So you’re writing a novel, play, or screenplay, and you want to give your character a compelling central objective, or intention? This article will walk through some of the key things to consider.

The Backbone of your Story

The central objective, or central intention of your protagonist is the backbone of your story. It’s the trunk of the tree, from which all other plot elements sprout. It’s the thing you hang everything else on.

It is usually triggered by an inciting incident, which gives the protagonist a problem or desire, and their central objective is the thing they must achieve in order to resolve the problem or sate the desire.

For instance, in Gladiator, the central characters’ wife and child are murdered, and he formulates a plan to kill the man who ordered the attack: the emperor.

This is a classic revenge story, and in this instance the central objective is to get revenge. In more domestic dramas, a central objective might be to try to save a marriage. 

Make it Compelling, Make it Urgent

Your protagonist should fiercely want to achieve the central objective, even if it takes them a while to come around to this point of view, and even if they aren’t even certain what their objective is at the beginning.

A classic example would be the way Frodo in the Lord of the Rings slowly becomes more determined to destroy the evil ring in Mount Doom. If there is a ticking clock, or a reason for urgency in your story, this can make the objective more compelling.

For instance if someone’s objective is to defuse a bomb before it goes off in a town square, then we will root for them to achieve this as the timer ticks down! 

Make the Stakes High! 

This means that you should ensure that what will be lost if the central objective is not achieved is really significant. If the bomb defuser doesn’t succeed then innocent lives may be lost.

If someone doesn’t manage to save their marriage then their life may temporarily fall apart. The higher the stakes, whether social / financial  or otherwise, the more compelling your story may be! 

Make the Protagonist and the Objective Sympathetic

What I’m suggesting here is that the audience should want the protagonist to achieve the objective (in most cases). For instance, if your protagonist is doing something that the audience truly approves of, like saving lives or fighting Sith Lords, then the audience are more likely to be invested in the outcome, and be rooting for your character to succeed! 

Internal and External Objectives, and Plots. The Difference between Needing and Wanting

Stories often feature an external and internal plot. The external plot is usually the physical, or outward, most obvious and identifiable journey the protagonist has gone on.

For instance in Gladiator, the protagonist rises through the gladiatorial ranks to become Rome’s greatest gladiator. However, internally, he is moving towards emotional healing (ironically), as he comes closer to achieving justice for his beloved family by taking revenge.

In Star Wars Luke Skywalker eventually overthrows the Sith Lords who are controlling the fate of the universe (external plot) but he also discovers who he truly is genetically, and morally as he rejects the dark side.

Characters can have hidden internal objectives that they are not consciously aware of at all times, this is the difference between what your characters wants, and what they need, on a deeper, more spiritual level.


Oliver Adams

Letter Review was founded by Oliver Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Oliver Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. He has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.

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[…] First of all, what is the plot? I’m using plot here to refer to the overarching story. A plot is usually organised around an inciting incident, which gives rise to a central objective or intention in the protagonist. See this article for more details about how to organise your plot around a central objective.  […]

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