Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Lead Character Goal Selection and the Preservation of Self-Concept

We often talk about a lead character (the character who drives the plot, aka the protagonist) having a primary goal at the outset of a story, but rarely do I see guidance on how one goes about in selecting a proper goal. The lead can't have just any goal, it must be (in his eyes) worth fighting for. A weak goal will not carry him through the terrors of the plot ahead. He will give up the moment it gets "too hard" for him.

As Lisa Cron so brilliantly points out in her book Wired for Story, the human brain will always favor the path of least resistance--unless there is something bigger at stake, something worth taking the hard course.

The one thing I've noticed about EVERY lead character's main story goal presented at the outset? It is basically that person's strong-willed attempt to preserve what they know (or want to know) of themselves. Again, the brain resists change, and the inciting incident of a story has the sole purpose of introducing change into the lead character's life.

So what happens when this change becomes apparent? The lead makes it his goal to do whatever he must to keep the change from changing him, his role, his world--he does whatever he must to preserve his established self-concept.

An example of this can be seen in Runaway Bride (1999). Ike's self-preserving goal is to redeem his soured reputation as a journalist.

Even if the lead begins his story in a state of flux, perhaps in search of some part of himself he feels is missing, this is still an attempt to preserve his self-concept. He feels he isn't normal in some way, and must fix it.

An example of this can be seen in How To Train Your Dragon (2010). Hiccup's self-preserving goal is to earn a respected role in his father's village.

Or, perhaps something in his history warped his self-concept and he's been trying to regain balance ever since. This new change introduced could be the answer he's been waiting for, so he jumps on it.

An example of this can be seen in Inception (2010). Cobb's self-preserving goal is to rejoin his children and be their father again.

The goal to preserve some aspect of the lead character's established self-concept, presented at the outset of the story, is what drives the protagonist forward until the catalyst makes forward movement inevitable. The catalyst is the "no turning back" point. So until the lead character reaches this point, there must be something strong already in place to move him towards it. That something is his starting goal.

And when your lead character has a clear starting goal, it makes for a much more intriguing first chapter or scene. He is already in pursuit of something, so the story moves along at a brisk starting pace. No warm-up required. It's go go go from page one, and continues to pick up speed until the end.

Now that we understand the importance of a self-preserving goal, how do we ensure that the goal is appropriate to both the lead character and your premise?

Selecting a proper goal for my lead characters often starts with analyzing the character himself. I usually have a basic premise in mind before I can choose the right character to drive the plot of that premise. One of the many Post-Its taped up around my writing space, reads:

Plot first.
Then create an MC who is the worst possible person to have to face this problem AND conquer it.

I used to be a "character first" writer. But when I started using a "plot first" approach I noticed that my characters were actually better than before, because I wasn't trying to make a random character I happened to love fit into a plot that may or may not be best for him. If you select the what first, then the proper who is much easier see. And a large part of selecting the right character is making sure that character has the right goal.

All of it is interconnected.

Analysis of character, with an eye toward discovering his self-concept, can be detailed in a simple list of identifying traits. Answer one question in as many ways you can think of--How does my lead character see himself?

You might say:

1. teenager
2. orphan
3. science enthusiast
4. bullied
5. photographer
6. intelligent
7. independent
8. romantic

Any one of those, with a little imagination, can be translated into a driving goal to preserve that particular element of the lead character's self-concept, or to change a negative one.

Yes, even "teenager" can be used for something like, I need to prove I'm not a child anymore. Any age can work. How many women's fiction novels cite a woman's approaching a certain age as the driving force behind her actions? For example, part of her self-concept was to have a family by a specific age, and it still hasn't happened yet. So at the start of her story she is already aware of the threat to her self-concept and working toward that goal to preserve it. An elderly protagonist may have a similar goal (think The Bucket List, 2007), or may want to find a way to postpone death altogether. Do not underestimate how greatly a character's age can affect how he views himself.

The above list was not chosen at random. Those are all character traits of Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), and they are all used at some point to enhance how his character moves through the plot. But only one of those is used for his self-preserving goal. As an orphan, who doesn't truly know if his parents are alive or dead, Peter's main goal is to understand why his parents abandoned him. This is especially apparent at the outset of the movie, and then emphasized again at regular intervals.

Without this self-preserving goal in the beginning, Peter never would have done the things he did to end up in Oscorp's secret lab, where a spider hitches a ride on his shoulder and eventually bites him. That spider bite is the catalyst, which puts things in motion that Peter can't reverse. But up until that point, he is the one making things happen the way they do, as a means (he believes) to reach his goal.

Goals to preserve self-concept are often very basic. They center around what Blake Snyder calls our primal human desires--life, love, food, shelter, a societal role, etc. Finding your place in the world, or regaining a position lost, are no less passionate goals than surviving a life-or-death situation, or longing for human companionship, etc. They are all worthy goals because they all involve preserving an important element of the lead character's self-concept.

But the selection of the goal must also relate to the premise, and this is why I highly suggest figuring out your premise and creating the best character for that premise before you write hundreds of pages through a character's mind and get too attached to him. Attachment makes it more difficult to be objective when changes might be necessary. So if you ensure he is the right character with the right goal first, the rest is gravy.

Happy writing,

P.S. This is quite possibly the best fan-made video of the year. Enjoy!


  1. First of all, I read Twin Sense. It was worth the read.

    Also, the plot-first approach sounds great, but for pre-existing characters...hmm.

    Consider a character's fatal flaw, and then put them in the situation where the flaw drives them to be the most counteractive?

  2. I still haven't figured out how I write stories, if I go character or plot first. I suddenly just find myself planning and/or writing without knowing how I got there...

    1. Do whatever works for you, Bonnee. :-) Each of us has to find our own way.

  3. Your blog writing is getting to the point of total brilliance. This is really well put together, and I learned a lot. Plus now I'm going to have to see the Amazing Spiderman, which I had been putting off for some reason.

    1. aw, thank you!

      I wouldn't say the movie is perfect, but it's definitely worth watching. I enjoyed it. :-)

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Great post!

    I absolutely agree with the fact that the mind always looks for the easy way out, and always fights to preserve its self-concept. It's basically what every animal out there does, only that self-preservation has moved up the Maslow pyramid with us sapient bipeds. :)

    I agree with Chihuahua Zero on the fact that 'plot first' sounds awesome for a standalone, but isn't very suitable for a series.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Vero. :-)

      However I'm not sure what you mean by that. Each book in a series has its own plot, plus the overarching plot of the series that transfers from book to book. These plots still need the right characters to make them work.

      Not trying to be argumentative, I'm just not sure what you mean.

  5. Excellent post. I'm revising my NaNo project now and I know what goal the main character needs to achieve, but I don't mention that goal in chapter one. Now I know how I can go back and fix it.

    1. Glad you found this helpful!

      I just want to clarify, though, that the goal doesn't have to be stated explicitly. Most often it is *implied* by events and how the lead reacts to those events.

      Good luck with your revisions! :-)

  6. Great post! I didn't do this consciously when developing my protagonist, but in retrospect it's very clear that this is what happened. He spends the whole trilogy struggling with the idea of who and what he is, constantly redefining his role in the world with respect to his self-image. Thanks for pointing this concept out, though - it's useful information to take into the next series!

    Also, I'm definitely one for coming up with a plot and then developing characters that fit. Though perhaps "plot" is too grandiose a word - it can just be a situation with potential for conflict. For example, the seed for my current trilogy was creating a race of non-humans and then deciding they would send an ambassador to my human city, and the humans would assign a bodyguard to him. So I thought, who would make the worst possible bodyguard? Answer: someone who had been brought up to hate and fear the non-humans. After that, character and plot developed in parallel, because it was all driven by the protagonist-bodyguard's inner conflicts.

  7. Nice Post !! By the way Lydia do you know what is goal selection ?? Can you explain to me cause I don't understand. TQ :)


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