Character Arc Meandering? How to Keep Your Protagonist on the Path to Their Fate
Updated: Apr 10
Has everyone heard of Objects of Desire? It's a common term in fiction. I'm going to define and discuss it today. For ease of...um...typing, I'll refer to Objects of Desire as OODs.
What are Objects of Desire?
An object of desire is pretty much what it sounds like. It's the thing your character wants and is striving for in the story. So, every main character in your story should have two primary OODs: an external and an internal.
External OOD: What the character is actually, physically trying to do day to day or miute to minute in the story.
Example: LOTR: Frodo's OOD is to get the ring to Mordor. That is what he is actually, physically trying to accomplish.
Example: Harry Potter: His external OOD is the subject of each individual book: i.e. finding the sorcerer's stone, opening the chamber of secrets, the tri-wizard tournament, etc.
Internal OOD: This reveals character and is more metaphysical. It's what they want in the long run or for their lives even after the external OOD is accomplished.
Example: LOTR: Frodo wants to achieve lasting peace for the Shire, and Middle Earth at large.
Example: Harry Potter: Harry wants to defeat Voldemort and find justice for his parents.
How to Make Use of OODs in your story:
1. On a broad scale, your OODs reveal the nature of your character. Most "good" characters will have a positive internal OOD. Something like "world peace." Where a villain's internal OOD will be something more like "word domination," "revenge," or "getting all the money."
Of course, your character's OOD should be much more specific than that, and tied to their particular world or story. (Frodo wants to take the ring to Mordor, which is part of his specific world. Harry wants justice for his murdered parents, which is part of his specific back story.)
It's also interesting to note that there will be less differentiation between a villain's internal and external OODs than a protagonist's.
2. Sometimes a character can attain their external OOD early in the story and then lose it again because they aren't ready for it.
Examples: In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne wants to find justice for his parents' murders. Early on, he gets the chance at it when he goes to the courthouse, planning to murder the man who killed them. That slides away from him when someone else beats him to it. But he didn't accomplish it mostly because he isn't ready, he isn't worthy, he needs to learn a lot, and come at it from an angle of strength. So even though he attains his OOD early on, he quickly loses it again. He doesn't get another chance at true justice until the end of film, when he's learned a lot, grown in strength and wisdom and is truly ready to to attain that justice.
3. Try/Fail Cycles. Never allow your protagonist to achieve all their aims on the first try. We need to see them struggle. We need to allow the audience to become invested. A try/fail cycle is simply the act of the characters trying several times and failing to achieve their goals.
Harry didn't defeat Voldemort in book 1, did he? It took 7 tries. And even within each book, he generally doesn't figure everything out on the first attempt. It takes many fails for him to finally achieve what he's after in each individual book. The magic number for try/fail cycles is usually seen as three, but you can have as many as you need. Don't go overboard (37 try/fail cycles will make the audience bored) but take as many as you need to tell your story.
4. Sometimes an OOD might change to something more reasonable. This is a common story arc. I think it's often seen in romance, especially where the protagonist is after one person that the audience can see isn't good for them. So at some point, as they realize it too, their objectives will change to something that is more reasonable for their life and will lead to their happiness.
Some examples of this include Disney's Frozen and the film, While You Were Sleeping. I discuss them on the podcast.
I hope this helps you craft your characters and your story. For a more fleshed out discussion and more examples, pop in your ear buds and give the podcast a listen!