Monday, February 15, 2021

Why Rescuing Your Protagonist Might Be a Terrible Idea

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It’s fun to get your protagonist into trouble, but before you do, consider how they might get out of it.

I enjoy putting my protagonists in terrible danger, and throwing them into situations they can’t easily get out of. Which is both a lot of fun, and a whole pile of frustration, because sometimes I don’t know how to get them out of that trouble. I’m one of those writers who likes to write into a corner and force myself to come up with more unpredictable solutions, which make for better scenes.

Except when it makes for a worse scene.

Back when I was working on my Healing Wars trilogy, I faced this situation multiple times. My protagonist, Nya, gets captures a lot. So I had to get her out of that jam a lot.

The first idea that always popped into my head was to have another character come to her rescue, but I discarded it almost immediately every time.


Because the hero is the one who's supposed to be the hero.

I often see stories in the works (usually while critiquing query letters) where the hero is being rescued by another character. It's usually another major character and this is how that character either gets introduced or proves their worth in the story.


Having someone rescue your protagonist 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 new character might bring their own set of trouble to the story, but in most cases, they could have easily been introduced in a way that still forced the protagonist get out of trouble on their own. Or at least play a useful role in the escape itself.

Seeing how the protagonist gets out of trouble is a big draw for readers.

“How is the protagonist going to get out of this?” they wonder, gleefully turning the pages. “What clever idea will save the day?”

I love stories where the protagonist is clever and resourceful, both to read and write. It’s satisfying to devise creative solutions for my characters problems, and a lot more entertaining for my readers as well.

But I'm not bashing rescues completely.

Like all things writerly, there are times when rescuing your protagonist is the perfect thing to do for your novel. You might have multiple main characters and it’s their turn to shine. Or you need to give a major secondary character a moment to be the hero. Love interests frequent come to each other’s rescues and show that they’re equals and well matched.

But when you're debating someone coming to your protagonist’s rescue instead of them getting out of their own jam, consider all your options. That way, you'll know you're choosing the right solution for the story, and not picking the easiest choice for the scene.

Here are 9 things to consider when planning a rescue for your protagonist:

1. Is there anything from their past that might aid them in escaping?

Perhaps they have a skill they can use in a clever way, or they faced a previous problem that might be adapted to this new situation. They might have picked up an object along the way they could use.

If not, can you add something? Maybe this is a good opportunity to flesh out your protagonist’s backstory or skill set.

(Here’s more on Sprinkling Seeds of Backstory: How This Writing Faux Pas Can Work in Your Story)

2. Is there anything in the scene itself that can help them?

Setting isn't just there to look pretty. If you describe a trellis, why not use it? If a storm will help, add a storm—but do it before the protagonist gets into a mess so it feels natural. Picture your setting and what details might be of use, just like your protagonist is probably doing.

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 show their smarts and come up with brilliant ideas, as it lets them grow as characters, too.

You might also look at ways the characters can work as a team to escape. Maybe other characters can create the distraction needed for the protagonist to take action.

(Here’s more on What Are Your Secondary Characters Good At?)

4. Can the bad guys make a mistake that lets the protagonist act?

A word of caution here: convenient mistakes 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. But little bad-guy slip ups that feel natural, or are caused by an outside force possibly aiding the protagonist (like a distraction), could allow the protagonist to take advantage of a situation in a plausible way.

(Here’s more on 6 Ways to Identify a Contrived Plot)

5. Can you change the location to a more escape-friendly venue?

If there's no way for the protagonist to escape where they are, move them. It's much harder to keep someone trapped on the move, and there are more opportunities for things to go wrong. Maybe the protagonist needs to be taken to another location for trial, or the antagonist wants to see them, or they’re headed off to prison.

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, but nothing says you can’t shift around when readers discover them. Maybe this is the perfect moment for your protagonist to reveal they can do X, which is a small part (or a big part) of what they'll need later when they do Y.

Another word of caution: If you do have the protagonist reveal a skill to escape, make sure you go back and add a little groundwork previously so it doesn’t feel contrived. A hint here and there is usually enough if you don’t want to spoil the surprise.

(Here’s more on Why Should Anyone Help Your Protagonist?)

If you absolutely must rescue your protagonist, perhaps…

1. Let the rescue cause more trouble for the protagonist and change the situation.

Another character saves the day, but it only gets worse. Maybe they escape, but now the entire city guard knows they’re on the loose. Or maybe a hidden ally is exposed when helping and suffers consequences for it. Maybe the protagonist wanted to be captured to put another part of their plan into action, and this rescue ruins it.

(Here’s more on If Nothing Changes in Your Novel, You Have No Story)

2. Let the rescue make the main conflict harder to resolve.

Perhaps rescuing the protagonist is the worst thing anyone could do. Whatever the main problem of the novel is, it’s now a lot harder to accomplish due to this rescue. And maybe the protagonist knows this, so they debate whether or not it's wise to be rescued at all.

3. Let the rescue give a secondary, but still important character, a little limelight.

Sometimes 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 protagonist all this time, it makes sense that they might have picked up a few tricks.

(Here’s more on Sharing the Spotlight: How Much Page Time Do Supporting Characters Need?)

Being rescued often takes the plot out of the protagonist’s hands, so think carefully before sending in the cavalry.

If the rescue does nothing more than get the protagonist out of trouble, it might not be the best option for the novel. But if saving the day serves the story is other ways, and helps round out the entire cast of characters, then it might be worth doing.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine any scene where your protagonist is rescued. Is the rescue taking the easy way out of the problem, or is it making things worse for the protagonist?

How do you feel about heroes who need rescuing?

*Originally published July 2010. Last updated February 2021.

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  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. I like it when the protag is able to get themselves out of the big jam.

  9. 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. :)

  10. 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."

  11. 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. :-(

  12. 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.

  13. 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. :)

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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

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

  18. Great analysis as usual.

    Escape Methods 7-20: reconsider methods 3 (friends) and 4 (enemies). Characters really are a wealth of possibilities, and it's most likely that the leverage an escape needs will come from a *person* finding a reason (or making an error) that gets things moving.

    1. Thanks! Indeed. Characters do drive the plot, and you have so much more flexibility with them.

  19. This article is great, but it makes me think: what about when there is more than one protagonist? Some stories are about groups, and those stories don't necessarily have one protagonist. Lord of the Rings, for example: are not all of Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn protagonists, each with their own separate but inseparable stories? Perhaps Game of Thrones would be another example.

    I don't see much written on the craft of writing multi-protagonist fiction, but I think some stories would more naturally be presented that way. I'd love to see Fiction University post some articles on them.

    1. That's a great suggestion, thanks! For this, the same issues apply, I think. If you constantly have one of the other protagonist coming to the rescue, then somebody is going to feel weak or reactive after a while. But you'd have more teamwork type rescue options with multi protagonists.

  20. Lots of timely tips today - I've just worked out how to get my heroes into big trouble with an inciting incident much more fun than I'd planned. That'll get them to the main bit of the plot which I've had in mind for (cough) years.
    I think I'll let them stew a bit before I get them out of it. >:)

    1. Thanks! That's a good plan :) Make 'em work for it and make 'em sweat.