Quest or Quarry: Crafting a compelling narrative goal
By David G Brown
A clear, specific, and relatable narrative goal is one of the fundamentals of storytelling. That goal can shift and change as the story progresses, but it should always be clear to the reader, and it should be reinforced repeatedly. What a character wants is what the story will be about. This goal should also be quantifiable so that by the end of the story the reader will know if the character has gotten what they wanted or not. Your job is to make it nearly impossible for the protagonist to achieve their goal. That way you create constant tension and suspense.
The protagonist’s goal drives the plot forward, creates tension, and provides the emotional draw that keeps readers engaged and invested in the story. However, choosing the right narrative goal for a protagonist can be challenging. Too often, new writers fall into the trap of having a passive protagonist, a narrative goal that meanders without connective tissue between the inciting incident and the climax, or a goal that is too vague to provide sufficient tension and stakes.
Let’s look at some of these common issues and at some examples of narrative goals from famous novels.
Passive Protagonist Syndrome
A protagonist becomes passive when they are pulled through the story by the actions of others, rather than forging their own destiny through the choices they make and the risks they take. A passive protagonist lacks agency and fails to drive the story forward, leading to a lack of tension and emotional investment for the reader. They don’t go out and do things. Things happen to them.
In all but the most experimental fiction, the protagonist’s goal IS the engine that powers the novel through from the inciting incident all the way to the climax. At every moment, the protagonist must be trying (and failing) to achieve their goal. If they’re passive, that means they’re not doing this—or that someone else is doing it for them.
It's important to differentiate between a passive protagonist and an unwilling or reluctant protagonist. An unwilling or reluctant protagonist may initially resist the momentum of the plot, but they eventually become active participants in the story, thereby determining the final outcome. This type of protagonist adds layers of complexity and tension to the story, as they must overcome their own fears and reservations to achieve their goal.
While survival can be a compelling goal for a protagonist, it can also make the protagonist seem passive if they are constantly being subjected to events outside of their control or agency. In these cases, it may seem like the protagonist is simply a victim of circumstance, rather than an active agent in the story. However, even in survival stories, the protagonist can still be active in adapting and reacting to the challenges they face. This type of protagonist may be struggling to overcome their fears, limitations, or personal demons, and their reactions to the events that are happening to them can still provide momentum to the story.
Relationship arcs can also provide momentum in survival stories (in all stories, really). The protagonist's relationships with other characters can drive the story forward, creating tension and providing the emotional draw that keeps the reader engaged. By focusing on the protagonist's relationships, writers can create a survival story that is not only about physical survival, but also about emotional and psychological survival.
To avoid the trap of Passive Protagonist Syndrome, writers need to ensure that their protagonist is active and taking charge of their own fate. This means giving the protagonist a clear, specific, and relatable narrative goal, and having them make choices, take risks, and struggle to achieve that goal. In that way, writers can create a sense of urgency and anticipation in the reader, thereby turning a passive protagonist into a dynamic and engaging character that drives the story forward.
A meandering narrative goal is one in which the protagonist embarks on a series of unconnected or loosely connected quests, without a clear and defined connection between the inciting incident and the climax. This type of narrative goal can lead to a lack of tension and emotional investment for the reader, as there is no clear destination or end goal for the protagonist to strive toward.
When a narrative goal meanders, it can become difficult for the reader to understand the protagonist's motivations and the stakes associated with their actions. This makes it challenging for the reader to be invested in the story.
An unmotivated protagonist will seem aimless, and the story will wander. Our job as writers is to make the reader care about our protagonist. Giving the protagonist a goal also gives the reader a reason to root for them. We want the reader to care if our protagonist fails or gets into trouble. That’s why we keep making things go wrong for our poor protagonist. It creates empathy.
One exception: coming-of-age stories. The goal in these stories is typically maturation, gaining independence, or coming to know oneself. As a result, coming-of-age stories tend to be more episodic, with each episode or thread contributing to the protagonist's journey toward their ultimate goal. In these stories, the connective tissue is the overarching goal of growing up and the lessons the protagonist learns along the way. Even though the individual threads may not have a clear connection to the climax, they all work toward the same goal of maturation and growth for the protagonist.
Vague Narrative Goals
While it's important to choose a goal that is relatable and meaningful to the protagonist, it's also crucial to ensure that the goal is specific enough to provide direction and momentum to the story. Goals that are too vague, such as "finding love" or "dedication to family," are more like character traits or themes, rather than true narrative goals.
For example, "winning the heart of the town's mayor" is more specific than simply "finding love." Similarly, "saving the family farm from foreclosure" will work better as a goal than simply "dedication to family."
Ten Examples of Strong Narrative Goals from Famous Novels
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Jay Gatsby's goal is to win back the love of Daisy Buchanan. If he fails, he will lose her forever and be left with a life devoid of love and purpose.
- A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin: Ged's goal is to master the magic within him and defeat the evil shadow that he unleashed upon the world. If he fails, the shadow will consume him and spread darkness throughout Earthsea.
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: Frodo Baggins' goal is to destroy the One Ring and defeat the Dark Lord Sauron. If he fails, Sauron will rule Middle Earth and all its inhabitants will be doomed.
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery: Anne Shirley's goal is to prove her worth as an adopted child and win the hearts of her new family, the Cuthberts, despite the challenges posed by her fiery temper and vivid imagination. If she fails, she may be sent back to an orphanage and lose the chance at a real home and family.
- 1984 by George Orwell: Winston Smith's goal is to rebel against the oppressive government and discover the truth about the past. To do this, he must navigate the surveillance state and avoid detection by the Thought Police. He also seeks to connect with other rebels and overthrow the government, which has complete control over all aspects of life and manipulates the truth to maintain power. If he fails, he will be caught and punished, and the government will continue to control and manipulate the truth, perpetuating the cycle of oppression.
- Dune by Frank Herbert: Paul Atreides' goal is to reclaim his family's rightful place as rulers of Arrakis, the only source of the valuable spice melange. To do this, he must navigate the dangerous political landscape, gain the loyalty of the Fremen, and defeat the evil Harkonnen family, who control the spice and have a stranglehold on Arrakis. If he fails, his family will be destroyed, and the valuable spice will remain in the control of the Harkonnen, causing further suffering and exploitation of the people of Arrakis.
- The Martian by Andy Weir: Mark Watney's goal is to survive and find a way back to Earth, despite the challenges posed by his isolation and limited resources on Mars. If he fails, he will die alone.
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: Esther Greenwood's goal is to survive depression and bipolar disorder while building a meaningful and independent life as a writer in New York City. If she fails, she may become a victim to her illness and lose her independence forever.
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez: The Buendía family's goal is to break the cycle of selfish obsessions. If they fail, they will continue to live in solitude and doom the family to ruin.
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: Katniss Everdeen's goal is to survive the Hunger Games and, eventually, overthrow the oppressive regime of the Capitol, despite the challenges posed by the brutal competition and the Capitol's power. If she fails, her life is forfeit.
A protagonist's narrative goal is a critical element in the success of a story. A goal that is clear, specific, and relatable not only drives the story forward, but also creates a sense of anticipation and urgency for the reader. To ensure that your protagonist's goal is strong enough to build and maintain emotional draw, consider the following:
- Is the goal personal to the protagonist? Does it reflect their inner desires, fears, or motivations?
- Does the goal have a clear and tangible outcome? Will the reader understand what success or failure looks like for the protagonist?
- Is the goal big enough to generate conflict and tension? Will the reader be invested in the outcome because the stakes are high and personal?
But an external goal is only the beginning. Your protagonist will be pursuing that goal for a reason, and that reason will be connected to an inner conflict that has likely been brewing for most of their lives. They believe that attaining this external goal will solve their internal problem. Or to put it another way, their internal conflict is the thing that drives their desire to achieve their goal. To learn more about the intersections of internal and external conflict, click here.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.