Your protagonist (or any POV character, for that matter) needs to have a story goal. This is above and beyond an urge or desire or hope. A story goal is concrete, and it requires steps that will lead the character into the story’s conflict.
Your character may be dissatisfied with her life. Maybe she is married to a bum, and she is stuck at a job she hates. She dreams of finding true love and escaping her hell hole to a cottage by the sea where she can paint landscapes, a passion she long abandoned.
This is a decent start but a dream or a longing does not make a story goal. Stakes are missing and so are the steps the character needs to take that will lead her straight into lots of juicy trouble. Until that happens, it’s nothing but an unfulfilled wish, and therefore it is passive. This kind of story will fizzle out before it gets started.
A strong story goal is concrete and tangible.
Describing a story goal as “searching for her strength” or “struggling to become self-confident” is not quite concrete or specific enough. Although those desires may be accurate, they are so vague that they could describe any heroine in any story. You don’t want to describe any heroine in any story. You want to describe your heroine in your story. You want to show how your story is set apart from all the other stories out there. This always boils down to character, motivation, and story goal.
Following are five steps that you can use to test out your protagonist’s story goal. I’ll illustrate them using an example:
Q: What is my protagonist’s story goal?
A: She wants to be happy.
Step 1 – What does “wants to be happy” mean to my protagonist, specifically?
-Does it mean finding the right guy?
-Does it mean confronting her estranged father?
-Does it mean being offered representation by a literary agent? 😉
(Ask yourself as many questions as you can until you can truly narrow it down to a specific happening.)
Step 2 – Niche your story goal down to the nitty-gritty. (Say your heroine wants to find the right guy.)
-Who or what stopped her from finding the right guy in the past?
-Why does she want to find the right guy now?
-What would she hope to do once she finds the right guy?
These additional questions allow you to zoom in on your protagonist’s personal reasons which are unique to her. This helps you create a heroine that is fresh and original and not a cardboard cutout of every other heroine.
Step 3—what steps does your heroine need to take to find the right guy?
If you say “she learns that she is lonely, so she decides to meet some guys” – you are too vague and ambiguous.
“Learning”, “knowing”, “thinking”, “hoping”, “recognizing”, “decides,” etc. in and of themselves aren’t steps. They are processes. They are also very difficult to “show” in a book without concrete action.
The process of “learning”, “knowing”, “deciding” etc. is important, but a story is about CONFLICT. Where in those aforementioned processes do we see conflict?
Nowhere. It’s just there, as part of our daily ritual. We all go through it, there is nothing unique or interesting about any of that.
But actionable steps will automatically lead your heroine into conflict. From there, we see her struggling to reach her story goal, which is, in this example, to find the right guy.
Name on step someone would need to take in order to find the right guy.
Go out on a date.
This is a great actionable, concrete step that can be turned into a scene with conflict and reaction.
We see the character take a step toward “learning” that she can find the right guy, and her decision to find the right guy is all about going out on a date–a concrete step that could potentially work or not in her favor.
Of course, your story is going to need more than one step—but this would be the kind of process you can follow to figure out additional steps (full of conflict!)
Step 4—Now we want to commit your character to her story goal.
If she continues to resist and avoid and never go out on dates, well, then the story pretty much fizzles out.
If finding the right guy is the goal, and she takes a step by going out on a date, what would it take her to commit even further so she can achieve her goal? Maybe the date went really well and she is encouraged that there are good guys out there. OR, maybe it could have gone terribly wrong but she is tired of coming home to an empty apartment night after night.
Warning #1: You don’t want to fall into the trap of ambiguous language with your story goal.
It’s far too easy to say “the date went well.” What exactly constitutes a successful date? Was he a gentleman? Was he a polite eater? A good conversationalist? A hefty tipper? Did he compliment her shoes? – every heroine will have a different response to this. It’s important (AGAIN) to know how your character would respond. What is she looking for in a guy, and how is that revealed in this awesome date?
All of this comes down to your unique character and what she brings to the table. Where one heroine could be ironically motivated by a bad date, another heroine might give up trying. This is why it’s so important to know your characters’ histories—their childhoods, their family life, ghosts, traumas, wins, dreams, failures. All of that stuff doesn’t go in the book—but you as the author need the information to help you answer these kinds of questions.
Warning #2: Just because going out on a date makes for a great actionable step toward her story goal, do not keep her steps only about dates.
Vary the steps to keep things interesting and fresh for your readers.
Keep asking yourself questions about your heroine to figure out what she would logically, naturally do? What about your heroine would make her commit to her story goal?
Step 5 – Now put it all together:
-Identify your protagonist’s story goal
-What makes that story goal unique & specific to your protagonist?
-Determine the steps your protagonist needs to take in order to pursue the story goal.
-What event(s) will push your protagonist to commit to the story goal, despite all the setbacks she encounters?
Once you’ve structured the above into a concrete goal with actionable steps, you can begin to plot out your character’s path through scenes full of conflict!
Do you know your protagonist’s story goal? What is the process you follow to figure it out?