By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
I was working on a scene the other day, and as usual, I had my protagonist in trouble. I was looking at ways to get her out of trouble. One that popped into my head briefly, was to have another character come to her rescue. I discarded it almost immediately.
Because the hero is the one who's supposed to be the hero.
And it dawned on me that I often see stories in the works (usually while looking at query letters) where the hero is being rescued by another character. It's almost always another major character and this is how they get introduced, and it's probably just fine for the story itself, but it got me thinking.
Being rescued is a bit of a cop out from a plotting standpoint. It solves a problem in such a way that your protagonist has no new goal. They haven't done anything that requires them to do anything else. They're just "safe." And where's the fun in safe?
Sure, that person brings their own set of troubles sometimes, but in most cases, that character could have easily been introduced in a way that still had to have the protagonist get out of that trouble on their own.
The solving of the puzzle is a big draw for readers. How is the protagonist going to get out of this? Those are my favorite kinds of stories, both to read and to write. I love the exercise of trying to figure out problems for my characters.
Now, I'm not bashing rescues completely. Like all things writerly, there are great ones and they can be the perfect thing to do to your plot. But when you're looking at having someone come to the rescue, think about other things you can do instead. That way, you'll be sure you're doing the right thing for the story, and not just the easy thing.
1. Is there anything from this character's past that might aid them in escaping?
If not, can you add something? Maybe this is a good opportunity to flesh out your protagonist some more.
2. Is there anything in the scene itself that can help them?
Setting isn't just there to look pretty. If we describe that trellis, why not use it? If a storm will help, add a storm. (but do it before they get into this mess so it feels natural)
3. Is there anything a secondary character in the scene might do?
Having someone else in the scene come up with the answer is not the same as being rescued. Because the protagonist still needs to put that idea into action. I actually love having my sidekicks and best friends be smart and come up with stuff, because it lets them grow as characters, too.
4. Can the bad guys make a mistake that lets the protagonist act?
One little slip up is often enough to take advantage of a situation. One word of caution here: convenient slip ups feel contrived, so don't do anything that's clearly there because you couldn't figure out how to get your protagonist out of this jam.
5. Can you change the location to a more escape-friendly venue?
If there's no way to make an escape happen where you are, move them. It's much harder to keep someone trapped on the move, and there are more opportunities for things to go wrong.
6. Is there a skill or situation later that the protagonist will need that you could use now to lay the groundwork?
Some skill sets need to be developed over a story to make them believable. Maybe this is the perfect moment for your protagonist to show they can do X, which is a small part (or a big part) of what they'll need later when they do Y.
And if you absolutely need that rescue, look at ways you can still make the protagonist a part of it.
1. Can someone do something that allows the protagonist to act?
Maybe a friend creates a diversion that gets the guards to look the other way. A rescue, but the protagonist still has to do something to escape.
2. Can someone act in a way that causes more trouble for the protagonist and changes the situation?
These are fun. Someone tries to rescue them, but it only gets worse.
3. Can the rescue cause a bigger problem overall?
Not quite the same thing as #2. Think big core conflict here. Something that affects the major plot events of the book. And the protagonist has to know this so they debate whether or not it's wise to be rescued in this way.
4. Does this rescue serve to give a secondary, but still important character a little limelight?
Sometimes our sidekicks need to shine, and letting them step up and be the hero works well to round out those characters. This is especially true in a series, where the other characters need to grow same as your protagonist . And since they've been hanging out with your hero all this time, it makes sense that they might have picked up a few tricks.
I use the word "rescue," but it really applies to any situation where someone else solves your protagonist's goal resolution. Your hero should one the one saving the day, even if saving the day only makes things worse.
Cause that's where the fun is.