A Protagonist’s Anatomy #1: Motive, Goals, Conflict & Epiphany
Well, it’s been a while since I did a series of posts so here begins my brand spanking new four post series entitled A Protagonist’s Anatomy. Over the next four weeks, I’ll be breaking down some of the most basic and essential elements that go into forming a full fledged character. This will be very much a whistle-stop tour of the various different elements that go into creating an imaginary person.
And so for the first post in the series it seemed only right that I begin with the four things that form the beating heart of any good character: motive, goals, conflict and epiphany.
I’ve written about these things on this blog a lot. Regular readers (♥) may feel like I’m repeating myself in this first instalment but I make no apology for that. Even if you have meticulously crafted every other element necessary to make a good character (we’ll come to those in the next couple of weeks), your character is as good as dead if they do not have a strong motive informing a clear goal hindered by a substantial conflict resolving in some kind of epiphany. This will not only produce a strong character but it will form the foundation of your story’s whole plot, so neglect it at your peril.
The most foundational element involved in making a character of substance is motive. This is, in the most simple terms possible, what gets your character up in the morning. Sure, the antagonist might be threatening to commit an act of unspeakable evil which will spell the end of life as we know it for all humanity, but why should the protagonist take it upon himself to do anything about it? Why not just leave it to the police? This is your motive; not what the character is trying to do but why they’re trying to do it. Ask yourself: what matters to this character more than anything else (e.g.: revenge, love, to escape their destiny, etc.). Then you will know their motive.
This, on the other hand, is precisely what your character is hoping to achieve before the end of the story (e.g.: to get to a certain place, to find a certain object, to marry a certain person). Try to be as precise as possible in your mind as to what your protagonist’s goal is because this also forms the foundation of the actual plot. The reader will intuitively understand that there is something that the protagonist must do, and that the story will not be finished until that goal has been decisively accomplished or thwarted. No goal, no story.
This is where characters and the overall plot really start to overlap: something is keeping your character from accomplishing their goal. In the best stories, most characters will struggle against both an external conflict and an internal one.
The external ones are usually pretty obvious, such as an antagonist whose own goals stand in direct contradiction to the goals of the protagonist, thus bringing the two characters into conflict with each other. However this will usually make for pretty bland reading if the protagonist does not also struggle with an internal conflict: personal demons that they carry with them wherever they go which they must overcome in order to accomplish their external goals. For instance, in the original Star Wars trilogy there is the obvious external conflict between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, but there is also an underlying internal conflict where Luke must learn to use the Force to defeat Vader without succumbing to the ‘dark side’ as his father did. In most stories, the protagonist finally triumphs over the antagonist only once he has overcome his own inner-conflict.
There is an old cliché that says we should not be called human beings but human becomings, because we are all in a constant state of change (hopefully for the better). If you want your characters to read like real live people (and you do, dear reader) then you absolutely must reflect this in your writing. Your protagonist must evolve between the first and the final chapters, usually by learning an important lesson having finally put to bed the inner demons they have been wrestling with throughout the story.
Thanks for reading. Be sure to come back next week for part 2, where we’ll be looking at developing a protagonist’s back story.
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Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlight, drop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.
I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.
Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.
You can check out our previous interviews here:
- Sharleen Nelson, author of The Time Tourists 
- D. Wallace Peach, author of the Shattered Sea duology 
- Jacob Klop, author of Crooked Souls
- H.L. Walsh, author of From Men and Angels 
- G.M. Nair, author of Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire
- Georgia Springate, author of Beyond
- S.E. Morgan, author of From Waterloo to Water Street
- Megan Pighetti, author of Fairy-Tailed Wish 
- Nancet Marques, author of Chino and the Boy Scouts [VIDEO]