Thursday, July 15

Don't Hold Out For a Hero: Proactive Protagonists

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.


  1. I am also not a fan of the convenient-yet-previously-unseen/unknown rescuer. Anyone who reads this article shouldn't have that issue ever again. Excellent thoughts here. :)

  2. Great post. Your blog always get me thinking.

  3. Great ideas, and certainly worth thinking about. I try to only have a rescue when it feels like a natural part of the story. 'Sides, sometimes figuring out how to get someone out of a jam is one of the fun parts of writing a story.

  4. I disagree. I often get tired of protagonists who have the "I have to do it all myself!" chip on their shoulders. I often see them making ridiculous choices just so they can do it all by themselves. I see nothing wrong with someone else helping along the way as long as the hero solves the main problem in the end.

    Few of us are totally alone in this life. We need and use the help of friends and family to make it through, even when our final decisions are up to us. Why is it so wrong for our protagonists to be the same way?

    I guess look at it this way, How often did Watson help Holmes? Many times. How often do Ron and Hermione help Harry Potter? Many times. Yes, the final choices and final battles go to the hero, but their friends often help/rescue them along the way.

    I have put some books aside because I got so sick of the main character always having to do it all his or herself.

  5. Novels with a romance story line also have the issue of the power between the hero and heroine. These days, the reader wants the rescue/rescued to be equal between the hero and heroine. In other words, no damsels in distress and no all-powerful hero who always saves the day and the girl.

  6. Great tips. I agree that sometimes your secondary characters need to help with getting out of the mess. Or occasionally being the one to solve the problem. Sometimes this helps show your main character's character struggles.

  7. Sandra, I'm not saying your protag should always go it alone. As I mentioned, having your secondary characters contribute and even save the day is a great way to round out your cast.

    You're right, people don't do things all for themselves all the time. But it's not uncommon in first or early manuscripts to have a hero who is always being "helped out" by someone, be it someone coming to save them, or a convenient person who has just the right information and hands it over, bad guys who spill the beans on the plot so the hero doesn't have to figure anything out on their own. These are all situations where it often helps the story to think about ways in which someone doesn't help out the hero and they have to do it themselves.

    Each situation has to be evaluated on its own, and my goal is to give as many options for something to think about as I can. Because you never know what will click for someone :)

  8. We don't live in a vacuum and neither do our characters. We and our characters rely on others (current or past) as part of our educations. We find a lot of things that work and don't work from others. "I wonder if I can jump off this cliff and fly?" doesn't last through too many first-person experiences.

    We live as groups and rely on each other to develop experience. The protagonist/hero can use other's experiences and development work to further the story.

    Does a business manager do all the work? No, he relies on Accounting for the numbers, Sales for forecasting and Operations for production. He's a coordinator, he doesn't do all the grunt work himself.

    What the hero can do is to take these ideas, suggestions, discoveries and what have you and implement them. Usually with his own experience in coordinating things, he can come up with a twist which makes the implementation work better.

    Of course, the path he and the others agree on might lead directly into those fresh cow piles. That's deep doo-doo and is often perfectly acceptable.

    Try to get your current education and abilities by yourself by doing all the basic research. No way, Jose!

    One of the hero's roles is to make the final decisions and to implement them. He might be wrong, but shouldn't be wishy-washy about it.

    Go write something great.

  9. I like it when the protag is able to get themselves out of the big jam.

  10. Great advice here. I'm going to have to copy and paste these questions for future reference.

    In the novel I'm currently revising, I had the issue of the protag being "conveniently" rescued. My critique group (I love them) helped me find something better for my hero, though. Yay, for them and yay for the story. :)

  11. I hate when the MC of a book I'm reading gets themselves into a really hairy situation, and I'm thinking, how the heck are they going to get out of this one...I don't know, but it's gonna be good.

    Then, out of the blue, another character runs in to save the day. All those big obstacles vanish and the accomplishment feels flat. It's a big let-down for me.

    I'm not saying this is always the way it happens, I just hate it when it is.
    I prefer this approach :) "You got yourself into this mess, now get yourself out of it."

  12. I'm sorry, Janice. :-( I spoke too strongly and did not read your post thoroughly. You do mention having a secondary character help out but I had skimmed right over it.

    I hope you accept my apologies for coming off so rudely. :-(

  13. Hm. When I think over my two novel drafts now in the revision stage, the narrative characters don't do all that much, come the climax. In one of them, what she does do is important and lets the rest of it happen, and nobody else can do what she does. And the other one, the narrator can't really do much, either… but she might need to do a bit more than she does. Thanks for that thought.

    And I don't like the who-the-heck-is-this-crazy-person who pops up out of nowhere to save the day, either, unless it's something that happens well before the climax and there's a reason the person shows up. (Like, the crazy wizard is tracking the same dragon the hero is, so the wizard's there with an anti-fire spell when the hero needs it, kind of thing.)

    Sorry if I'm not quite coherent. I'm falling asleep.

  14. Goodness, Sandra, I didn't think you were rude at all! I have no problem with folks disagreeing, and you brought up good points. I just didn't want you (or others) to think the post was saying "never do X" so I clarified. :)

  15. Very good. It got me asking myself how many times I've considered doing something similar. Usually it's disgarded, but not always. *shy grin* There are always other ways to stir things up or to get characters out of trouble... not using a rescue by another character just makes a person think of a better way to save them.

  16. Janice, thank you SO much for this brilliant post. I had been stuck on a plot point for ages and could NOT figure out how to resolve it without someone else rescuing my main character. I read this post, chewed it over, and found a way!

    I'm sending you virtual chocolate.

  17. You have no idea how much this post has made my day! I have been at a complete standstill now for a few days over stressing a small issue in my own plot (well, that of my story - not of my actual life, that would be rather strange!)My issue is not so much with my hero - he is strong, vivid and clear, but on reading this post I realised what has been holding me back - my secondary character needs to be shot! Or at least vastly rewritten. On reading the above, I realised he could not function with any of the suggested criteria - it is kinda crucial that this point of the story is told from his point of view, and he just can't do it!

    Not sure how I am going to progress from this point, but I just wanted to thank you and have a mini vent at a stranger (apologies) because I now don't feel so ridiculous with my dilemma. There is an answer! Just not sure what it is yet, but you have helped me see the light. Many thanks, good luck with the writing!

    Nat x

  18. Welshcake and Thewritersideoflife, I'm so glad I could help! It does my heart good to read comments like this. :)