The Basics of Critiquing: The Protagonist and the Goal

Interesting discussion the other day on how we all critique. It really made me think about how I approach a story and when I think a book is “good” or if it leaves me feeling flat. Do you ever read a book and just feel “flat”? And maybe your friend just LOVED it, so you wonder what you missed, or didn’t get?

(Yeah, me too. …)

Lauran left a similar comment the other day when we were discussing how we critique  about how, even when reading a book for book club, she sometimes finds it difficult to express what specifically she likes and dislikes. (I hear ya, sister.)

But here’s the deal: It probably comes down to the most basic of reactions to the most basic beginnings of critiquing. It probably has to do with your reaction to the goal.

What’s that?

The most basic plot of any story is that there is a protagonist. And, as the book opens, he has a goal. Every novel, every movie, every short story, is simply watching the protagonist try to get his goal. …

And that’s where your critique begins, whether you want it to or not.

There are really four basic ways this goal-quest can play out:

  • Protagonist gets the goal. (Happy ending)
  • Protagonist does not get the goal but gets something better. (Happy ending)
  • Protagonist does not get the goal. (Sad ending)
  • Protagonist gets the goal but realizes it’s not what he wanted. (Sad ending)

Literary novels can select from any of the four.

In a literary novel, the protagonist doesn’t always get his goal. Or sometimes he gets it, but it’s not what he wanted. Or he gets it, but it’s not what he should have wanted. (This storyline is especially popular among the literary set.)

Examples of that last twist would be, say, Of Mice and Men – (Lots of spoilers here, but you probably haven’t thought about reading Of Mice and Men since junior year of high school, so I think I’m safe. … If you’re reading it now, you can skip this part.) The protagonist, George, wants independence and control of his destiny as a migrant field worker during the Great Depression. His mentally disabled friend, Lennie, however, is keeping him from that goal, and George says a few times that he wishes he could travel without Lennie. He gets this goal by the end of the book, when he must shoot Lennie in the back of the head before a lynch mob can find him. But, as he does so, George recognizes the loneliness that becomes a big theme of the book. The goal is not what he really wanted.

Similarly, Madame Bovary makes the goal ultimately undesirable — (More spoilers in case Madame is on your nightstand. …) The protagonist, Emma Bovary, really just wants romance. That’s her goal. In her provincial French town, she pines for it throughout the book. However, she is married to Charles Bovary, a very kind man but not Cassonova, who needs to spend his time making a life, not thinking about romance. Emma lets herself be swept away, then, by a rakish man in a nearby city and has an affair, then she ends up in debt to quiet the affair, and – by the end of the book – she’s completely ruined. So she kills herself. Ironically, the romance she so desired comes after her death, when her husband sets up a shrine to her and loves her entirely. She got her romance, but only after her death.

(Ah, that’s nice and cheery, eh? Sorry. …)

Anyway, genre novels, on the other hand, don’t play around too much with the goal.

Genre novels (and yeah, I know that “literary” is a genre, but, for my purposes here: romance, mysteries, suspense, horror, etc.) have an agreement with their fans that the protagonist will always get the goal. You don’t have to open an Agatha Christie and wonder if Miss Marple is going to solve her case. You don’t read a Stephen King thinking the protagonist is going to die by the end of the book. And romance novels follow the same rules: There is always a hero and a heroine (either can be the protagonist) who has a goal at the beginning (a secret chalice, a long-lost sister, a new career, a solution to a crime) and he/she will always get it (or something better), although that pesky little problem of falling in love will get in the way. (Some people think that, in romance novels, romance is the goal, but this is not true. There’s another goal, and the romance actually gets in the way of it. This is very tricky to write, incidentally.)

Figuring out who the protagonist is and what the goal is is a great place to start your critique.

If something feels “off” to you, it might be an issue of the protagonist and his or her goals. If you’re critiquing or beta-reading for someone, it might be because the author didn’t make the goal clear, or didn’t have the appropriate ending for his or her audience.

If you’re critiquing a published book, it might be that you simply didn’t like or agree with his goal (I felt this way about The Bridges of Madison County, in which the goal, like Madame Bovary, was romance, but it came at the cost of a marriage, which irritated me to no end); it might be because you thought you had a “contract” for a certain ending and it wasn’t delivered (you expected a happy ending and didn’t get it); or it might be because the goal didn’t seem plausible or was something that seemed silly and frivolous to you (getting a job, getting a great pair of shoes).

So what about you? Do you tend to like goals that fall into certain categories above? Do you recall feeling “flat” about a certain book? Did it have to do with the goal?

Next, check out those really difficult-to-decipher protagonists and their sometimes-slippery goals.

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9 thoughts on “The Basics of Critiquing: The Protagonist and the Goal

  1. Wow. A lot to ponder…
    I’ve read quite a few books that I liked and didn’t finish a lot more I haven’t liked; I’ve never thought about why. This can help in my understanding of that. You really laid it out well and in an easy to understand way.
    You should teach this stuff Laurie, you made EVEN ME get it…

  2. Pingback: The Basics of a Critique II: More on Protagonists and (Slippery) Goals

  3. Ah…yes…goals…I have a whole sheet to set up a character’s goals…who the characters are…what they want…why they want it..why they can’t have it…Laurie’s right. That is bloody hard to make clear at times, but I think that’s where getting to know your characters come in. We all have goals, from being famous, a raging success in a company or just trying to hold on to your job, we all have them. The trick is to motivate them so that the readers get it.
    And that is harder than you think. My awesome crit partner pointed that out to me the other day, and it is hard work to put it in your manuscript.
    As for reading, I guess I don’t focus on the goals that much really, I focus on the people and the story it self. How they grow, what they change, if they change themselves and the process…to me that is what makes the story. And I do suppose their goals internal or external have a bit to do with it. You want to be able to root for your characters and guess I like a read where the goal is more internal reflecting personal growth, than an actual material goal.
    And some authors do that very well…some not at all.

  4. I’m glad you mentioned movies. I don’t read much fiction, but I love movies.

    The whole world loved “Slumdog Millionaire” and I just didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I really can’t put my finger on why I didn’t like it other than I thought it was really dull and boring. I wonder if it was the protagonist and his goal that I didn’t like?

  5. Hey, Dave — I didn’t see “Slumdog Millionaire” (yes, I’m among the four people in North America who didn’t…), so can’t help with that one. But now I’m interested to know! Hmmm … must explore. …

  6. So in a book like Olive Kitteredge where you have short stories with one common character throughout are you looking at Olive’s goal or is there a different protagonist in every chapter so multiple goals? I’m curious now, I’ll have to think about (if I can remember) the protaganoists goal in the books I haven’t liked.

  7. Hi, Lauran — Yes, all short stories need to have a protagonist and a goal (otherwise they are simply character sketches).

    I didn’t read Olive Kitteridge, but my guess is that Olive is the protagonist in every one, and I’m guessing there is an external goal of some kind in every one. But perhaps there is a larger, internal goal that she acquires over the course of the stories? Was there a theme threading through all of them?

    Some writers will publish short stories as a “collection,” but others (like Elizabeth Stout, I’m guessing) will put stories together in a careful way (often with the same protagonist) to convey a bigger learning arc overall. I’m thinking of Hemingway’s In Our Time, where Nick is the main character in all the stories, but his growth happens because all the stories took place. And didn’t Jhumpa Lahiri write her collection this way? With individual goals, but with a larger, more theoretical goal for the main character occurring over the entire book?

    It’s similar to music artists, who sometimes put together an entire album where all the songs are disconnected. But other times (when it’s truly brilliant), they put the songs together because they are all connected by theme or tell a story (The Beatles, for instance).

    I wanted to read Olive, though! — worthwhile?

  8. Pingback: The Basics of Critiquing III: The Antagonist and the Conflict

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