Protagonists are responsible for driving a story forward towards its ultimate goal. If there is some confusion over who they are, or the goal itself is unclear, an audience’s interest in the events that unfold on screen will quickly fade.
Whenever a story feels weak, or seems to meander with no real sense of purpose, nine times out of ten there is confusion over who the Protagonist is and what the Story Goal is. By definition, the Protagonist pursues the Story Goal. Now this could be the same character we experience the story through (and most often is), but as explained in my article on Redefining Protagonist and Main Character, this is not always the case.
So why differentiate between the two?
Because when you’re trying to figure out what is wrong with your story, you need to be absolutely clear about what piece you are actually looking at. There has been much confusion over the years between these two concepts, confusion that, unfortunately, has led authors to rewrite something that was possibly already working. When a story feels flat or slow somewhere during the 2nd act, an unknowing author may try to force their Main Character into doing something that is out of character or incompatible with the rest of the story.
Imagine if Red in The Shawshank Redemption had started actively working towards Andy’s freedom because King was worried that the “driving force” of the story was waning. Or what if Rick in Casablanca had tried to get the letters of transit into Laszlo’s hands before he gave that classic nod to his band. Horrid thought, right?
But this is precisely the kind of thing that happens when someone doesn’t truly understand how a complete story is structured.
The moment the Inciting Incident occurs, balance in the story’s world is upset. Before the end of the first act, the Protagonist will spring into action and work to restore balance to the world by solving the story’s major problem. That effort is a pursuit towards the Story Goal.
So how can you determine if the Main Character is the Protagonist?
Identifying the Story Goal
Before you can figure out who is pursuing the goal, it helps to know what that goal actually is. While every character in a story might have his or her own personal goal, the Story Goal is the thing that everyone in the story is concerned with. There should always be some universal problem that affects everyone as this not only ties everyone together, but also insures that the author’s message is clear and definite. If your story doesn’t have this Story Goal, it might help to step further back and learn about Writing Complete Stories.
In The Terminator, problems exist because a naked killing machine has been sent back in time to murder Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Stopping him before he can do this is the Goal of the story. This goal begins the moment when he arrives in that electric blue ball — the natural balance of things is upset and the Goal seeks to right that.
The person leading the charge towards that goal is Reese (Michael Biehn). Reese, therefore, is the Protagonist of the story because he is the one pursuing the completion of the Story Goal. Sarah is our way into the story, and thus is the Main Character. She can’t be considered the one moving towards the goal because she doesn’t do much of anything. Eventually, she gets to the point where she has to take over for Reese, but not until very late into the story.
The Protagonist needs to be pursuing the Goal of a story throughout every act, even throughout the first. When they don’t, you end up with stores that have little to no narrative drive.
Stories That Meander
In Zombieland, problems exist because zombies have overrun the world. Getting somewhere safe is the goal of the story, and for some reason, an amusement park near Los Angeles is considered a safe zone. It’s like The Road, just without all that ash!
The ones leading that charge are the girls, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). The Main Character, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), isn’t driven towards the safety of the amusement park as much as he is to basically survive. Sure, he wants to find his parents, but in the overall scheme of things and the road trip to L.A., he seems more like a passenger than the one doing all the driving. He has his own control issues to deal with and overcoming those would be his personal goal, but as far as all the other characters are concerned reaching the safety of the park is everything.
The problem with the story, though, is that the girls are really weak Protagonists. This is why, when they reach a certain celebrity’s house near the end of the 2nd act, everything in the story comes to a grinding halt. With no one actively pursuing to resolve the story’s major problem, the audience has no idea where the story is headed or when it is ever going to end. It takes them out of the experience.
That moment with said celebrity is fun, but it slows the story down. If at least one of them had kept trying to leave, or kept reminding everyone of what they were really after, dramatic tension would have remained at a higher level and the story would have been stronger.
Stories That Live
Narrative drive exists when there is an effort being made to restore balance to the world of the story. This is the Goal of the story that everyone is concerned with. If the Goal is unclear or there is confusion over who is the one leading the charge towards it, this drive is weakened and the story suffers for it. A clearly defined Protagonist, in pursuit of a Story’s Goal from the first act through the last, is one of the keys towards writing a compelling story.