CONTINUING my exploration of Robert Mckee’s, Story, I highlight an important technique: How to make your protagonist more engrossing. This entails that I talk about the tension between want and need.
The Tension driving your Protagonist
The protagonist is a willful character. His pursuit of his desire is relentless. It is also the outward manifestation of an unconscious inner conflict. It stems from what he believes he wants in life.
In The Land Below Paulie’s desire is to reach the surface in search of wonder. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel it is Benjamin’s obsession with solving an intractable mathematical equation. In Scarab it is Jack’s desire to undo Emma’s death. Often, clear and conscious desires are enough to drive the story forward.
But the greatest stories do not only pit the protagonist against external obstacles to desire. They also pit him against himself.
They do this by infusing him with an unconscious desire that is at odds with his declared want. The result is an inner conflict which is resolved only when he realises that his want is inferior to his need.
Indeed, it is this very recognition that is the final proof that the protagonist has grown. It indicates that he has learnt from his mistakes. It heralds his final readiness to face and defeat the antagonist at the level of external action.
In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin is able to move on from a life of regret and stasis only when he realises that his salvation lies not through mathematical solutions to impossible problems but in self-forgiveness through art. In Scarab, Jack is able to save the woman he loves through sacrifice – by walking away from the relationship he so desperately desires.
In these, and other stories, it is the tension lurking beneath what the protagonist wants and what he needs that fascinates readers.
The tension between what a protagonist wants and needs is the engine of conflict in the protagonist.