The main character of my novel (third person limited) is an outlaw, on the run from government agents and living from day to day trying to survive.

In the first quarter of the story, she doesn't really have any sort of "end goal" that she is working towards outside of trying to remain free. She is just sort of carrying on surviving on her own, angry at the world and devoid of any solutions to her situation.

She eventually gets captured by the government, and has to work for them to obtain her freedom, but up until this point she has no long-term ambitions or desires outside of evading the law.

I feel like the beginning of the book is quite balanced between world-building, character development and actual interesting events happening, but the main character isn't working towards any specific objective, nor does she have any real idea of one.

My concern is that it will be difficult for readers to invest in a story about a character that doesn't really know what they want or where they are going. Obviously this changes later on, but my issue is that the reader may have put the book down before this change happens if they don't know what the book is about or working towards.

My understanding is that most novels (specifically in the sci-fi/ fantasy genre that I'm writing in) introduce very early in the story at least some sort of notion of an antagonist, a plot or an overall theme of "something is wrong and needs to change" that the protagonist will confront in the climax of their journey. This usually lets the reader know what to expect of the forthcoming story.

The point of my story and main character, however, is that they are completely separated from these things, living outside of society and minimizing contact with others, cutting herself off from the wider world.

So how can you convince readers to be invested in a story that initially has no recognizable trajectory? Or alternatively, how do you manufacture an end-solution for a character that doesn't really have any sort of direction?

  • 4
    So - what she wants is to live outside of society and minimize contact with others? That's her goal. It sounds like the goal shifts when her life is endangered. That's the inciting incident/call to action/a major conflict and she now has a dilemma, after which she decides on her new goal.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 14:46
  • 3
    Watch the first season of Jessica Jones. Three episodes in, ask yourself if you are invested.
    – IchabodE
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 23:55
  • The TV series “LOST” made no sense to the very end, yet was somehow popular. And long ago, there was “the fugitive” which consisted merely of a guy on the run.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 23:31
  • 3
    @IchabodE : I've watched and thoroughly enjoyed lots of Marvel material. For Jessica Jones, I watched one episode. Your comment suggests to me that if I give it another two episodes, my attitude to may change. However, the fact that I previously decided not to do that may be a proof that Mike C Ford's concern is quite valid (and that he may not want to do exactly what Jessica Jones did).
    – TOOGAM
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 23:53
  • 1
    @TOOGAM : It may be. I present this comparison so that the OP can make his own decision. Jessica starts off in a similar place. She wants nothing more than to earn enough money to drown herself in whiskey, and if anyone gets closer to her, she pushes them away. I feel that it's still compelling (and the internet generally agrees) and establishes who she is right now. If the O.P. disagrees as you seem to, perhaps he can establish what it is about Jessica that he dislikes, and correct it in his own work.
    – IchabodE
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 22:33

7 Answers 7


You say "the first quarter of the story". That is close enough to ACT I, the setup, and it ends with a crisis that propels the character into ACT II, in your case, capture by the government. You are probably writing to the Three Act Structure instinctively; we absorb this by examples of the tens of thousands of commercial stories we listen to almost every night (TV, movies and books).

That's a good thing.

In the first Act, we establish the normal world of your hero; her day to day life. So it is okay if we begin with her normal world being on the run evading the law. You begin "in the middle" which is good, provides action, and makes your character reasonably competent and (hopefully) proactive in trying to escape.

The end of the first act ends in a turning point moment, when the characters life will never be the same, and a major failure is very common. It is not the only thing; a plane crash or other accident is common too, being victim of a crime is common. But her major failure of being captured, failing her goal of escape, is a good one.

And the rest of your story follows that: Eventually she does escape, by working for her freedom by completing her indentured servitude to the government. (Which I hope is very dangerous work.)

The solution to your problem is giving your character either false goals, or sub-goals, she is pursuing during Act I. Here is the synopsis of ACT I of Die Hard:

New York City policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) is visiting his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and two daughters on Christmas Eve. He joins her at a holiday party in the headquarters of the Japanese-owned business she works for. But the festivities are interrupted by a group of terrorists who take over the exclusive high-rise, and everyone in it. Very soon McClane realizes that there's no one to save the hostages -- but him.

Note that McClane has a "false goal" in the beginning of his story, his marriage is on the rocks, he has daughters he has to go someplace to visit. This establishes he has something to lose if he doesn't fight, but otherwise has nothing to do with the main plot of the story, stopping ruthless terrorists. (Maybe we show them once in awhile to reinforce the stakes so he doesn't give up, I don't recall.) I believe in the end McClane's "false goal" of a better relationship with his wife and kids is achieved, by credit for his heroism.

Your fugitive does have a goal, a life of freedom, which seems interrupted but is ultimately achieved even though her life is changed. That is what you need to reinforce, that her goal is to escape and find a place where she won't be constantly on the run.

You do that with a series of Try-Fail cycles in the first Act.

  • She tries one thing, it fails but she easily escapes. She learned something that leads her to another goal.
  • She tries, it fails. The law has more men after her this time, and she narrowly escapes! That gave her a different idea.
  • She tries. It fails, and the law has even more men and more competent in the bargain, and she narrowly misses escape. She is captured.

We escalate in these cycles; Escape was [Easy, Hard, Impossible]. The law men are [Few, Many, Overwhelming].

  • Your villain in ACT I is The Government and law enforcement.
  • Her goal is freedom, both from prison and pursuit.

You need to make her very good at something (which is why the government is willing to bend the rules and employ her instead of imprisoning her), and that needs to be on display in her exploits to escape and find some sanctuary. Being good at something is one component of a likable character; another is to not just be constantly reacting to problems, but find a way for her to initiate actions to solve them. She must have her own ideas and pursue them.

  • 3
    This is actually very close to what I already had planned, but I really like the idea of reframing her desire to no longer be a fugitive into a goal in itself, which actually gets a resolution in act 2 when she now has a way to achieve her goal. Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 12:05
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    The "false goal' trope is a great answer. The part that takes skill and can really hook the reader is to hide the overall 'big-picture' story by providing hints along the way that are obvious if you reread the book but don't seem significant during a first reading. I think the easiest way to do that is to provide 'interesting' mini-goals/stories that the reader believes is what the story is all about, but it ends up not really or maybe is related to the end-goal in some non-obvious way. Stories that hook me are the ones that are interesting but it takes a while to figure out where it is going.
    – Dunk
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 16:23
  • 2
    ...and I get hooked even further when I thought I figured out where it was going and it turns out I was wrong. As long as the twists seem natural, believable and don't seem contrived.
    – Dunk
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 16:24
  • 1
    Very nicely analysed
    – Stilez
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 16:48

In Robin Hobb's Fool's Errand, the first volume in the second trilogy about her character FitzChivalry Farseer, the protagonist lives in a cottage away from the world for the first quarter or so of the novel. Nothing much happens, until the world intrudes on him again and his next adventure begins. It is one of my favourite novels ever, exactly because of this placid beginning. Of course part of why it works is that readers have read the first trilogy, had an emotional rollercoaster of an adventure with Fitz, and the "time off" is well-earned for both readers and protagonist. Nevertheless a scene like this can be done quite badly, so I strongly suggest that you read that book to see how Hobb masterfully handles it.

One part of why this works for me is that I'm not much interested in the action of most SF & F anyway. For me, it is always the same and quite boring. Almost always some kind of power struggle between competing political fractions such as noble houses or galactic empires has to be resolved through military action and political intrigues, and I find that completely irrelevant. What I read for is the sense of wonder that comes with foreign worlds, strange beings, and future technology. So if I get long stretches in a novel where this sense of wonder is allowed to unfold without people having to kill each other, that's perfectly fine for me.

Another book, where this is well done (to my taste) is The Lord of the Rings. It does have its inciting incident at the beginning, but then nothing much happens for most of the three volumes. Sure, there is some fighting and some fleeing, but for most of the story the companions just travel and look at things. That's exactly what many of my friends who read the books (or tried to read them) complained about, so of course this is not for everyone (and your book might not be for everyone either), but for me (and many other fans of Tolkien) that lack of events is actually what the love about them.

So when you have a character who is on the run, living in the wilderness or otherwise outside of her society, and trying to survive, that all sounds exactly the opposite of boring! For one, her situation must be stressful (hiding from the authorities, fleeing from persecution, finding food and shelter) and there should be plenty of opportunity for action and intense emotions there. Look at non-fiction accounts about people surviving in the wilderness (explorers, extreme sports) or criminals on the run. For another, I suppose that her environment is interesting, too. You mention that you're writing Science Fiction or Fantasy, so the world she is living in is very likely different from our own. Work out this difference, take your readers on a journey of exploration into that world. Have your protagonist discover things, learn and understand what the past was or what her situation and options are. Think of "problem-solving"-novels like crime fiction, where the reader accompanies the protagonist as they uncover what they will later need to overcome the antagonist. And basically, just wallow in the sense of wonder that, I suppose, other readers are looking for, too.


What do you do during that time?


Show us the world the character lives in. If it's different to ours, show us how it's different, and make us care about it. If the character is on the run, there must be an organisation she's on the run from. What's her understanding of that organisation, why do they want her, and how does this fit with the rest of society who (presumably) the organisation doesn't much care about? Who is this character, and why are they doing what they're doing? And why does this organisation have the powers it does?

A good example might be Skye (later Daisy Johnson) from Agents of SHIELD. We know that SHIELD are the good guys. However the first episode is largely seen from Skye's PoV, as she is actively running away from SHIELD. Of course the episode ends with her joining them, but that first episode sets up the lead characters, the organisations, and the nature of the world they're living in. The next few episodes carry this on. It isn't until much further into the series that the idea of a plot arc and a deeper threat starts to emerge - and by that point the viewers are already hooked.


You don't have to have likable characters to have an engaging story, but it does help. Brandon Sanderson has a "sliding scale" concept (which you can easily find if you look up some of his online talks) for making characters likable (aka, engaging for a reader). Think of these like sliders on a sound board that you can adjust for each character: proactivity (aka, protaging, how much initiative does your character show), competence (how good are they at what they do), and sympathy (does the reader sympathize or does the character sympathize with others).

Low Sympathy, High Proactivity, & High Competence could be your bad guy. But you can toggle all of these. Pushing a character up in all three of these is usually bad, but to have character development, one of these or a similar character trait, needs to start off on the low side and through action and event get pushed higher. Likability is usually derived from all three.

You've essentially told us that you're starting from a low pro-activity point; which is not uncommon. One path for characters in a story is to go from low-agency to high agency. IE, in the first act, the mc is acted upon. But in the second act the mc begins to realize this and accepts that they need to change, then in the third act the mc makes the attempt and succeeds (comedy) or fails (tragedy). If you're going to start with low agency, I'd recommend showing us something else that makes her likable (make her sympathetic or competent or both). Establish that the deficit of agency has a cost and make sure that some part of her character justifiably puts her in this position. Then decide whether she needs to overcome a handicap (an optional choice she's making that's hamstringing her ability to get what she wants; or if she has to deal with a flaw, a non-optional part of who she is that's a horrible weakness).

Meanwhile, the rest of your story should be progressing in interesting ways to throttle up reader engagement. These threads should be tweaking her competence and/or sympathy vectors while setting up the inciting incident that will propel her into a role where she exerts her agency. As she comes into her agency, it's a good time to mess with the handicap/flaw to create a try-fail cycle; or to mess with the reader's perception of her sympathy or capability. This will keep your mc from becoming a Mary Sue.

I would argue that you don't want to stray too far from your mc during all of this. That you don't want to get into info-dumps to get your world in place. That you want to spend as little time as possible repeating yourself. And that this first section should be shorter than maybe you feel is totally justifiable. (Like when you need to project your voice, you sound like you're almost yelling in your own head). Readers want development, but they also want a focused story. If you're writing something boring, find a way to write something interesting instead. Err on the side excitement. If she has to wonder in the dessert for 40 years before becoming pro-active, give us the sense this has happened, but start in media res if possible. Start as close to that inciting incident as you can. I'm pretty forgiving of books, giving them 50 to 100 pages to establish themselves, but I yell at the books that take that long all of the time. The average reader may only give you a paragraph or a few pages to be interesting.


What I would personally do in this situation is a "How We Got Here" scenario.

Start off towards the climax of your story, with the protagonist facing down (or preparing to face down) whatever the final antagonist happens to be. This will solve your problem of introducing the antagonist and the long-term objective, and also provides an additional hook: how did the protagonist get into this situation, and how will they get out? Then, you flash back to the chronological beginning, with your character on the run from the law, and proceed from there.

A good example is the video game Persona 5. It takes a couple of hours of set-up and gameplay before you actually get into a Palace and start fighting Shadows, and quite a bit longer before the protagonists decide upon their long-term goal of forming the Phantom Thieves and reforming criminals.

So to signal immediately what the storyline actually is, the game starts off several months in the future, with the protagonist getting betrayed and captured during a Palace heist, and uses the framing device of the protagonist relaying the preceding events during an interrogation. Since you know from the beginning that the protagonist gets betrayed, this also adds the underlying driving question of who betrayed them, which isn't answered until the story catches up with itself towards the end.

  • 1
    This is one of those things that people either love or hate. I can't recall reading any books like this but I despise movies that start in the future and show how you got there. I frequently don't even bother watching those movies once I see that's what they are doing and they don't 'hook' me in the opening minutes of the past. What is the point of the movie itself pushing the 'spoiler'. There's enough people doing that already, I don't need the movie maker in on ruining the story also. IOW, I think this is a high risk alternative.
    – Dunk
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 16:12

My understanding is that most novels (specifically in the sci-fi/ fantasy genre that I'm writing in) introduce very early in the story at least some sort of notion of an antagonist, a plot or an overall theme of "something is wrong and needs to change" that the protagonist will confront in the climax of their journey.

Just because it happens in most, it doesn't mean it's mandatory.

This usually lets the reader know what to expect of the forthcoming story.

True, but there are other ways to do the same.

In the first quarter of the story, she doesn't really have any sort of "end goal" that she is working towards outside of trying to remain free.

Trying to remain free seems like a worthy 'end goal', if the character development is solid.

She is just sort of carrying on surviving on her own, angry at the world and devoid of any solutions to her situation.

If she is looking for solutions to her situation, independently of how she got there, then she knows what she wants. Her problem is not knowing how to get to her 'destination' and, I suppose, that's what makes her angry. I don't see how a strong character trying to find a way to improve her current situation would be described as

a character that doesn't really know what they want or where they are going.

From what you've previously said, I picture your MC as angry / fed up with where she is now and wanting to move on to a better place, while having no idea how to go about that change. Sounds like an interesting journey to me (for as long as the character development is solid).

She eventually gets captured by the government, and has to work for them to obtain her freedom, but up until this point she has no long-term ambitions or desires outside of evading the law.

It seems to me she had a hazy objetive she didn't know how to reach, maybe wasn't even fully motivated to focus on finding a way to reach it. Being captured will force her to find a concrete way to improve her situation, so that event turns out being the problem that opens the path to finding a solution.

I feel like the beginning of the book is quite balanced between world-building, character development and actual interesting events happening,

This is key, IMHO.

My concern is that it will be difficult for readers to invest in a story about a character that doesn't really know what they want or where they are going.

Do you want your readers to be invested in a story about a character, or do you want them to be invested in a character that is struggling to find happiness (eg., a good situation for herself, whether romantic, professional or whatever)?

If the beginning is indeed well-balanced, then the readers should be hooked not because there is a specific antagonist, but because they've come know a strong character who is unhappy with her life and is struggling to discover how to improve it.

On the other hand, I believe she has an antagonist of sorts from the get go: either a society which forces her to be a marginal or a history that forced her into her current situation. Both 'antagonists' are very difficult to defeat because they're so vague... it's like saying time is one's enemy. How do you go about fighting it?

Anyway, when the MC is captured she gets a more specific antagonist she can focus on and fight. Doing so will end up being the best way to fight the initial 'antagonist'.

The point, however, remains: is this about the MC's story or is it about the MC? I'll plow through even unsatisfactory chapters for the sake of a well-fleshed out character. If your beginning is balanced and solid, then most readers will follow her. Of course, some readers are all about action and prefer specific antagonists from the very beginning. I suggest, however, that you don't worry too much about the readers. You won't please everyone, but if your plot and characters are solid and balanced, you'll please enough.


You need to focus on what is going on emotionally within your character. You are not correct in saying the first part of your story has no antagonist. You clearly do have an antagonist right from the beginning by starting with a character who is a fugitive. Essentially, it's your character versus "the world" and specifically the people out to get her. So don't think there's no plot there. Plenty of stories have been told about nothing but survival. Characters are stranded on an island or high in the mountains after a plane crash and need to survive. That is a perfectly good plot to drive even an entire novel, much less the first "act".

To get to your question; you really need to hone in on what is going on inside your character's head. This is the key to getting readers invested in the story. Think about S.E. Hinton's Outsiders. The main character is a teenager with very little control over the course of events in the story for most of it's duration. essentially, Ponyboy's goals are to be left to live in peace with his friends, but a fundamentally hostile world is not letting him do so. Right away, we are treated to an example of what he has to deal with as he exits a movie theater and gets jumped. What drives this story is not Ponyboy's brilliant plan to fix the world and make the Socs' and Greasers live together in harmony once he pulls off some clever heist. In fact, that's about as far from the plot as you can get. What draws a reader in with overwhelming force is the way you can identify with this mostly helpless character who is dealing with a lot of things outside his control as he also deals with the emotional upheaval and awkwardness of being a teenager.

Show us what is going on in your character's head. Whether or not she has any overall goal is totally unimportant. What is important is the way the events in the story change her as a person and how she feels and reacts to them. That is what will draw readers in.

  • 2
    Spot on - I was going to add something like this, but you already said it. To Mike C Ford - survival is a goal in itself. Furthermore its a huge goal, and one every person on earth can feel invested in. You're mistaking "dramatic plot events" for a goal. Your drama can come just from trying to achieve safety (and ultimately failing) in part 1, and everyone will "get it" if you can write it. That's the only drama in many stories.....
    – Stilez
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 16:47

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