Thursday, June 2, 2011

What Does Your Protagonist Want?

by Laurie Boris

Maybe you've heard this canard tossed about in writing conferences or on writing blogs: your protagonist has to want something.

So, what the heck does that mean? Isn't it enough, you might think, to just tell the story?

Well, technically, that's the bare bones of the beast. But to really make your fiction pop, your protagonist needs a compelling goal that will keep readers turning pages to see how he or she is going to achieve such a seemingly impossible task.

Think about some of your favorite and most riveting novels. The ones that kept you up past your bedtime, while you read chapter after chapter, and left you yawning at your desk in the morning, hugging your double espresso. The protagonist probably wants something desperately, deeply, and so badly that he or she would be willing to sacrifice anything up to and including his or her life.

For example, in Kathryn Stockett's The Help, one of the protagonists, Miss Skeeter, desperately wants to tell the stories of the African-American women who work as maids in the racially-charged environment of 1960s Mississippi, where the consequences of telling these stories could mean getting the maids fired or imprisoned. She wants this so badly that she turns her back on societal expectations of a white woman in that time and place and finds herself ostracized by her former friends. But she still does it. And we keep reading because we want her to achieve that goal.

For the two young Afghani women at the center of Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, their desire is to stay alive in their war-torn country under the thumb of various oppressive and violent regimes. As readers, we've developed sympathy for them and pull for them to succeed.

This overarching desire doesn't always require bigger-than-big, life-or-death heroic action. It could be quieter, but still as compelling. Macon Leary, the protagonist of Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, just wants to get on with his life after losing his son in a random shooting.

What about your protagonist? Is it an old score he wants to settle? An unmet desire? Curiosity about the path not taken, when she meets an old friend who took it? (This is basically both protagonists' desires in the film, The Turning Point. Excellent rental, by the way.) Or is your hero in danger and looking to escape? If you're writing literary fiction or something with a more character-driven plot, see what drives your character. This should give you some hints about what's important, what's worth leaving the comfort of his or her daily existence for, and maybe, what's worth risking everything for.

Still have no idea what your protagonist wants? Sometimes, all you have to do is ask. Try this writing exercise that's really worked for me. Grab a notebook and get into a quiet place, where you won't be disturbed. Take a few deep breaths. Imagine that your protagonist is sitting right next to you. Fill in as much detail as you can in your mind, down to what he or she is wearing, and even the subtle gestures this character makes. Then do a little interview. Ask your protagonist what he or she wants. Be patient and pay attention. What you learn might surprise you.

What are some of your favorite protagonists from the novels you've read? What moves them? What do they want? What keeps you turning the page?


Laurie Boris is the author of The Joke's on Me, due out from 4RV Publishing this summer. She also blogs about writing, books, and the language of popular culture at


  1. Wonderful article. Thanks for the hints and words to the wise. This holds true for a novel or short story and even for the picture books some of us create.

  2. So true, Laurie. I guess we all have a goal, whether a huge one or a small one, and our protagonist, to be believable and to make us care, must, too.


  3. Wonderful as always! You are the best! Love ya! MOM

  4. I love the idea of doing an interview of your protagonist. It just opened my eyes to a character I have been struggling with for years. Much appreciated. Well written post. Thank you.


  5. I have a writing book that has pages and pages of fill-in-the-blanks to help you form and shape all your characters. I prefer your interview idea, though; it's much simpler than getting bogged down in elaborate exercises that feel too much like something I'd have to do in detention after school. Good stuff, as always!

  6. Good advice. There are many protagonists that I remember and like, but my favorite of all times is Katie Scarlett O'Hara. My favorite book. My favorite hunk. (Rhett)

    Scarlett is so self-centered that you want to give her a spanking. She stops at almost nothing to get what she wants. And when she fails, she keeps on trying.