Writing an interesting protagonist – Goals & Motivation

In a character driven story, the protagonist needs a goal to push the story through. There’s something tangible that the character is trying to achieve that either they succeed in the end or they fail, but that goal needs to be established. What that goal is can be literally anything so long as the writer can create an engaging and entertaining story from it. But that goal also requires motivation for the protagonist and their allies to make it worth pursuing. Rarely does a person pursue a goal with no purpose behind it. Often the motivation for achieving said goal is more valuable than the goal itself. But creating the two in tandem is key to creating an exciting and emotionally resonant story.

Mild Spoilers: The Reckoners #1 Steelheart and Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #3 – The Ship of the Dead

The challenge though, for most authors, is making a goal for the protagonists and friends (maybe not friends but allies or a team of sorts) that feels like it’s worth telling a story about. Often to make a goal feel important to the audience is making it something people can understand or relate to. It can be a story of love, vengeance, saving the day, or literally anything so long as the audience can understand and appreciate why someone would go through the effort of achieving that goal. The simple example that most people can understand is the idea of saving the day. If the protagonist doesn’t push forward and try to achieve the goal, a lot of people could die.

But a goal of saving the world is not enough to quite justify or keep an audience’s interest. It’s a generic goal that serves as something to work towards but not quite a reason to drive a character towards that goal. That’s where motivation to achieve that goal is vital. Motivation is a very emotional concept often incorrectly assumed to be the same as discipline. Motivation can be fleeting but often it comes from inspiration or some emotional response to the situation. Saving the world, for instance, is a generic goal that is easy to understand but not necessarily really feel attached to. Now if the protagonist is saving the world to protect their family, their love interest, their friends or something they really care about, the audience will often feel the tension when the protagonist struggles towards that goal. If the protagonist fails, the people they care about could die and that is far more emotionally resonant than just the broad and general concept of the world.

Having a strong motivation can justify the character’s growth and background when it’s directly connected to the goal of the story. A really good example of this is David Charleston from The Reckoners #1: Steelheart. His ultimate goal is to kill Steelheart because Steelheart killed his father. It’s a very simple goal but the motivation is so emotionally charged for how his father was murdered and the context around it. That sole moment served as David’s motivation to struggle and push against what his world had become. It’s what drives him to learn so much about Epics, how they work, observing their weaknesses, and what their powers can do. Because of all the work and effort David has put into his goal, because of how emotionally connected he is to his motivation for vengeance, it’s easier for the audience to be invested in his story. We want to see him succeed and the tension whenever he could fail is far more palpable because of that.

But not only does motivation give reason and excitement to see a protagonist to work towards accomplishing their goal, it also serves to justify why the protagonist IS the protagonist. The motivation towards the goal of the story has to be something emotionally connecting the protagonist to the core of the story, otherwise it can feel a bit lost and unengaging. Magnus Chase in the third book Magnus Chase and The Gods of Asgard #3 – The Ship of The Dead is an example of a protagonist not feeling connected to the conflict. The goal is simple, to stop Loki, but the motivation never really felt separate from that goal. There are several times where Magnus talks about what could be lost if Loki wins but it comes off more as factual rather than something he cares about on a very deep and emotional level. This is despite the fact that Loki was involved in killing Magnus’ mother and effectively ruining his life. It’s a simple motivation however it’s never used as motivation to push the story forward. The story feels more like it’s moving for the sake of the plot as opposed to the protagonist.

Goals and motivations need to be carefully crafted as their central to both the protagonist and the main plot of the story. There’s a reason why stories feel so emotionally impactful, a reason why we root for our heroes to accomplish their goals. That core motivation that drives the story forward comes from the characters and makes it far more relatable to the average member of the audience. We all have goals we want to achieve and often we all struggle to work towards them. Seeing characters struggle and work towards their desires can be inspiring and, I believe, that’s the best purpose a story can achieve.

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