1. Daniel Dickinson

    Daniel Dickinson New Member

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    Do all protagonists need a specific outer motivation?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Daniel Dickinson, Aug 9, 2019.

    It is often said that protagonists in great stories require an external, specific, visible goal in order to drive the story. Whether it is to stop the bad guy, win the contest, escape the dangerous situation, or acquire the object, specific outer motivations give the audience a finish line to visualize and anticipate. As Michael Hauge puts it:

    "The outer motivation is not a feeling (happiness), or an abstract concept (success), or some ongoing condition (health). It’s a specific goal that your audiences can envision as soon as they read or hear what it is. And that image is pretty much the same for everyone you’re addressing.”

    https://www.storymastery.com/character-development/what-does-your-hero-want-outer-motivation/

    However, I can think of great stories that involve precisely the kind of outer motivation that Hauge seems to prohibit. In fact, most faustian stories seem to fit into this category. In these stories, a protagonist makes some kind of transaction, often involving a supernatural figure, to acquire such ongoing abstract conditions such as fame, wealth, power, beauty, youth, etc., and things almost always end up tragically for them. Rather then spending the length of the story striving to achieve a goal, they spend the length of the story struggling with the ramifications of the choice they made in the beginning, already having achieved the condition in question.

    One good example that comes to mind is Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray". Dorian Gray essentially "sells his soul" in order to retain his youth while his portrait ages in his place. It is a tragic story in which this decision leads him down a dark path to his own demise.

    So how does one square the timelessness of this story with the principle stated above?
     
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  2. EFMingo

    EFMingo A Nefarious Flamingo Contributor

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    Seems like the answer to your question falls in either goal modification during story progression, or a tiered goal system.

    Obviously he's right in the fact you want your protagonist going for something, you wouldn't have a story really otherwise, but seems to miss depth. He presents an argument for the cookie cutter story, advocating for simplistic direction over complexity. And he seems to want the hero to cross a figurative "finish line," but I find this inherently problematically.

    Many stories have their overarching theme outside of the bounds of the hero, often having them be a pawn to be tossed about and disposed of in the display of the thematic elements. Case in point "1984" by Orwell. The protagonist, if that's what we want to call him, fails in the end, but that's the point of the whole book. It couldn't have successfully ended any other way. So, I agree with you on your problems with his argument.

    For stories such as "The Picture of Dorian Gray" which you mentioned, the protagonist has his top tier goal of infinite youth, but succumbs to the price. The goal remains, albeit he is destined to fail. All other issues throughout the story are goals and bits to maintain this top tier. But these goals are the character's alone. They don't necessarily act as the purpose of the story.

    So in other words, I dont think this really can be squared entirely with this author's point. I think it depends more on the purpose of the story, and direction the author intends for it go play out. Author's intentions don't necessarily need to coincide with character goals, and in fact play off better in contention depending on the reason the story is being written.
     
  3. Lawless

    Lawless Active Member

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    There's no doubt in my mind: no, not all protagonists need a specific outer motivation.

    I always find myself put off by this strict scheme of "there must be a protagonist and a conflict resulting from the protagonist wanting something that is difficult to get". Many people act like it's self-evidently the only permissible way to write fiction. It rubs me the wrong way even though I struggle to find counter-arguments, at least on the abstract, theoretical level.

    However, I would like to make an attempt now by taking the OP's question one step further and asking:

    What's with this protagonist fetish anyway?

    Look at the Battletech series. As far as I believe to remember, each book in the series does have one protagonist of sorts, but at the same time they all observe the fate of several people, and anyway the characters or their "development" were not what made me read book after book, eager to get some more. It was the awesomely brilliant environment: the galactic war, the fascinating technology, the politics. The individual people were completely secondary. Even if there hadn't been any protagonists as such, it wouldn't have made the series any less thrilling.

    I've met quite a few people for whom books are about events, not characters. They say directly they don't want to read anything with "inner reflections" and such. As to myself, I can't say that one is more important than the other per se. In most good books, the biggest enjoyment comes indeed from being able to feel with the MC, but there are very interesting books (especially in the genre of alternative history) where I'm curious to see what's going to happen in general, and I don't care much about the protagonist or the antagonist or any other individual character.
     
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  4. Alan Aspie

    Alan Aspie Contributor Contributor

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    Protagonists need specific goals.

    Those can be conscious or unconscious, hidden or visible.

    In stage, tv and movies it must be visible because of the format. In books it can be invisible but presented to audience. Radioplays and audiobooks are between these.

    In stage, tv or movies invisible is often made visible.

    Hauge is a script doctor. He deals with tv and movie scripts and screenplays - and talks about them. You can't apply that directly to books.

    Every format has it's rules and guidelines.
     
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  5. hyacinthe

    hyacinthe Member

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    Or, you could employ a powerful storytelling device by taking these vague concepts and making them concrete.

    if you have a character who wants wealth, make that specific. give them an object of desire and the belief that once they obtain that specific thing, that exact achievement, then they will be happy. (they're probably wrong, but deal with that later.)

    so take the character who wants wealth, and find an object that symbolizes that wealth. it could be the beautiful, ornate victorian house on the corner of the finest street in the good neighborhood in the city, for example.

    the character who wants security could also desire a house--and imagine the family, the kids, and the dog that live inside it.

    take the character who wants to be famous, and give them the goal of getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

    take the character who wants to be powerful, and give them the goal of becoming the leader of their country (probably not a monarchy.)

    try giving them a thing to strive for, a thing that symbolizes their desire.

    that way, you have the abstract desire, and a useful way to symbolize the abstract.
     
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  6. grayj0265

    grayj0265 Member

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    The answer to your question, in my opinion, which this is (if I paid two dollars, it will buy me a cup of coffee) would be no. Take a look at your psychopaths. Some of them don't have a motive what so ever. I think someone without a motive can be just an harsh, and evil, as someone who does have one.
     
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  7. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

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    To a point I would say yeah you need some kind of concrete goal whether it's flatly stated as something like the Holy Grail or something hinted at like a friend. In this wonderful book called Crazy Fish by Norma Fox Mazer the exterior goal of the mc is to acquire a friend.

    Yeah, but wanting physically beauty has a two-fold meaning - nobody wants beauty if it didn't have a sense of gain. Beauty in a way is unearned favor. Teenage girls want beauty because they feel it will make them instantly liked. So it's an exterior motive that is supposed to change an inner worry - am I liked? If you acquire unearned favor you have a responsibility to it. The reason those books end the way they do is that their inner motivation doesn't match their outer leading them to failure. They're a lopsided personality hence the fable-like doom ending.
    Most books tie in one motive or goal with the other, like the book I mentioned Crazy Fish the exterior goal for the book is to acquire a friend - however the girl is hampered with her reputation (her guardian works at the town dump) and her own prickly nature. In order to achieve her outter goal her inner motivation must change - she has to learn to trust, let down her guard and be friendly.
     
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  8. Alan Aspie

    Alan Aspie Contributor Contributor

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    Psychopaths do have motives - often very strong ones.
     
  9. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'd say in the pieces you mention or allude to—The Picture of Dorian Gray and, presumably Faust—the protagonist has a very clear goal. The protagonist's goal is to escape consequences of the choice they made early on, to sell their souls in exchange for earthly riches and influence. That's specific AND compelling. (In some stories—especially in mythology and folk tales—the protagonist actually DOES find a way 'out.')

    Perhaps motivation that seems wishy-washy and unspecific—gee, I just want to be happy—is what Hauge cautions against. But even these stories can be interesting. Often the protagonist bypasses everything that could make him happy, and is always looking for the greener grass elsewhere. The readers become invested in the story, wondering if/when the person is going to 'wake up' and realise they need to stop dreaming and get real. Sometimes the protagonist does wake up before it's too late, and sometimes they don't. This will-they-won't-they can make a good story in the right hands.
     
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  10. Katibel

    Katibel Member

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    If my opinion is worth anything, I'd say no. It seems clear to me that the only "squaring" needing doing is that between the author's motivations, his character's motivations, and his book's goals. There is no cut and dry formula for writing a good book (thankfully), with the majority of important considerations really only regarding the target audience. For instance, some here are right, some people like reading more about outcomes of a story rather than experience the story through a protagonist's eyes--so if those people were your target audience then you wouldn't want to have a very close, introspective narration with character goals.


    This is true for great stories for one specific type of reader (seemingly the majority, but one type regardless). As people, we're pretty flexible in our tastes. The type of story I'm visualizing here are the dragon slaying tales of yore, which, while fun, if that was the perpetual format then I might grow bored of reading, haha.

    I'm more of a Dorian Gray-type story fan, personally. I'm not into seeing outcomes as much as I am eager to see different perspectives / motivators play out in a human life. Dorian Gray might have a name and a face, but when I read about him I just see the outcome for any human who chooses to put aesthetics over the more valuable aspects of life. So, while I know the tale must have a sad ending, I can't always visualize how the conclusion is reached until I read a book that allows the scenario to play out. In this way I feel like books teach me more about humanity, even myself at times.

    Ultimately, though, sticking to any formula across writing I feel like might be a mistake.
     
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  11. Rzero

    Rzero Contributor Contributor

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    Most stories need it, but obviously not all. Your example of Faustian legend is prime. I would also include most survival thrillers, especially "man vs. nature," as well as tons of horror and romance novels.

    The Picture of Dorian Gray
    is a personal favorite of mine. I love that book. It's worth mentioning though, that if written a hundred years later, the book-buying public would expect a little more from the character. Look at Stephen King. Regardless of whether or not you're a fan, he's successful. It's also generally agreed that one of his greatest strengths is well-drawn characters, and either way, his work is indicative of what many people want in modern, western protagonists. He's written scores of books in which the primary motivation driving the story is simply to survive a situation or cover up a horrible deed and get back to a calm, safe life. I'm not just talking about his horror either. A return to status quo can be a strong motivator in all sorts of stories. The characters are instead fleshed out by motivations nongermane to the plot: the relationships and goals that were important to them before the stories fell on their unsuspecting heads, the lives to which they wish to return, things like that. In the cases of his psychopathic or psychotic characters, we're privy to more of the inner-workings of the mind. I thoroughly enjoy Victorian horror and science fiction, but the fact is, we would very likely be presented with a much richer internal struggle in a modern Dorian Gray, a more multi-dimensional Victor Frankenstein, etc. So, if the only driving force is a feeling, concept or condition, you'll need to supplement with something.

    Even adventure, a genre where one usually expects to find a strong, externally motivated protagonist, can easily go in the opposite direction. Personally, I love a book in which the protagonist's only driving motivation is to make the story stop happening entirely and leave him alone, e.g. Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker's Guide series. He's completely put out by the plot line, and wants nothing to do with any of the adventures into which he's drawn. It makes for wonderful satire, which is why it's become almost a staple at this point. Christopher Moore, for example, has written several "why me?" characters, and his books are easily as compelling as those with alpha-hero protagonists, in my opinion.

    Generally speaking (and you can find almost as many of these threads as there are users on this forum, because we all ask them periodically) if the question is "Do I have to follow this rule?" the answer is a vehement "Hell no." The "rules" absolutely exist for a reason, and veterans and experts give advice worth hearing, but if you understand the reason for the rule (and that bit's very important,) then you can break the rule when the story calls for it. If you're sure the story benefits from flouting convention, go for it. There's a big difference between bold and reckless.

    ETA: I should add that the sort of article you linked to is written more for people developing characters and plot from scratch. If you have a character and a plot in mind that don't happen to fit the formula, you probably don't need this sort of architectural procedure in the first place.
     
    Last edited: Aug 10, 2019

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