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
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
“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
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.
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
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.