Monday, October 19, 2020

An Easy Way to Find Your Protagonist’s Goal

finding goals, plotting with goals, protagonist
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you have a great premise, but can’t figure out the protagonist’s goal to go with it, this little tip can help.

Every week, I get at least one message from a writer along the lines of, “This post is exactly what I needed today.” It always makes my day, and it’s the reason I tweet and post from the blog’s archives. There’s a ton of information on this site, and I never know who is going to need what when.

This past week, it was me.

I was doing my initial brainstorming for a new series, and I ran into a problem. I had no idea what the protagonist in book two wanted. Until I figured that out, I had no plot and no conflict. Utterly stuck, I set the notes aside and went to work on my blog posts for the week.

And I solved my own problem with my own post—and I hadn’t even written it yet.

It’s much easier to find a goal for your protagonist when you know which of their needs is lacking.

Finding the right goal for your protagonist can be a challenge—especially if the idea is still more premise than plot. You might have a general sense of what the problem is, or what the protagonist needs to do, but you can’t quite find that critical goal driving the entire story.

Luckily, science has the answer.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow created this theory in 1943, building a pyramid of needs from the most basic at the bottom (such as the things we need to literally survive), to the more growth-based at the top (the things that make life fulfilling).

For writers, this pyramid is pure gold.

It offers an inspiring set of potential goals that might be driving our protagonist, and even helps us decide what they’re lacking in their lives. The more fulfilled their needs are, the more likely their goal is going to come from higher up on the pyramid. And if not—then we know something has gone terribly wrong in the protagonist’s life.

If you’re not sure what your protagonist wants or is lacking, ask these five questions:

1. Are they struggling to survive?

Maslow’s Need: Physiological/Survival: Air, water, food, health, shelter, sleep, clothing, reproduction.

A protagonist struggling to survive is lacking the bare necessities. They might be stranded underwater and need air, or be lost in the desert in search of water. They might be starving. They could be homeless and have no place to sleep, or warm clothing to wear. It also covers the need to procreate, as life can’t continue if the species dies out.

Andy Weir’s The Martian is a perfect example here, as it covers several of these needs. Astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally left behind on Mars and has to find a way to survive until he can be rescued. A great deal of the story revolves around him figuring out how to grow food, stretch his supplies, create water, and survive in an inhospitable environment.

(Here’s more on Two Questions to Ask for Stronger Character Goals and Motivations) 

2. Are they just getting by?

Maslow’s Need: Safety/Security: Personal security, employment, resources, property, safety, stability.

A protagonist in a tough survival situation might have the bare necessities, but they lack the things that would make them feel secure, safe, and comfortable. Their life might be in danger, they might have been laid off, or fear losing their job, they might not have enough money to make ends meet. Maybe they’re defending their property against an oppressor, or searching for a home. They might even be a foster child shipped from home to home and school to school.

My own novel, The Shifter, uses this need. Nya is a war orphan in an occupied city, and she’s forced to use her special pain-shifting powers to get by. Much of the story focuses on her need to find work, keep her and the people she cares about safe, and find some stability in her life.

(Here’s more on What's My Motivation? Tips on Showing Character Motivations) 

3. Are they looking for a connection?

Maslow’s Need: Love/Belonging/Social Connection: Friendship, intimacy, family, sense of connection, inclusion.

A protagonist looking for a connection covers most romances and character-driven novels. Life might be stable and good, but there’s a hole inside that needs to be filled by another person. They might be looking for love, or in need of a friend. They might have troubles with a spouse or partner, or struggles with their family. Maybe they feel adrift and lost, and just seek their place in the world.

Jennifer Crusie’s Faking It explores several of these needs. Tilda Goodnight is trying to take care of her family while dealing with a con man she might be falling for. Much of the story revolves around family bonds, the search for love and intimacy, and finding people you can trust.

(Here’s more on Oh, Woe Is Me: Strengthening Character Goals) 

4. Are they looking to stand on the own two feet and/or make their mark on the world?

Maslow’s Need: Esteem/Ego: respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, freedom, power, control, fame, prestige, attention.

A protagonist might be more interested in making their mark on the world, or becoming their own person. They might even lack the ability to stand own their own. Maybe they’re looking for respect from their family or peers. Maybe they’re working to climb the social latter and achieve recognition for their abilities or actions. They might seek the strength to speak out against oppression, or even fight for their very freedom. And still others might be seeking fame and the glory of celebrity.

Sarah Skilton’s Fame Adjacent revolves around Holly Danner, the only member of a song-and-dance show who didn’t become famous. The lack of attention and recognition is central to the story, as is the need for Holly to find the strength to not be famous.

(Here’s more on The Core of Every Novel: The Big Want & The Big Fear) 

5. Are they trying to fill a hole in their lives?

Maslow’s Need: Self-actualization: Desire to become to most one can be. Personal development, growth, creativity, marriage or commitment, parenting.

A protagonist whose life is in order might be looking for fulfillment to fill the hole in their lives. This is a popular need in women’s fiction, where protagonists wonder if there’s something more to life. They might seek to find themselves and be the person they always wished they could be. They might dream of a career that allows them to embrace their creative side. Maybe they have problems they want to overcome, or a need to settle down and raise a family.

In Lea Geller’s Trophy Life, Agnes Parsons has everything she ever wanted—until she loses it all, and gets the chance to find out who she really is. It addresses the desire to be more, personal development, and the need to grow into who you really are.

(Here’s more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running) 

Brainstorming, ideas, goals,

Brainstorming goals doesn’t have to twist your brain into a knot.

When the potential goals for your protagonist are so vast it prevents you from finding the right one, narrowing your choices can help you focus. Check each need against your protagonist and narrow down what they lack. Once you figure that out, the right goal for your plot will appear.

How did I finally solve my goal problem?

I not only figured out what my protagonist in book two needed (self-actualization), I realized I have five books planned for this series. To keep the goals (and books) from feeling repetitive, I'm going to assign each book one level of Maslow’s Pyramid. It fits the theme of the series and works perfectly.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Consider which of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs your characters are pursuing in your story, and how they might affect your plot. If you’re stuck on goals, ask yourself what need your protagonist lacks, and how the pursuit of that need might drive your plot.

How do you develop your protagonist’s goals?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to: 
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to: 
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. 

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Perfect timing for my new novel.

    1. Oh good! Glad it was as useful for you as it was me.

  2. Perfect for filling holes. My protagonists (Cassie & Jason) have a lot of gaps. She wants a family or as she puts it "...a home is permanent. That's where the kids grow up and the husband forgets to put the seat down." Jason is a lawyer and likes to look at life logically. This pyramid will really help with their individual stories. Thanks, you just made my week!

  3. Great article, Janet! I've been having troubles along these lines. Good timing for me as well.


  4. OMG. Just realized I typed JANET instead of JANICE. Sooo sorry.

  5. Thank you, Janice. While I haven't been struggling with the plot for my story, identifying this goal helps when it comes to query development or pitches as well so this gives me some great guidance with that!

    1. Excellent! And a great way to use this in ways I hadn't thought of. Thanks for the extra tip.