Define your Protagonist and their Desires
The first thing that we're gonna look at is your protagonist and we're gonna define who your protagonist is and what they want. So the question of who is your protagonist is, this may seem just incredibly obvious, and it can be. But what I want to prevent you from doing is thinking of your protagonist like a paper doll or a cardboard cut out or a puppet and with a protagonist, we want this person to be a 3D human being and we want to know them all the way around and we want them to have agency and we want them to have flaws. We want them to have depth. We want all those things. So anything that asks you to look at the physical description of a character as a way of knowing them is totally missing the boat here. And when we talk about memoir, the protagonist is you. And we're going to get at what that means, to think of yourself as a character. We'll get into that in just a moment. So who is your protagonist? That's the question. So the protagonist is, you want to ask questions like who...
se story is this? Who has the most at stake? Who is closest to the heart of the matter? Who is being forced to wrestle the problem to the ground? So these are the kinds of things that you want to ask and it might not be the narrator of the story. We're gonna get to that in a minute. What you want to know is who is the story about? And if you start asking these questions and thinking about them, this is the way that we circle around that. And in memoir, as I said, the protagonist is you. So you want to think about yourself as that character that the reader is going to get into their head. And as you'll see in a minute, it's not just you in the abstract. It's you very specifically at a specific moment in time. You have to know which you is the protagonist. So that's the game, when it comes to memoir and we'll look at how that works in a minute. So I'm going to take you through some questions about the protagonist that were answered by one of my clients who is writing fantasy to show you how this works and how it can help us start to get a sense of the structure of the story. So this is just a little sketch of the protagonist in this fantasy. Mareyn is the sole remaining heir of the royal family, and the only person who can bong with a Sovereign dragon. However, Mareyn has no idea of her true identity. She stowed away on a ship at age three during the attack on her family and was raised by pirates and smugglers. Because all of the pirates abandoned their own clans and families when they joined the crew, none of them puts any stock in blood. They believe you choose your path and the people you align with. So this is a very quick sketch of who is the protagonist. And this is the kind of level we want to answer on. You notice there's nothing here about how old she is, where she lives, what she looks like, who her, you know, was she married, does she have children? We don't know anything. It's what we know relates to the heart of the matter of the story. This is a girl, a woman I'm sorry, who is bonded with a Sovereign dragon, we don't really even know what that means yet. And she doesn't know that she's Queen. That's the basic thing. So you want to boil this down to its very basic elements about who your protagonist is. And the way we do that is we ask some key questions. We want to think first is what's at stake? That's a huge question when you're thinking about your protagonist. What is at stake? So the first question is, what does your protagonist want? Think about what she wants to feel or believe and what external thing will cause her to feel or believe it? What will she achieve that would make her know that she achieved this thing she wanted? So oftentimes people here do things like, well she wants to be loved for who she is. Well how will she know when that happens? That's what you want to sort of start thinking about. Or she wants to be, she wants to be seen for not her blood, but for her actions. Well, how will we know that? What actions would let her know that is true? So this basic question of what your protagonist wants is just primary and then also primary related to it, this is how we get at the stakes part, what will happen if she doesn't get what she wants? If you can't answer this question, you have a problem. This is when we talk about something must be at stake, there must be consequences. If your protagonist doesn't get what she wants, what's going to happen? That's where I ask the so what question. Like, so what that she doesn't wanna be Queen? So what that, you know, the kingdom will be lost? So what that the dragons will all die? Like so what? And that's going to go back to what she wants and so what we're talking about here is loss. Something is lost or gained in a story. Your protagonist must want something and there must be something at stake and it does not have to be kingdoms and universes and massive things. It can literally be a conception of self. It can be a way of seeing in the world. It can be, there's a huge array of things that it can be. It does not have to be super dramatic. But what we do then want to understand is, well why can't she have this thing that she wants? So she wants a thing. Something's gonna happen if she doesn't get it. Why can't she have it? That's what the conflict or the tension is all about. And again, if you don't have this, you have a problem. So you want to ask, what is standing in her way in the world? This is external. So it could be family, it could be environment, it could be society, it could be a bad guy, it could be an asteroid, it could be any number of external things, but what's standing in her way of getting what she wants in the world? Then, what's standing in the way on the inside? So that's gonna be doubts and misbeliefs that she might have adopted to help her, a narrative she believes about herself. There usually every single story has both of these. An external plot related thing standing in her way and an internal belief or system or doubt that's standing in her way. We want to, this is how we get conflict. Something, you know, okay there's a person. They want a thing. Well why can't they just get it? That's not a story, you know? They just get it and it's just done. We want to watch people struggle and we want to watch them struggle not just with the world, but with themselves. Because as we talked about before, and with your ideal reader, people come to story to learn something about human nature and about themselves. They come because they want to know, how can I be in the world? How can I live with other human beings? How can I live with the fact that we're all gonna die? How can I live with the fact that I'm just one person and I just have one life? Like these deep, dark existential questions, that's what we come for. So we want to know what your protagonist is struggling with. So now that we asked those questions, I'm going to take you through the example that we saw before of Mareyn and show you how this all goes down. So the first question is, what does your protagonist want? So with the girl that we saw, I don't know why I keep calling her girl. The woman we saw before, this is how you might answer it. Mareyn wants freedom. She wants to choose her own path and to be master of her own destiny. So remember, this is the woman who has royal blood and doesn't know it and this is what she wants. She wants to be free. Well you can immediately see there's a problem here. Right? There's a conflict built in here. So we're gonna look at what happens then if she doesn't get it. So if she doesn't get what she wants, she'll be unsatisfied with her life and she'll consider herself weak. Those are pretty big consequences. They're not consequences in the world, but they're consequences in her own self. That she wants to be free, and if it doesn't happen she's gonna think of herself in this negative way. And what is standing in her way in the world? So before she learns of her identity as having royal blood, nothing really. It's just her own fear and her own tentativeness. And we'll get at that when we look at what's standing on the way on the inside. But before she learns of her identity, there's really nothing, there's really no conflict. So this is a really important thing to know because the story structure, which is what we're talking abut here, this is a giant flag for story structure. Because the story doesn't start until this character learns of her identity. You can see that, it's baked into these questions. That's why it's so powerful to ask them. So after she learns of her identity, what's standing in her way in the world is her blood. As the last remaining heir, Mareyn is the only person who can protect the empire from evil threat. That's just a stand in right now, you know. Evil threat, we don't know what it is yet. As Queen she has to put the needs of the empire and her people above her own. Well that rubs right up against what she wants, which is to be free and to be master of her own fate. So asking these questions begins to inform the structure. That's why we're going it in this section on structure. The protagonist doesn't exist outside of the structure of her life and her needs and her desires. It's part of the whole. So then if we look at what's standing in her way on the inside, before she learns that she's Queen, her feeling that she owes the people who took her in and raised her. She doesn't want to leave them and set out on her own path out of a sense of duty. So she's a woman who has a sense of duty, and that's part of why she's not going off to be free. And then after she learns she's Queen, now it's a bigger sense of duty. So you can begin to see the structure of the story that she's in a bad place 'cause she feels a sense of duty to these pirates who took her in. Now she's in a worse place because she's actually Queen of this entire universe, how on earth is she going to be free with these shackles on her? So there's some big, big questions, and just answering them in these very simple terms gives a way to start thinking about the structure of the story and what we're gonna be tracking. We're gonna be tracking this protagonist as she works to get the thing she wants and works to struggle with what's stopping her on the inside and what's stopping her on the outside. That's the basic idea about structure. That's it. Structure comes from who is this person, what do they want, why can't they have it, what's gonna get in their way, I mean what's gonna happen if they don't get it, and what's standing in their way? So you want to ask these questions for your protagonist so you can begin to see the shape of your story. So I ask you in the workbook to take about 30 minutes to sketch these out. They're not long answers, and they should be pretty easy to get a sense of. If you don't have an answer to one of them, you know you have some sort of problem. You've got to have those all baked in to make sure your structure is gonna work. So and then as always, once you have them, stand back and say how can I make this better?