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.