I received an email this week from an author working on a murder mystery and struggling with his protagonist’s goals.
He’d identified two: the one his character holds before she discovers the murder, which is related to finding a job, and then the solving of the murder once it occurs. But he wasn’t sure how those were enough to propel the entire story—the latter seemed like the generic goal of every murder mystery, he said, and didn’t feel especially compelling.
His instincts were rock-solid: He’s right that solving a murder is not only a bit too generic, but it’s not enough of a goal to sustain a character arc throughout the story. Nor is his protag’s initial goal, of seeking employment.
This is such a common misconception—the character goals seem evident, and yet they aren’t driving the plot or character arc—that I wanted to share some of my reply to him here.
Many writers confuse a character’s secondary goal with his true primary goal. In this case, the goal of “solving the crime” is a secondary goal–few characters are driven to solve a crime for its own sake (except maybe Sherlock Holmes), and that’s not usually a powerful enough driving force on its own. It’s a bit general and impersonal, and thus doesn’t deeply engage readers.
Similarly, finding a job is also a secondary goal—for most of us, a job is a means to achieve the actual things we want: financial security, perhaps, or the opportunity to pursue our trade (or our writing craft!), or the chance to move along a path toward some farther-reaching goal, like a certain position or field.
Mining deeper into these secondary goals to discover why your character wants that thing is key to discovering their primary goal that will drive momentum and the plot. This is tied in with motivation, which I talk more about here, but in this case the “why” opens up a pathway to the primary motivation.
For instance, let’s look at the initial goal: to get a job. Is it “a job” she wants, or some specific job? In either case, why—what is it that she really wants that the job is a means to?
Beware of the trap of the easy answer: for example, “She needs money” or “this is a great opportunity.” These are also secondary goals—she needs money for what, specifically? To pay the rent because she’s about to be evicted? To make the feature film that is her real goal in life? A great opportunity to do what, exactly–what’s the ultimate desire she has that this job would be a stepping-stone toward?
Authors sometimes make the mistake of assuming that a goal holds a self-evident value like this that creates stakes for the character and thus the story, but “needing money” on its own isn’t enough to feel urgent or compelling to readers. “Getting a job” isn’t a value in and of itself. It’s the deeper desire those secondary goals help a character attain that is of greater personal value to her, that serves as the stronger primary goal that truly drives her.
What Makes a Primary Goal?
Let’s look at the second goal the author mentioned: to solve the murder.
Just as in the above goal we dissected, this secondary goal is a bit objectively distant, and it assumes a self-evident value. What makes it deeply personal, important, and urgent to your character?
Solving the murder is a goal, yes, but it doesn’t yet meet those criteria. “She wants to solve the murder so the killer can’t kill again” or “to bring the victim’s killer to justice” or similar lends a bit more importance and perhaps a vaguely suggested urgency, but these are somewhat impersonal, removed motivations. Again, they may not be powerful enough to drive the story all the way through. We need to keep digging to her primary goal.
To nail down the true primary goal, we need to understand why this matters so much to the protagonist. What makes this secondary goal deeply, intensely personal? Was the victim a friend, for instance? Does the protag have something to prove–like righting a past wrong, perhaps, that this case hits on, or her ability to get the job she desperately needs, etc.? What makes it urgent? Is the killer going to strike again imminently…perhaps against someone close to the protag, or the protag herself?
In the first book of Jess Montgomery’s Kinship Road series, The Widows, the protagonist assumes the role of acting sheriff when her husband is killed. Lily definitely needs money—her secondary goal—to provide for her family now that she’s widowed in her blue-collar Prohibition-era mining town in Ohio, and she vows to solve his murder—her primary goals.
Those are solid secondary and primary goals. But Montgomery keeps digging beyond even those: Hours after her husband is buried, a woman shows up at her door looking for his help finding her missing daughter. Lily learns this woman was her husband’s former mistress, and that the man she believed she knew intimately had many secrets he kept from her—which she’s now determined to uncover, along with finding this woman’s daughter.
Montgomery uses these deeply personal, urgent goals and motivations to power every development in the story and give it strong momentum and high stakes, as their investigation uncovers rampant corruption in their town that encompasses local law enforcement, the mining company, and even the mob. She must hold on to her position as acting sheriff not just to support her family, but to give her access to investigate fully. She is powerfully compelled to find out what her husband had hidden from her. She also feels compelled to find this woman’s daughter, who may be in imminent danger.
Analyzing Stories to Identify Primary Goals
It’s easy to find an urgent goal in something as acute as a murder. But let’s look at other genres and how this concept adapts to that. “Urgent” can mean time-sensitive or “urgent” can be a strong emotional pull, but there should be some pressing reason the protagonist must achieve their goal now.
I’ll use a TV example—we’ve been watching the show Inventing Anna on Netflix, based on the real-life story of faux socialite Anna Delvey, who swindled the uber-wealthy out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. But when the show starts, Anna is already in jail, the action having already happened, and the “real time” story actually involves the journalist who digs up the full story on the woman as Anna is awaiting trial.
At first glance you might identify her goal as “to get the story”–but that’s a bit generic and secondary, and by itself wouldn’t feel compelling enough to propel the story. What makes it deeply important and personal to the journalist is that her career took a hard hit on a previous story when she was accused of unethical behavior and she’s been assigned puff pieces since; she wants to prove and redeem herself with this story to resuscitate her career, which is floundering—and which makes up a huge part of her identity. That’s her primary goal.
And she needs to do it before someone scoops her, before Anna takes a plea deal or changes her mind, and before she delivers the baby she’s pregnant with that she fears will hamper her career, which all create urgency.
That overarching primary goal drives the story as the journalist faces new “mini goals” that will get her closer toward it. If she wants the assignment, she must convince her boss to give it to her, despite his reservations. She must get Anna to agree to talk to her. She must convince her not to take a plea…must track down people in Anna’s orbit, must convince these reluctant victims to talk, etc.–every individual immediate goal driven not by just her relatively inert secondary goal of getting the story, but by that ultimate driving primary goal: to resuscitate the career by which she defines herself. That’s where the juice of her story actually lies.
Analyzing successful stories like this is a great way to learn how to dig out your character’s true, primary goals and use them to drive the story—probably the single most useful way to learn and really internalize using every element of craft effectively. (That’s what my “How to Train Your Editor Brain” course is all about, in fact.)
If you’re struggling with story momentum, stakes, plot, or character arc, analyze your character’s goals and make sure you’ve defined not just the secondary goal, but the primary one that underlies, powers, and drives it.
How about you, authors–have you struggled to motivate your protagonist or propel him through the story? Have you felt stuck–or as if your characters are? How you do determine what’s really driving your protagonist?