A good protagonist is active. They get out and do things to move the plot forward. But making a protagonist active is often more difficult than it sounds. Sometimes you get caught up in the “refuse the call” phase of the hero’s journey and don’t know how to get out. Sometimes you make a character who is just too content with their life and has no reason to go on a dangerous and exciting adventure. Putting the hero in immediate danger can motivate them for a time, but most stories will need something more,* since a purely reactive protagonist gets boring fast and may even make audiences cheer for the active villain. Let’s look at a few ways to get your main character out of their comfort zone and into the story’s driver seat.
1. Take Something Away
In your story’s opening act, the villain takes or destroys something the protagonist holds dear. The item in question can be a treasured fairy heirloom, an important source of income, a prestigious award, or anything else close to your protagonist’s heart. The lost item could even be a person, though you should use caution with that approach. If a loved one is taken away, the story could play into toxic tropes of fridging or damseling, especially if the loved one is a woman and the protagonist is a man.
Once the item is taken, your hero is motivated either to retrieve it or to avenge its loss. The second option is darker than the first, but both are valid, depending on the type of story you’re telling. This motivation is great for generating sympathy because it starts with the hero being wronged. This makes the audience feel sorry for them. Everyone can think of a time when they were just minding their own business and something was unfairly taken from them.
In fact, this motivation is so useful for generating sympathy that it’s a favorite for anti-heroes and villain-protagonists. A main character who sets out to ruin the lives of strangers is an unlikable jerk, but if they’re retaliating against someone who burned down the family farm, then the character becomes a dispenser of righteous justice. To really play this up, craft a situation where the protagonist was wronged by someone close to them, someone who was supposed to be their friend. This can generate sympathy for characters who would otherwise be too amoral for the audience to like.
2. Give Them a Cause
Your protagonist isn’t the kind of person who just goes with the flow. They’re out to right wrongs, address injustice, and destroy the status quo, because the status is not quo. Use this motivation if you want a story where the protagonist is working for something bigger than themself. It’s not just about getting what they want; it’s about getting what everyone needs.
Which cause you choose for your protagonist is important. You need something with important, concrete stakes that the audience can understand. If the protagonist’s cause is too abstract or not important enough, the character will come off as annoying rather than motivated. A character who fights over which end to open a banana from is boring,* and a character who fights to eliminate the concept of anger is confusing.
You’ll want something that directly relates to the plot as well. If your story is about dragons attacking the kingdom, then your character should be riled up about how commoners are left outside the castle walls with no protection against fiery lizards.
The main advantage of this motivation is that it makes for a very active protagonist. The default of most stories is a villain trying to do something, and the hero trying to stop them. This motivation flips the script. The protagonist is trying to do something, and the villain is standing in their way. Not only does that make for a good story, but it’s a powerful message in a world where the need for activism is more obvious every day.
3. Endanger What They Love
Something very important to your protagonist is in danger, and they must act to protect it. A person usually works best in this role, since it can seem silly for the hero to risk their life protecting inanimate objects. A group of people also works, but you’ll still want some individuals to represent the group; otherwise, they become a faceless mass and are harder to care about.
This motivation is good for generating sympathy; protecting others is an inherently selfless act. It shows that the hero is a good person, ready to sacrifice for someone else’s well-being. This gets the audience cheering and provides you with a great opportunity to build compelling bonds between the hero and those they protect.
That said, this motivation has two major pitfalls to avoid. The first is the risk of taking away the loved one’s agency. If they spend the entire story waiting passively in the villain’s dungeon, then they seem more like an object than a person. They should be active even as the protagonist tries to keep them out of danger.
The second pitfall is making the protagonist a controlling jerk to their loved ones. This is especially common when the hero is a grizzled white dude, telling their female relative/lover what she can and can’t do in the name of protecting her. If you want to generate conflict between the hero and their loved one, it needs to be two sided and not based around how the loved one isn’t grateful enough for their protection.*
4. Give Them a Dream
Your protagonist is passionate about something. They think about it all the time, and they’d do nearly anything to get it. It could be a specific achievement or a more general state of being. Whatever the specifics, this is their dream, and it’s what gets them out the door and into an adventure.
The protagonist’s dream can be nearly anything as long as it matches the story you want to tell. If you’re telling a story of courtly intrigue, then your hero might fantasize about dancing for the sovereign’s court. If your story is about surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, then the protagonist might dream of being the first to discover ancient technology that can bring water to the desert.
A long-term dream is a robust motivation, and it scales up well. Your character could start with the dream of winning their town’s annual fencing competition, only to gain the new dream of winning the regionals, and so on. The main problem with this motivation is that it’s not inherently sympathetic to anyone who doesn’t have the exact same dream. In order to make audiences care about your hero’s dream, you’ll need to put in some extra work on making the hero likeable. You’ll also have to show why the dream is so important to them and what achieving it would mean.
5. Offer Them Answers
Mystery is a powerful motivator for the audience. People will often sit through stories that have turned dull just to find out what an important secret was. This effect is so powerful that nearly all stories contain an element of mystery, even if they’re primarily about action or romance. But did you know your protagonist can be motivated by mystery too?
To start, your protagonist needs to be curious about something. They might wonder about what happened to a lost arctic expedition, or they might obsess over why the stars over their town turn green every night at half past eleven. The protagonist’s own mysterious backstory is also rich fodder. They might wonder about the snake tattoo they don’t remember getting, the one that seems to get longer every year, or they might just want to know who their parents are. Any of those can work as long as it’s important to the character and ties into your plot.
Next you need to show your protagonist trying to solve the mystery on their own and getting nowhere. If they aren’t trying to solve the mystery, it won’t seem very important. Once the protagonist is good and frustrated, dangle new information in front of them. This information should give them hope of solving the mystery but also require further action. They hear the ghost they’re after has been spotted, but to find it, they’ll have to go to the Old Larken Farm at midnight, and everyone says monsters prowl those overgrown fields.
Like a long-term dream, a protagonist in search of answers isn’t inherently sympathetic. However, this motivation does have one major advantage: if the protagonist’s mystery is intriguing, it’ll hook the audience and pull them into the plot. Everyone likes a good mystery.
6. Offer Them a Reward
Your protagonist is a simple hero with simple needs, and what they need is money. They’re on this adventure because someone is paying them to be there. They might want some other kind of material gain, like land or precious jewels, but those are primarily ways to get money.
This might not sound like a good motivation, what with all the truisms about how material gain isn’t important and how money can’t buy happiness,* but it’s actually a great way to generate sympathy. Nearly everyone on planet Earth knows what it’s like to chase a paycheck, and a character doing the same thing is inherently relatable.
To make this motivation work, the protagonist must need the reward. Perhaps their detective agency is close to collapse when the mysterious client walks in and offers a princely sum for a suspiciously simple job. Or maybe they need more money for a lifesaving medical operation* when an old business partner shows up in need of protection. Not only does this immediate need create urgency, but it makes the character even more sympathetic.
The catch with this motivation is that most of the time, audiences will expect it to become something else by the time the story ends. It works fine for the protagonist to start off only wanting money, but by the end, they should be in it for the cause or the power of friendship. Otherwise they’ll seem shallow, only interested in their own well-being.
7. Give Them Responsibilities
Why is your protagonist on an adventure? Because it’s their job, that’s why. They were elected to this position, appointed by royal decree, or chosen by old gods on a moonless night. Whatever the specifics, your hero is obligated to solve whatever problem plagues the land, and they’ll do it even if it means overtime.
This motivation is a fantastic way to make a character likeable. Like we talked about in the last section, most people have had to work, whether they received a paycheck or not, and they’ve had times when their work wasn’t pleasant but they did it anyway. A character who does the same is instantly relatable. At the same time, audiences love it when characters in positions of authority actually take their responsibility seriously and work for the common good. I suspect this is because we’re so used to seeing authority figures abuse their power in real life.
The key to this motivation is picking the right responsibilities for your protagonist. If your story is about solving a murder, then making the protagonist a firefighter isn’t a good option. You can certainly tell a story about a firefighter solving a murder, but they’ll need another motivation. For that, you’d want a police detective or maybe a prosecutor.
For best results, give your character responsibilities specific to the plot, and make it so they must carry out those responsibilities without a lot of help. It’s no good if the hero can call for backup when things get tough; that ruins the tension. This is one reason why private investigator is such a popular profession among protagonists.
You may have noticed there’s a common factor to every motivation on this list: your protagonist must care about something. This advice is often repeated in storytelling circles, but many authors still have trouble with it. Hopefully these specifics have better prepared you to put the more abstract concept of a protagonist wanting something into practice.
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