Stories start with a plot goal.
While many writers point to conflict, or even the antagonist, as the first element of plot, in reality, it’s a goal that kicks plot off. You can’t have meaningful conflict, if there isn’t a plot goal in place. And at its heart, an antagonist is what is opposing the protagonist’s goal. So you can’t have a real, formidable antagonist, until you have a protagonist who has a goal.
Admittedly though, many of us have a limited perspective of what a goal actually is. When we hear the word we often think of obtaining or acquiring a status or item. But at the most basic level, there are in fact three types. And understanding which type you are writing about will also give insight into your protagonist.
A goal of obtaining is the most obvious. Here the protagonist may want to obtain treasure, a trophy, a magical item, a job position, or a loving relationship. This may also be something that could be on a bucket list, like run a marathon or travel to Egypt. Or simply an accomplishment the character is actively pursuing.
Protagonists with these goals tend to be go-getters. They are self-motivated, and as such typically want to embark on the “journey” (even if they commonly hesitate for a moment). Their stories are often more aspirational.
Some examples include Ariel longing to join the humans, Indiana Jones seeking a valuable artifact, or Sherlock Holmes wanting to solve a case.
These types of protagonists usually have an “itch they can’t scratch” and will go to great lengths and take significant risks to successfully “scratch” it.
These protagonists tend to be easier to write, because it’s clear upfront what these characters want, and since they are self-motivated, they will naturally make plans and take actions to obtain their desires. You just need to put the right obstacles in front of them.
Sometimes the goal is to avoid or stop something. The protagonist wants to avoid zombies, a plane crash, an enemy, a job termination, prison time, or a broken heart, for example. He may want to stop a terrorist attack or the world from ending. In some cases, he may only be able to minimize the damage, and he wants to minimize it as much as possible; he can’t stop a volcano from erupting, but he can help evacuate citizens.
Protagonists with these plot goal may not be as self-motivated, and may not be natural go-getters. They are acting because they can’t allow something bad to happen—this means they may act out of preservation. They want to save their own lives (literally or figuratively) or they want to save another’s life (literally or figuratively), whether that other entity is a person, place, or thing.
Of course, it’s possible they are go-getters as well, and want to be something meaningful. Essentially, they may be eager to “play the hero,” or they may be a very reluctant hero, or anything in between. If the former, this is their chance to prove themselves. If the latter, this is a chore they are doing because they can’t stand idly by while the world ends.
Some examples include Batman trying to stop the Joker, Cooper wanting to save everyone on Earth in Interstellar, and Cage avoiding death and defeating aliens in Edge of Tomorrow.
Because the character wants to avoid something, it’s important to make sure he is still making plans and taking actions to do that, so he stays active in the plot. Otherwise, he’s just making wishes as he witnesses the world unravel.
Sometimes the goal is to maintain life as it is. The protagonist may already have what she wants, or be on a passive course to soon get what she wants. She loves her job, her vacation plans, her domestic life, her spouse. She may want nothing more than to kick up her legs with a lemonade at the beach or to continue her workaholic trajectory, if she’s passionate about her career.
Or maybe she doesn’t love her life, but seeks to maintain it because she has no vision of how to obtain something better. She doesn’t believe she can have something better. Or is just focused on getting by.
Protagonists of the former type almost always turn out to be reluctant heroes. Something comes along (the inciting incident) and disrupts their perfect lifestyle. What they had is thrown off balance or is now in jeopardy, and they seek to act to regain that equilibrium.
Protagonists of the latter type are less common. What may happen is that the inciting incident allows them to gain a vision for something better. They realize there is a way to improve their circumstances.
In either case (or anything in between), the goal usually turns into one of the other two types at the end of Act I.
Examples include Shrek wanting to maintain his life in his isolated swamp and Barbie wanting to relive her perfect day every day.
Characters with the plot goal of maintaining can often be the trickiest to write. Because they aim to keep things as they are, they often aren’t motivated to take (risky) action, and may not have obvious antagonists present to create conflict. Often the best tip is to jeopardize whatever it is they seek to maintain, and then they will be compelled to act, often to get it back.
Antagonists Oppose the Plot Goal
Often characters with the goal of maintaining get a bad rap, because at first glance they may appear to be too passive and therefore less interesting. Audiences find it harder to care about a character who has little to no plans about what to do next. But a goal of maintaining is really only a problem if there is no antagonistic force.
If nothing is endangering or complicating the goal to maintain, then there really isn’t much of a plot, and there really isn’t much of a story.
But the same thing can be said of the other two types of goals as well.
If Indiana Jones could just travel, pick up the Ark of the Covenant, and head home, it wouldn’t be much of a story.
Likewise, if Batman wanted to stop crime in Gotham, and there was no crime, it wouldn’t be much of a story.
Every story needs antagonistic forces, and these should be forces that oppose and create resistance to the goal, not just nuisances and hecklers. It’s that opposition that creates the strongest conflict.
Changing Goals and Multiple Plot Goals
Goals can change or shift throughout the story, and a protagonist may have multiple goals. For example, Barbie’s initial goal is to maintain her perfect life. When that gets disrupted, it changes to a goal of avoiding. She wants to stop her flat feet and cellulite in order to regain that life. But in order to do that, she must find and right things with the person who owns her doll. These are goals of obtaining.
And in some stories, the categories may seem to overlap. Katniss wants to win the Hunger Games (obtaining) because she wants to avoid dying.
Nonetheless, it can be helpful to understand which goal type you are working with. A story focused on obtaining a trophy has a different feel than a story about avoiding a natural disaster, and the protagonists will likely function a little differently in their plots.
The most important things though, are that the protagonist almost always has a communicated goal, and an antagonistic force is opposing it.
Unless there is a goal on the page, the “antagonist” and “conflict” won’t hit as effectively.
About September C. Fawkes:
Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing. She has worked in the fiction-writing industry for over ten years and has edited for both award-winning and best-selling authors, as well as beginning writers. She runs a writing tip blog at SeptemberCFawkes.com and offers an online writing course, The Triarchy Method of Story. When not editing and instructing, she’s penning her own stories. Some may say she needs to get a social life. It’d be easier if her fictional one wasn’t so interesting.