Whatever you are writing – for kids or adults, picture book or young adult or older – your protagonist must have two story arcs: internal, and external. And each of those arcs has a destination. Just to keep it simple, we’ll call the internal destination your character’s desire, and the external destination their goal.
In CARRY ME HOME, Lulu has the external goal of keeping herself and her sister safe, and the internal desire to find her father and a home for them all. Notice they overlap but aren’t the same thing. You’ll see in a moment what I mean.
External Character Goal
Your protagonist will need an external goal, something that provides both a challenge (story stakes and tension) and an end to the story, a resolution of those stakes.
This is the easier of the two destinations to define. Let’s use Harry Potter as an example. His external goal, the task that is placed upon his shoulders almost literally from birth, is the defeat of Lord Voldemort. If he fails, not only will his world crumble but so will the world of muggles, since Voldemort has sworn to get rid of them.
On his way to achieving that goal Harry needs
The skills he needs are the wizarding skills, and he has to get those by going to Hogwarts and practicing magic. He’s pretty good at it to begin with, but part of the mastery of those skills is then being able to turn around and teach them to others, as he does in the Room of Requirement.
Harry needs friends, and fortunately he finds a couple on his first day – Ron and Hermione. As it turns out, Harry is as good at making friends as he is at magic, and the school is filled with potential allies (and enemies). In his worst moments, when he tries to do things on his own, that doesn’t turn out well at all.
Self-control is Harry’s most difficult need, as he has to figure out how to keep Voldemort out of his head in order to figure out how to overcome him, and Snape is a good but not very pleasant teacher. I would say a certain lack of self-control is probably Harry’s biggest flaw, playing an important role in thwarting his efforts in achieving his external goal.
Internal Character Desire
It can be a little harder for you, as the writer, to define your character’s internal desire. Sometimes we don’t know our protagonist’s internal desire until we’ve written a first draft.
In Harry’s case, his internal desire is also with him almost from birth, and it is to “find his family”. His parents are dead, and the Dursleys are a miserable substitute. He will only be truly happy when this character arc and desire are resolved.
This is where one arc overlaps with the other because the thing Harry needs in order to find his true family is friends.
The friends he makes at Hogwarts become his “found family”, and (spoiler alert) he even marries one of them, creating a wider family circle than he could ever image at first. And notice that the climax, where (spoiler alert 2) Harry “dies” he is resurrected through the assistance of his truly dead parents and other family members.
To write a great story, as soon as you can, define your protagonist’s external goal and internal desire.
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