This is a play on the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, making some alterations to suggest a way of looking at character and storytelling.
1. All protagonists suffer.
We don’t watch movies about people who are content unless those people are about to have their world shattered. The key here is content. A character can be happy or cheerful and still be suffering.
Content people don’t have inner drives leading them to action. They don’t have unfulfilled dreams that nag at them, searching for a form of expression. Content people eat breakfast, go to work, run errands, and maybe watch a little television.
Content people are boring. We will not pay $11 to sit in a theater and watch a person start watching American Idol, only to doze off because they had a big, satisfying dinner. We don’t set the DVR to record the full season of Jack Enjoys Reading In His Peaceful Backyard.
A protagonist shouldn’t be content. Something should be bothering them, large or small. But what, and why?
2. A protagonist’s suffering is caused by their desire.
They want something. Something specific. It could be to go on a date with their secret crush, land a big promotion, or get revenge by finding and murdering the person who killed their family. The status quo of their lives is different from what they wish it was.
But there is a limitation to what kind of desire a protagonist should have.
3. There is an end to the protagonist’s suffering.
There needs to be an end game. Under what conditions does the protagonist get the win? What does it look like for them to no longer suffer from their desire?
There are clear cut situations like winning a tournament or catching a criminal. There are less clear cut end game conditions that are no less real, like a character getting over a loss who learns to find happiness or love again. The key here is that there is either a definitive point where the character wins or loses, or the character at least believes there is a point where they will achieve their desire.
4. There is a way for the protagonist to end their suffering.
If the protagonist’s goal isn’t something concrete that they can achieve through their own effort, it’s not a story. Sure, they may have something that they want, and they may be suffering because of it, but you still need to fill 90+ minutes of screen time. There must be something that they can do to determine whether or not they succeed in achieving their desire.
Say your character wants to win the World Series. They can’t just wish it to be true. They have to train. They have to make sure their team works well together. They have to win games during the regular season. And let’s get specific. Say your protagonist is getting old. Their career should have been over last season. They’re also fighting their own body in order to achieve this goal.
This way of looking at storytelling taps in to something about how we, as humans, relate to stories. We all have desires. We all have things we wish were different. Tapping into that aspect of human nature can not only work to create more believable characters, but can make sure those characters have something to do.