Is it OK to have a main character without a goal? I was told that a good protagonist needs to have a strong goal. It's considered to be a common mistake among aspiring writers. This seems to happen when a character is part of a larger group, which has a goal, and that goal becomes the main character's goal also. Or when a character has an ever-changing goal that changes constantly. My question is in what situation could you have a main character without a goal and still make the story compelling enough? Was it ever done in literature: is there any famous work where the main character has no goal?
Seriously folks. This isn't my fight:
A protagonist can have a very humble goal, if their lack of a goal is central to the story. Consider the newest example, Bullet Train, where the character's goal is simply to commit a petty crime and get off of a train. Wild events and circumstance keep pulling them back into an ever more complex web that they keep trying to escape. There's often at least some comedic element to these stories.
Another example is if there is a reveal of a plot twist in the story. The character might, for example, appear to be stumbling through the story until you realize all their actions were secretly focused on a masterful goal. In this case, the character APPEARS to have no goal, but actually has an extremely powerful one.
Then there is the simple goal of staying alive in an uncontrolled crisis. This simple and primitive goal can be combined with a somewhat laughable goal (like finding a Twinkie amidst a zombie apocalypse) to make a complicated story where a very human goal seemingly takes precedence over a grand goal.
It can be done. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of my favorite novels, and its protagonist, Arthur Dent, does not have a goal throughout the first book, other than surviving the few dangerous situations he winds up in.
The reason this works is because the book was never about Arthur's character arc. The book is first and foremost a comedy, so as long as we're laughing, we don't care much about what happens to Arthur. Second, the book is a satire highlighting the various similarities and contrasts between Douglas Adams's galaxy and the world we live in. Arthur's journey only gives us an excuse to peek into various facets of life in the galaxy through the eyes of an outsider.
And, indeed, this is a big reason why the movie version was a big flop with me, because they tried to make the movie about the story, and they cut out many of the jokes and satirical elements to keep things moving along. The result was a story that was much more dramatic, but not any more interesting, and certainly not any more fun to watch.
I would be remiss not to add that, as the series progressed, Adams did start giving his stories meaningful plots and character arcs, and then the reader does care about what Arthur wants and what he does about it. I think the series improved for it, but the first book nonetheless showed that such things are not strictly necessary. It's also worth noting that the first book was mostly an adaptation of a radio series, where it's easier to get away with writing sketch comedy even if your show is not technically a sketch comedy show. The parts that were not adapted from the radio series tend to adhere much closer to traditional storytelling.
In any case, if your story is not a comedy, then it would be much harder to make this work. For each scene in your story, you need to ask yourself, "Why would the audience care about this scene?" For Hitchhiker's, the answer is simple: the scene is funny. So long as the audience laughs, you win. But there isn't a comparable analogue for drama. You don't automatically win when the audience gasps or cries. You don't win until you give them catharsis, so everything in your story needs to work toward giving it.
This usually means having an arc that you can resolve, and that usually means having a character drive that arc. If this character isn't your protagonist, you might want to consider changing your story's point of view so that it is.
The character doesn't have to have a goal. The story must have a goal.
If your character just goes through daily stuff and just gets on with living, it'd be a really boring story.
If the character is just doing the usual mechanics of getting through the day, but keeps encountering obstacles that force the character to grow or to do interesting things, then that can be a very good story.
Your job as an author is to provide that goal - and the obstacles and the solutions.
Life doesn't provide goals - reality isn't there to teach us lessons.
A story (be it a novel or a short story) is not reality. The story has a god (in the form of the author) who puts meaning into the events.
Write a story with the goal of teaching a jerk how to become a decent person. That isn't the jerk's goal - but it is the goal of the story. The jerk just lives through all the incidents that the author contrives and becomes a better person.
In dealing with individual incidents, the character will develop short term goals. A character just getting through life may have to deal with an unexpected traffic jam on the way home from work. The character has no real long term goal, but still has to plan a way to reach the short term goal of getting home on time (or at least not too late.)
Your characters can get along without specific goals as long as you the author have goals for them to reach and you goad them along a path to those goals.
The question is whether your story has any forward motion without such a goal. Aimless rambling is very difficult to make compelling, so that the reader won't just stop reading.
Certainly stories about growing up often lack a clear overt goal, but this tends to produce complications about where to end. Often the writer has the goal that the story will end when the character reaches a milestone or, more often, learns a lesson
I suppose that for a conventional story you should follow conventional advice. ;-)
In that case, the lead character drives the action and thus should have a goal, either one that is innate (they feel a drive to achieve something, like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick) or imposed (they are subject to circumstances that make them want to achieve something, like Odysseus who wants to return home).
But of course one can write less conventionally, and there are some famous examples for that as well. I think James Joyce's Ulysses, giving an account of a more or less ordinary day in the life, qualifies. The authors of the Beat generation (e.g. Burroughs, Kerouac) wrote stories whose protagonists didn't have much of a goal; Beckett's characters usually just endure their days.
If you plan to get published and earn any money I'd recommend to write more conventionally though ;-).
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a famous successful franchise that has a depressed protagonist that does not sees a reason to save the world. He would prefer to be let alone, but is too much apathetic at the beginning to actively avoid being thrown into someone else's problem again and again. Once there, he needs to do something, albeit not wanting to. And so the story progresses, until he finally becomes involved to the point of not being able to return or desist.
In my opinion, a character with a clear (to the reader) goal is common, and important, but not fundamentally important, because the character's goal exists to serve a larger story purpose...which is to create a conflict. Obstacles put in the character's way during the pursuit of their goal is what gives a story much of its drama, suspense, and compellingness...even, its relatability, since we all can empathize with someone trying to fulfill desires, whether they are grand or mundane.
I'm sure you realize, I'm not using "suspense" and "drama" as genre labels. Some form of not knowing what will happen next is probably fundamentally critical to any story, or there's no reason to read. Generally, things happen in stories, and we read them to learn just what.
So, by all means...if you can come up with a story framework where the character has no goals, but things happen, and it's compelling for readers (unless you don't want that) then go for it!
It's an interesting question, but it hinges on what you mean by a goal. There are plenty of examples (including the ones referenced in other answers here) of main characters who do not have a goal of their own but have one thrust on them by others, by prophecy, by circumstances, etc. Do you count that as the character's goal? If so, this answer probably isn't for you.
If by "main character without a goal" you mean someone who hasn't set themselves a goal, then there are plenty of examples.
Take for instance The Belgariad. Garion is, on face value at least, just some random farm boy. His goals in life include goofing off, stealing food from the kitchen, not getting caught by Aunt Pol and maybe one day marrying Zubrette. He then spends a bunch of time just trying to stay alive, trying to learn sorcery, trying not to let Ce'nedra get under his skin, etc. He's pretty much just surviving and helping out where he can, with no actual goal beyond getting through the next day.
Or perhaps the better example (depending on your perspective - I loathed the character) is Thomas Covenant. As a sufferer of leprosy, he's had a hard life. His entire existence is devoted to caution and self pity. After getting pulled into a world of magic, almost immediately cured of his leprosy and given phenomenal power (because his wife just happened to have a preference for white gold), does Covenant become a potent force for change and so forth? Like fun he does, he continues to piss and moan about his leprosy for most of the first trilogy while his companions do the work of getting him where he needs to be. (He's truly tiresome.)
And then there's the example that everyone should be familiar with: The Lord of the Rings. Although you might find my position a little controversial, I believe that the true protagonist of the series isn't the guy who is carrying the doomsday weapon around, it's the background character whose support is the main reason why they succeeded, and is literally the only reason Frodo was able to complete the mission he was set. Samwise Gamges' goal isn't to destroy the One Ring, or to defeat Sauron, it's to support his friend. He's not the smartest, he's not much for fighting, he's not a planner or a schemer, he's just a simple man. And every time Frodo falls, time after time, Sam is there to pick him back up.
Which is not to say that the story doesn't have a goal. They all do. Epic goals that draw entire nations into action. Goals that absolutely require the protagonist to perform mythic feats and challenge the gods themselves.
Ultimately though the goal itself can be secondary to the story telling. It's a reason why the story is happening, and achieving the goal is the point that the whole story is leading to, but the story of how that goal was achieved is the important part. We're not writing after-action reports or documenting dry facts after all, we're building worlds filled with fascinating characters, tension, laughter and tears, personal development and meaning.
Or at least we should be.
There's an odd movie called Being There adapted from the novel of the same name. It was one of Peter Seller's last roles, and it takes a long time to get going. The main character, Chance, has no real goals at all. He is simple-minded (think mental retardation, but high-functioning) and all he likes to do is garden and watch TV. When events force him out of the only home he's known, he struggles to figure out what to do until he is hit by the car of a wealthy woman.
The rest of the movie is a brilliant satire as Chance has only a few phrases he says, but the other characters around him promptly inject their meanings into them. For instance, Chance likes to watch TV so he states "I like to watch". There's a number of ways to take that phrase (Chance is never explicit about what he wants to watch), and thus characters show him things that he probably didn't intend. In one scene, an openly gay man is attempting to proposition Chance, and when Chance states he "likes to watch", the man excitedly goes off to fetch his partner for an exhibition (Chance is pulled away before anything can happen in that vein).
The satire is that, by the end, everyone thinks Chance is this brilliant man and they are making all sorts of goals for him (there's talk of trying to make him run for the office of US President), not realizing he cares nothing at all for any of it.
To put it a different way, DWKraus' good answer describes a main character who knows about, but is apathetic towards, the goal. Chance doesn't even know there is a goal, and simply exists within the story as a foil for others.