Last week, I pondered whether a story really has to have a villain. But I do think that a story must have a protagonist, a character who wants something and whose efforts to get it drive the story — and it helps if the audience wants them to get it. In All Creatures Great and Small (which I mentioned in that post), there may not be a villain, but we have the vet who wants to save the sick cow/pig/dog and has to overcome obstacles to do so. He has a goal that we know about and want him to achieve, and he makes effort toward achieving it. A story without a real protagonist feels unfocused, and it’s hard to get involved in it.
I started thinking about this last weekend when watching the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, On Stranger Tides (I’ve been rewatching/watching the series). It felt very different from the first three and was a lot less engaging, and I figured out it was because there really wasn’t a protagonist. There were people who wanted things, but we didn’t necessarily want any of them to succeed. The general goal was the Fountain of Youth. We knew that Blackbeard and his daughter wanted it because his death had been prophesied, and they thought this would save him from his fate. But they’re the antagonists. We don’t want Blackbeard to get eternal life because he’s a terrible person. Jack Sparrow is our main character, but he doesn’t really have a goal that drives the story. We know that he’s wanted eternal life throughout the series, but he’s been kind of shifty about it. We don’t know why, exactly, he wants it. He gives up one chance at it (but after learning the consequences that came with that chance). He’s intrigued by the Fountain of Youth, but early in the movie he learns how it works, and he doesn’t seem to want it for himself anymore. We know that eternal life would probably be bad for him, so we don’t want him to get it. He just seems to be along for the ride, kind of wanting to protect Blackbeard’s daughter (though he doesn’t seem to actually like her much). He hopes to get his ship back by cooperating, but that’s treated as an “oh, by the way.” He’s not trying to stop Blackbeard. So, most of the audience probably doesn’t actually want anyone in the story to achieve their goals, and we don’t really know what the main character wants other than to not get killed. The one non-shifty good guy in the story is the missionary, but his only goal is to keep the pirates from being cruel to the mermaid. At one point, it seems like he wants to try to save the souls of the pirates, but after seeing them in action he’s like “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.” And then he disappears from the story without any real resolution. So he’s definitely not the protagonist.
I think some of the problem comes from the Pirates universe being grafted onto a novel that wasn’t meant to be in that universe. From what I can tell from the book description, they took the novel’s main character, who did have a goal, and turned him into Jack Sparrow, who didn’t have the same goal, but they didn’t bother giving him a new goal of his own, and then they split out the good-guy hero part of that character to create the missionary, but without giving him that character’s actual goal. As a result, we end up with a vacuum in the center of the story by removing the protagonist and his goal from the story.
This is also a good example of how a fun secondary character doesn’t necessarily make a good main character. Jack Sparrow worked in the first three films because there were other characters to be protagonists, and he worked mostly by being a wild card who could shift things around for all the characters. I think Elizabeth was probably the protagonist of the first trilogy. For the most part, it’s her goals that are driving the story — she wants to stay alive when captured by the pirates and then she wants to save Will when she finds out what the pirates really want in the first movie. In the second movie, she’s hoping to save her father, and in the third she mostly wants to save Jack and then avenge her father. If Jack becomes less shifty, he’s no fun anymore, but as shifty as he is, it means we don’t know what he really wants or why and we don’t know what he’ll do to get it, so he’s not a good protagonist.
When a story isn’t working, it often comes down to the fact that there’s no central character who wants something and is doing something about it. There are just people running around doing stuff. The final season of the TV series Once Upon a Time was a bit of a mess for a lot of reasons, but one big one was that there was no main character who wanted something and was doing something to get it in a way that gave the story a throughline. There was a character who stated a goal, but then she never did much to bring it about and we didn’t know why she had that goal, what had clued her in to the fact that there was a problem. Everyone else just reacted to things without taking any proactive action. The only characters who had clear goals were secondary characters whose goals were about subplots that had nothing to do with the main plot. From a structure standpoint, I couldn’t tell who was supposed to be the protagonist.
I’m developing characters right now for my new project, and I’ve got three potential protagonists. They do all have goals, but I’m figuring out which will be the central one so that I have a clear protagonist, someone my readers can latch onto and follow through the story.