The Basics of Critiquing II: More on Protagonists and (Slippery) Goals

So earlier we were talking about the basics of critiquing being identifying the protagonist, and identifying the goal.  But both can be a little tricky, so I thought I’d take the discussion to the next level.

What if the protagonist isn’t clear?

Protags can be much trickier than you think. And there are other questions that come up:

  • Can there be more than one?
  • Is he always the “good guy”?

Identifying the protagonist can be tricky because it can seem like there are lots of “important” people in the book. (And in romance novels, there are always two, right? The hero and a heroine?) Most argue that  there can only be one protagonist, but then “ensemble pieces” will invariably come up in the conversation (The Big Chill, for instance) and shoot that theory out of the water. But yes, there is usually only one protagonist. In romances, it’s accepted that the hero or the heroine is considered the protagonist, and the other is a “helper.” The protagonist is the one who is seeking the biggest goal, and has the most to lose if he/she doesn’t change. And no, he/she doesn’t necessarily have to be “good.” The protagonist simply has to have a goal and chase it through the book.

  • Rambo is a protagonist.
  • Madame Bovary is a protagonist.
  • Harry Potter is a protagonist.
  • Dexter is a protagonist.
  • Tom Ripley is a protagonist.

But sometimes it gets really tricky. In The Great Gatsby, for instance, the story is told from the point of view of Nick, who is Gatsby’s neighbor. It would be easy to think Nick is the protagonist. He’s telling the story, and he ends up embroiled in all of Gatsby’s schemes. And he grows a lot in the book. But Gatsby is still the main character in both stories:  the book itself and the story we’re hearing from Nick. Gatsby is the one seeking the main goal (Daisy). Nick tells us this story, and seeks his own goal in a way (the truth about Gatsby), and grows the most (Gatsby doesn’t), but I still ascertain that Gatsby is the protag. (This one is fun to argue, though, especially in light of the fact that Fitzgerald didn’t really want to put Gatsby’s name in the original title, so have at it amongst yourselves. …)

So when you begin your critique, mull over in your head who the protagonist is – it can be fun to think about, and much more challenging than you might suppose. It’s also fun to analyze why an author chose that person as the protagonist. For instance, why did Truman Capote choose the killer as the protagonist of In Cold Blood instead of, say, a cop?

More on goals

Goals, too, can be tricky and hard to pin down, which makes discussing them fun.

  • Can there be more than one goal?
  • Can the goal change?
  • Is it something “hard” like a chalice, or is it something esoteric, like “fame”?

The answers are yes, yes, and yes — there can be more than one goal (often several characters have them, and they are often opposing, which makes the story exciting). The protagonist can have more than one goal also (although this can get messy and isn’t usually as great as a book where the goal is clear and defined). And yes, the goal can change for the protagonist. It often does, in fact (Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, has to achieve several goals in step — from finding the wizard to catching the balloon — before she can achieve the ultimate goal, which is to get home). And yes, the goal can be “hard” and can also be esoteric: in fact, having one of each is great.

Great example of goals

A great example of a good use of goals is in the recent movie Up in the Air. (I assume these goals are in the book, too, but I haven’t read it, so I’ll just discuss the movie.) (Spoilers-galore here.)

  • Protagonist: Ryan Bingham (George Clooney character)
  • External goal: a frequent-flier “gold card”
  • Internal goal that he acknowledges: Independence, living light and free

By the end of the story, Ryan has gotten his original goal (the gold card) but he realizes it’s not what he really wanted. By the time the movie ends, he realizes he really wanted companionship, and he switches goals at the very end. He doesn’t get that second goal, however, which gives the movie a sad ending.

The reason the movie did such a great job with the goals is that it features an external goal (something literal that the characters are chasing) as well as an internal goal. In Up in the Air, for instance, the gold card clearly represents independence and “flying free,” which Ryan pursues for the first half of the movie. Later in the movie, he is also asked to haul around this giant posterboard of his sister and her fiancé to take pictures of them in front of various national landmarks. This symbol clearly represents companionship and marriage, and the posterboard takes quite a beating throughout the movie as it doesn’t “fit in Ryan’s life” (or his suitcase). It even gets blown into a harbor as he argues with another character about how much he wants to avoid commitment.

Anyway, these “hard” items that represent esoteric goals are called “McGuffins” (a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the late ’30s), and they’re very popular for straightforward storytelling. People grasp them whether they want to or not – you follow the “chalice” while the protagonist chases it through the movie, but really you’re watching an internal goal (wealth, family, history, whatever) get chased.

All of which makes critiquing more fun. You can discuss who the protagonist is, what he or she is chasing, why the protagonist didn’t get the goal, or why he did. What is the author saying if he doesn’t get the goal? That the goal is unimportant? Impossible to have? Not worth chasing? Possible only for certain people?

Hmmmm … that’s where the fun of book discussions begins. …

Next, check out the third segment: The Antagonist and the Conflict.

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7 thoughts on “The Basics of Critiquing II: More on Protagonists and (Slippery) Goals

  1. Pingback: The Basics of Critiquing: The Protagonist and the Goal

  2. I love stories where the protagonist is a bad guy. I’m always interested to see how I react to the character. For example, Tony Soprano is deplorable in so many ways. Yet, in the series finale of “The Sopranos” I found myself anxious at the end of the show and wanting him to live.

    One of my all-time favorite movies is “The Professional”. It’s about a hit man who finds himself taking care of a 12-year old girl to whom he bears no relation. Every character in the movie is crooked in one way or another and the main character, Leon, is the best of the bunch. But, HE IS A HIT MAN. Still, it doesn’t take long into the movie for the viewer to be rooting for Leon.

    I don’t know the first thing about writing, but I imagine is takes a pretty stellar writer to create a character who is so evil, yet so likable. In the real world, we would never side with murderers, but a well written character can make you root for the bad guy. It makes you wonder a little about yourself when you find these types of protagonists sympathetic.

  3. Hey, Ziggy! Ah, the classic “antihero” is who you’re talking about. And no need to wonder about yourself, because a lot of people love, love, love the antihero — Tony Soprano is a great example, as is Dexter and even Gregory House. And I agree — the writing is amazing when an author can make you like these otherwise extremely unlikeable people. He’s called the “antihero” because he “saves the day” in some way, but has so many unlikeable characteristics. So you root for him despite his terrible flaws. I think people like the antihero because it shows the many facets of human nature.

    But there’s also the “evil protagonist” who doesn’t really save the day or make you like him much (although there’s sometimes a twinge of sympathy) — I would put the killer Perry in this category, from In Cold Blood — nothing “heroic” about him, but he’s the protag.

  4. Hmmmm, this would’ve been a great addition to last Saturday’s book club discussion. I really enjoyed these last tow blogs – as an avid reader I would like to understand more about what I like and don’t like – read with a critical eye. Keep them coming!

  5. Hi, Lauran — Thank you so much! I’ve had to rekindle all this stuff as I started writing myself. I mean, I already *knew* it (sort of!) from high school English (and from being an English major for four long years!!!). But when I started writing again, I really had to refresh my memory on it all. And now I find it makes me enjoy reading again, and makes me look at movies a little differently. (In college, I actually took several fun film classes, too, which were much like literature classes.) I admire screenwriters and authors all over again for certain “tricks” they use. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the wonderful piece of information! I am currently working on my first novel ( yes, i am an amateur! You guys’ repelling factor :P) and i came here to know whether it is all right to have more than two goals for a protagonist or not. The problem i was facing was that my protagonist has three revolving goals. And although I want one goal to be treated with a higher priority, I am not able to because of the plot has been designed in such a way.
    Seems i have two choices left: Change the plot or change the Plot! 🙂
    Thanks again! 😀

  7. Hi, Xen! Congrats on the first novel! It’s so much fun. Are you doing NaNoWriMo?

    As for whether a protag can have more than two goals, he/she certainly can, it just can get messy, as I mentioned in the post. And sometimes readers can get confused (or exhausted) about which goal to root for. But take a closer look at your three revolving goals — are they perhaps more closely aligned than you think? Do they all take the character to the same fulfillment? An example of multiple goals is The Wizard of Oz, where there were actually several for Dorothy to pursue: she needed to see the wizard; she needed to get the witch’s broomstick; she needed to get those ruby slippers on; she needed to catch that hot-air balloon! But these were all actually smaller goals that drove the larger goal of the book, which was to get home. Smaller goals like this create the action of the book. Perhaps this is what your three revolving goals are doing?

    I think the only thing that would be confusing is if the three revolving goals led to different areas of fulfillment for your character. For instance, if one led to independence, but another led to commitment, while another led to world status. The reader would be confused about what your character really WANTS and would find it hard to keep rooting.

    So as long as your three revolving goals play into each other, and lead to a final fulfillment that makes sense for a single character to want, I think you can make it work. 🙂

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