The main character of a story has a problem they want to solve.
The main character of a story has a goal they want to achieve.
Which is it?
It’s either, and it’s both.
The main character has a problem and/or a goal. Sometimes people refer to it as the “problem/goal.”
It’s at the very center of any story, and should be the focus of the logline, synopsis, query and/or pitch. It’s something difficult to resolve, and has primal external life stakes — for the main character, and sometimes for other people the audience comes to care about.
In some stories, it can feel like there’s no goal, only a problem — and the writer might wonder if they need more of an active goal.
In other cases, there’s clearly a goal, but not much of a problem. Could that be an issue?
Let’s start with the first scenario. We’re focused on a problem. But it doesn’t quite feel like there’s a goal, other than to solve the problem. Is that enough?
If not, I would say “no.”
So what about the second scenario? Can the main character have a goal, but not a problem?
Not really. In a goal-focused story that really grabs an audience, what the main character is chasing (which has those big stakes and high difficulty) is generally meant to solve a big problem. And/or if they don’t reach the goal, they will have a big problem. Plus, the process of chasing the goal creates problems that weren’t there before. The conflicts and difficulties build and complicate.
The “goal-only” type story doesn’t work if those things aren’t present. We don’t want a main character who only has “positive stakes” — meaning, their life will be better if they reach the goal. We want them to also have strong negative stakes — life now is unacceptable, and/or it will be, if the goal isn’t reached. Negative stakes tend to be more powerful than positive ones. They matter more to the audience.
So either approach can work, as long as the main character is punished and struggling in some way, for virtually the entire story. This helps give the audience a strong enough reason to care, to want to take the journey of the story, and to put themselves in the character’s perspective.
What doesn’t work is when the character has too easy of a time, or has the upper hand throughout. Sometimes I see scripts where the main character is a kind of clever winner, who is superior to all the antagonists he encounters, and always comes out on top. I get why writers do this. Many movie heroes are cool and capable, and we fantasize that we could be them.
However, for a story to work, the hero has to be overmatched by their situation, and their oppositional forces. And I don’t mean just some of the time. They have to be losing — meaning the problem is strong and the goal distant — until pretty much the final moments of the climax.
Sometimes the hero(ine) is James Bond-cool in the process. But James Bond always has a super villain who looks like they’re going to succeed, until the very end. There’s a massive problem that needs solved, and, cool as he is, James Bond is losing. He might make some progress toward his goal, but those brief moments are usually followed by even bigger complications, revelations, rising stakes, growing urgency, and/or a sense that there is now that much more to solve than there was before. That’s how plots “thicken.”
There’s a famous George M. Cohan quote: “In the first act, you get your main character up a tree. In the second act, you throw rocks at them. In the third act you get them down.” One of my coaching clients recently told me about another version of this, which might be even more apropros to screenwriting: “In Act 1, you get your main character up a tree. In Act 2A, you throw rocks at them. In Act 2B, you set the tree on fire. In Act 3, you get them down.”
I think that sums it up pretty nicely.
So whether it mostly feels like a problem the main character has to solve, or a goal they’re chasing which remains out of reach, the key is that they’re having trouble, and that it builds. In most cases, scripts can benefit from starting the difficulties earlier, making them bigger in general, and growing them more along the way. If you can do this believably and entertainingly, the audience almost can’t help but stay engaged.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.