lie that gaining love from the “right” person will make her feel lovable. But the truth is, until she discovers how to love herself, she will never be whole. Said another way: when she learns to love herself unconditionally, then she will be capable of giving and receiving unconditional love to and from others; but she will no longer desperately need it. And that is her true transformation because she has profoundly changed how she views herself and her world.