So, you and your protagonist walk into a bar…

February 8, 2011

What happens?

Is the answer is something like: A look of bewildered rage crosses their face as they swing a chair at my head, shouting, “That’s for the last three chapters, you (expletive deleted) spawn of a pox-ridden (expletive deleted)!”

Maybe? Well, that’s okay. As it turns out, that’s probably a better response than one might think.

One thing that makes me peeved while reading are those cases in which the author clearly doesn’t want anything too bad to happen to a particular character, usually the protagonist. The hero is obstensibly in danger, but there’s nothing really at stake. Their love interest is solid, family doing fine, health is good… it starts to read like one of those boastful Christmas letters updating us all on how Bobby got straight As again while Suzy cured cancer while building a rocket ship in the garden.

That stuff is great. Unfortunately, great stuff isn’t always interesting.

Character gets developed and revealed through the hard times. What I do under duress will probably tell you a lot more about me than the way I act when everything is humming along just fine. So it’s so diappointing when a protagonist is about to make a sacrifice that will finally show us what s/he is made of… and then the Deus ex Machina appears and everything still gets to hum along just fine. Only now with gold. And love.

I’ve heard people say that you have to essentially run your protagonist up a tree, and then throw rocks at them. I like that. I would especially like it if this actually happened in someone’s story. The only caveat I have is that this particular image lends itself to melodrama. When disasters accumulate to extremes, it can read as ridiculous: “I got fired from my job, and as I was coming home I saw my wife and another man speeding away from the charred remains of our house, and my deathly-ill child was severely wounded in the rubble, but just then aliens appeared and destroyed the city, and finally my cat emerged from the wreckage, her glowing eyes clearly those of Satan in disguise, and she threw up on my shoe.”

...if they haven't already met their untimely ends.

That was fun to write. If it’s meant earnestly rather than satirically, it would not be as much fun to read.

The main point here is that the protagonist is on his/her own, and should expect no help from you. Maybe you’re not going to explode the world, but you’re also not going to keep them safe from the consequences of their mistakes. That’s what confuses me in a lot of chick-lit. These characters lie, manipulate, and do genuinely stupid things, and in the end, someone else’s paycheque rescues them and everyone laughs it off as, “Tee-hee, they’re so silly!”

No. If that happened in real life, they’d be debt-ridden, their career prospects obliterated, with most of their family and friends estranged.

Make things hard for your protagonist. Conflict is the backbone of any story. Use your judgement, not your mercy. If characters screw up, let them take the fall.

Just remember to duck when they whip bottles at your head.




  1. I like this post a lot. I hate reading books in which the protagonists are never in any real danger/trouble and/or don’t have to deal with real consequences for their actions. It doesn’t make for good reading and I can’t see how anyone would think that this is an appropriate message to send out to the world.


  2. This post is fantastic! So, what would happen if you walked into a bar with your antagonist? That would be a post I want to see.
    Your site is amazing! Everytime I get a notice that you’ve added a new post, my whole day is instantly brightened. Your insight and outlook and comments on the beauties of the writing world is phenomenal! Keep up the good work, Arvik!

  3. Great post. And you’re right, it is a challenge in writing not to ‘mother’ our characters and solve all their problems for them. We do that and they are going to start rebelling or running away from home. I worry that my characters will run away and join a romance novel. Nothing against romance novels; I just want my ‘children’ to stay home and solve mysteries.

    • You raise an interesting point that “stifled” characters will start rebelling… I think it shows that it really is necessary for them to solve their own problems; it’s what makes them grow, and what makes the story.

  4. So true! It’s hard to hurt our main character but it’s often necessary – although not all stories can be an epic fight to the death. My MC would probably take me out back and throw me off the nearest cliff.

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