What Does Your Protagonist Want BEFORE the Story Starts?

Imagine getting up in the morning and not wanting anything (not even coffee). No, seriously, try. Imagine having no agenda. Sure, that may sound great for a bit – especially given that crazy-busy seems to be the new normal.

But I’m not talking about taking a much-needed break. Because even when we do kick back and do nothing for a while, it’s usually so we can relax, rejuvenate, and get ready to tackle our ongoing agenda with more focus and verve (and coffee).

Instead, imagine you have no agenda at all, period. No desire, no plan – nor does anything really bother you, because if it did you’d try to do something about it, and then, bingo! You’d have an agenda. Instead, you’re goal-less, passively reacting to everything that happens, with no real opinion, desire or subjective need.

Truth is, the state I just described sounds kind of impossible. Because we humans always have a driving agenda, even if it’s just to be left alone. And that thing we want? It not only defines our agenda in the moment, but it’s been driving us for a very long time.

You know who else operates that way? Your protagonist. And yet writers often forget to ask what their protagonist has been striving toward before she’s tossed into that dark and stormy night on page one. And so said protagonist enters the story agenda-less, patiently waiting for the plot to bestow one upon her. As a result she becomes what the plot needs her to be, rather than the plot challenging who she already is – which is what a story is actually about. Sadly, this is why so many manuscripts fall into the dreaded realm of being nothing but “a bunch of things that happen.”

Here’s the simple, actionable fact: All protagonists enter the story already wanting something very badly. With that in mind, here are four questions to ask to be sure that your protagonist has a driving need that’s capable of steering your novel from start to finish:

1. What does my protagonist enter the story already wanting?

starting line, character motivation, goals, inner and outer, conflict

This is something she has wanted for a long time (think years, if not decades), not something she discovers she has a hankering for five minutes before she shows up on page one. What’s more, this desire is going to drive her story-specific agenda all the way to the end. Wait, you may be thinking. What she’s going to want is true love from the guy who’ll move into her dorm in chapter two, and her agenda will be to make him fall in love with her. Since she hasn’t met him yet, how on earth can she enter already wanting him? Are you saying I need to make her a psychic or something?

Happily, no. Here’s the secret: that guy will be the personification of what she entered the story already wanting. So let’s say what she wants someone who will love her for who she really is – and she thinks he’s her guy. Which brings us to . . .

2. Why does she want it?

This question – Gee, why would she want someone to love her for who she really is? —sounds a tad ridiculous, doesn’t it? I mean who wouldn’t want that? Which is precisely why that’s NOT the answer. It’s too generic. What you’re looking for is her unique, specific, personal reason.

The crucial element is: What does she think finding someone who’ll love her for who she is will say about her? How will achieving this goal affect how she sees herself?

Hmmm, well diving deeper, perhaps she has long felt that the social world sees her as considerably lesser-than, unworthy – a real misfit in fact — and she believes that if she is accepted by someone who the social world swoons for, it will prove to them, and to her, that she’s their equal. Perfect!

3. Yes, but is it what she really wants? If not, why not? And in that case, what DOES she really want?

We’re on a roll, so let’s stick with our misfit protagonist, and let’s say that, in fact, what she really wants is NOT her dorm mate’s love. She just thinks she does. Why is she wrong? Because getting his love is not going to make her feel worthy. In fact, it’s going to make her feel like a fraud, because – ironically – she doesn’t actually love him. Plus, turns out there’s another social misfit she hasn’t been able to admit to herself that she genuinely cares for, because if she did, it would double down on her misfit-ness (as far as her social world is concerned).

Here we get bonus points: because we’ve also just uncovered the most crucial layer of the story: our protagonist’s longstanding misbelief. That is, what she goes into the story believing to be true about human nature that, as it turns out, is wrong. Here, it’s the aforementioned notion that self-worth is something that is bestowed upon you by others, rather than something that comes from inside yourself. It is this misbelief that, scene-by-scene, the plot will force our protagonist to confront, reevaluate and hopefully overcome.

So okay, if she doesn’t want her dorm mate’s love, then what does she want? Our protagonist wants to stand on her own two feet and feel worthy as she is, and to stop beating herself up for being different. This is clearly something that, even if her dorm mate were her true love, no one else can give her. It’s something that she needs to come to on her own.

4. What has your protagonist been doing to achieve her agenda before page one, and how does she intend to bring it to fruition in the story-present?

This is a more important question than it may appear at first blush. Because this is the direct link between the driving desire your protagonist enters with (which often sounds conceptual, general, abstract) and how you make it real, tangible, and specific via clear, concrete action. Thus the answer wouldn’t be: My protagonist’s agenda is to find someone who will love her for who she is. Because, um, how? That’s totally conceptual. The “how” is the key question here. What is she doing specifically? Where is she in this quest? What steps is she taking, actively? In other words: what is her plan? We’re not just talking about her plan from the moment she steps onto page one, but her plan before that, the plan that led her there.

For instance, perhaps our protagonist took classes in high school, and now college, that the popular kids take – classes that she finds ridiculously easy, deeply dull and even at times, ethically questionable – the better to find someone who’ll validate her. The irony, of course, is that she’s been hiding who she really is, so if someone did fall for her, it wouldn’t be the real her at all. What’s more, perhaps keeping her true self (and beliefs) under wraps has left her so conflicted that her misfit nature is about to explode all over what is “socially acceptable.” Or maybe she’s been so unsuccessful in gaining the acceptance she craves that she feels utterly beaten down and is on the brink of realizing it’s a lost cause. Point being: she’s been trying to bring her plan to fruition for quite a while by the time you shove her onto the page. Yes, even if she’s already given up on getting what she wants.

Sounds counterintuitive doesn’t it? But accepting failure can be part of the cause-and-effect trajectory that catapults her onto the page and into the fray. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t still have the same desire she’s always had, it’s just that at this point in her life, she’s trying to make peace with the fact that it sure as heck seems like she’ll never get it.

To sum up, here are three things that define a potent driving desire:

  • It’s something that your protagonist has wanted and has been striving for probably since childhood, although not necessarily in the same form as she wants it now.
  • It has the capacity to fuel the protagonist’s story-specific agenda, from the first page to the last.
  • It has two layers:
    1. Externally, it’s the surface, plot-based, concrete thing that the protagonist wants.
    2. Internally (which is what matters most) it’s what getting it will mean to her.

And finally, once you know what your protagonist’s driving desire is, don’t forget to clue your reader into it, hopefully on the very first page. Think all those Disney musical “I Want” songs, which the great songwriter Howard Ashman once summed up as “when the leading lady sits down on something [onstage] and sings about what she wants in life.” Thus “the audience falls in love with her and then roots for her to get it for the rest of the night.”

Here’s hoping this helps you achieve your driving desire: to write a novel that leaps off the page straight into your reader’s heart.

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story can be found at Lynda.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.

In her work as a private story coach, Lisa helps writers of all ilk wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. For a library of her free myth-busting writing tips, and information on how to work with her one-on-one, you can find her at: wiredforstory.com

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This entry was posted in Character Arc, Characters, Motivation, Resident Writing Coach, Uncategorized, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to What Does Your Protagonist Want BEFORE the Story Starts?

  1. Opie says:

    Good article. One note: In the sum up section, “although not necessarily in the same from as she wants it now.” “From” should probably be “form.”

  2. Julie Hiner says:

    WOW !!! Great article! Thank you for the advice 🙂

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  5. Herman H. Woodworth says:

    Amazing post! Great effort you have done, this post is really helpful for our edubordie team. Thanks for sharing this informative stuff with us, keep sharing.

  6. I’m using Story Genius for the first time. After years of writing, I finally get what was missing. I’ve been recommending your book to everyone.

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  8. Julie Glover says:

    Hey, Lisa! While you talk about the protagonist here, I have a secondary character that isn’t working well, so I’m also taking notes on your great insight to use for him. It will really help me define what this other character comes into the story wanting, believing, and doing.

    This post is really timely for me. Thank you so much!

  9. Lisa, this was a really good topic. Thanks for the insights! It sure gave me some new ideas for my WIP.

  10. Grumps says:

    Thanks for delving below the surface, Lisa. Your article could also apply to real-life quests for a definitive purpose for the things we choose to do, and the consequences thereof. So, from both a factual and a fictional perspective, my appreciation is twofold. 🙂

  11. I’m so glad you chose to talk about this topic, Lisa. Inner motivation is, imo, the hardest thing to figure out. The outer goal is pretty obvious, but WHY does the character want/need it? That’s what is driving them. Such an important part of character development. Thank you!

  12. :Donna says:

    Great stuff, Lisa 🙂 Thank you!

  13. Julie Brown says:

    Great article Lisa. Your example made me think harder about my MC’s desires and how her “wants” and “needs” may not be compatible. In fact, she probably will have to sacrifice what she wants in order to realize what it is she needs. Does that make sense? I’m having trouble wrapping my brain around my own logic!

  14. As always, Lisa, I learn so much from you. Thanks for sharing these great tips from our Story Genius course and your book. I’ve shared the post online. I wish you every success in 2018.

    • Lisa Cron says:

      Oh Victoria, thank you so much — it was such a pleasure working with you and your memoir, you always had such insightful questions during the live Q&As. Every success in 2018 right back at you!

  15. Great post, Lisa! So many of the problems writers come to me about usually have the same root: they don’t understand what is motivating their character because they haven’t dug deep enough. Great example–I hope this sheds more light on internal motivation, and the past baggage that clouds the mind and holds the character hostage (and us!). The journey to understand it and move past it is such a compelling one, and resonates most of all with readers because we’re all on a universal path to grow (even if we don’t always see it as such). 🙂

    • Lisa Cron says:

      Thanks, Angela! Plus, I find the more we dig into our protagonist’s deepest driving desire, the closer we come to really unearthing our own. Which can be scary (and thrilling) too. And yes, I’ve learned so much about my own self by reading riveting novels — you’re in the protagonist’s head, experiencing what she does, and even if she’s the first empress of China — something you’ll never be — you’re thinking, wow, me too, I feel that too, but I never looked at it that way. Here’s to unparalleled the power of story!

  16. Celia Lewis says:

    Oh Lisa, you are so good!! And of course this is important… and of course, I ignore this part of the story when I write. Sigh. Thank you so much!! Now, back to the drawing board/editing/rewriting.

  17. Talia says:

    I’ve been confused about protagonists’ goals for a long time, and this post really helped clear things up. Thank you!! I have read SO many blogs and books about character goals, and all of them stress the importance of the MC having a goal throughout the entire story. That’s always confused me, because when I go to look at my protagonist, I’m like, “Which goal? The one he had at the beginning, or the one that actually gets fulfilled in the end?” Thanks for the help!! 🙂

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