Your Protagonist’s Obstacles

Posted On Oct 13 2013 by
Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Sandra Bullock in “Gravity.” Obstacles abound!

Okay, we’re on to Day 4 of NaNoPlotMo. This is the last easy day. After this we kick it into high gear. You may want note cards before tomorrow. Clear a bedroom wall. Send the family to Aruba.

Today, we’re going to pick up where we left off yesterday, with a list of obstacles to throw in your protagonist’s path toward her goal. Remember: you cannot be nice to your protagonist. The creator of Little Orphan Annie didn’t give an orphan and her little dog a moment’s rest. So you can find it within you to beat up the character you’ve come to love.

What’s the Goal?

Yesterday you should have set a goal. Is your protagonist trying to stop an asteroid from pummeling your favorite planet? Or is she just trying to get through a horrible blind date? Either of these goals can be fraught with obstacles. One will be of the life-threatening variety. One will be comical. Readers love both. But they don’t love protagonists who skip through 200 pages with nothing more to worry about than a hangnail.

So write the goal down now. Got it? Let’s throw some obstacles in her path. If you feel the need to beg your protag’s forgiveness, now would be the time.

Primary Obstacle…Evil Bad Guy

Your first obstacle, of course, should be your antagonist. It doesn’t have to be an evil bad guy. An antagonist may actually be good, like the FBI agent after your falsely accused hero. But think of your antagonist as a huge obstacle, and that will help define that character as well, which we’ll do soon.

Is your primary obstacle really an evil mad scientist? Fine. A protective father? Excellent. A screaming toddler? Fun. Write down what the worst possible obstacle would be for your hero. Then think about how you can make it worse. If your antagonist is a protective father, then maybe make that father an ex-CIA field operative skilled in the art of interrogation. If your antagonist is an evil mad scientist, then give him access to hundreds of discarded nuclear warheads from the old Soviet Union. Play with it. Even the toddler can have Carrie-like psycokinetic powers (Think I’ll hold that one for myself).

Your antagonist, or primary obstacle, doesn’t even have to be human. In Jaws, it was a shark. In Gravity, released in theaters this weekend, there’s only one character throughout most of the movie. Her antagonist was, as the title implies, gravity. Sometimes the most brilliant titles are the simple ones.

Many Other Obstacles

If you only give your protagonist one obstacle, no matter how evil, your readers will get bored. So let’s stack some more obstacles in her way. Again, I’m going to highly recommend you go see Gravity. If your spouse will allow it, bring a notebook and take notes.

Think about your protagonist’s environment. Is he in a normal house? On the ocean? In prison? What obstacles might exist in that environment other than the antogonist? In a house, you have toys on the stairs, washers that overflow, toilets that clog, electricity that may go out. In prison, you have the vicious prisoners, dishonest wardens, brutal guards, isolation. On the ocean you have storms, sharks, burning sun, no fresh water, heat, cold.

Let’s make a list. I’ll use my WIP, you use yours.

TJ Coolidge’s Obstacles

TJ starts out in New York City but most of my story takes place in a workers camp in Ohio. It’s post-Crash America. It’s an unstable society, much like pre-Constitution America. But the federal government is still trying to maintain order. TJ’s goal, if you’ll recall, is to find the woman who framed him for the securities fraud that triggered the Great Crash. If he can find her, he hopes he can convince her to testify on his behalf.

So TJ’s obstacles might be:

Primary: Federal Agent in pursuit.


– Workers in the camp who grew up poor and don’t trust TJ.
– Injuries suffered when attacked on the road.
– Wild dogs that patrol the woods surrounding the camp.
– Corrupt local authorities who use the transient workers while trying to appease the federal government.
– His boss at the orchard who treats all the campers (Camp Dogs) like dirt.
– Hunger.

Okay, that’s a good start. Remember, these are the obstacles for your primary story goal. Your protagonist will have other goals–romantic, family, financial, career, etc. Some of these obstacles will probably stand it the way of more than one goal. That will come naturally, so don’t kill yourself trying to work out that matrix.

So go ahead and make your list. Then enjoy the rest of your Sunday. We’ve got two weeks left to get this together before NoNoWriMo. But don’t worry if you’re not ready by November. Skip NaNoWriMo and make your story work. That’s the primary goal for you!

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Last Updated on: October 13th, 2013 at 8:38 am, by Ron

Written by Ron

Just about everything I believe has been shaped by the written word. But books don't force a belief; they stir the imagination so that you, the reader, eventually draw your own conclusions. We grow richer in spirit when we read, deeper in our understanding of the universe and our role in it. That's why I read. That's why I write. To offer you a bit of myself. Come along on my journey, won't you? There's plenty of room.