Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Why Should Anyone Help Your Protagonist?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Before you let a character help your protagonist, ask them why they'd offer that help. Most times, they probably wouldn't.

Before I dive in today, as part of NaNoProMo, I'm guest posting over at BadRedhead Media, chatting about marketing, and asking the question: Will Your Novel Solve a Reader's Problem? I'm also giving away a hour of one-on-one time with me to ask/talk about whatever you writing or publishing topics you want.

I have a small pet peeve in fiction--characters who are always willing to drop everything and help the protagonist. I'm not referring to the best friends (that's kind of their job), but the random people your protagonist runs into who have no good reason to answer questions, or agree to turn their backs at the right moment, or even take any risks for a total stranger, yet they do so time and time again.

It's a plot thing, I get it. That's the way the plot needs to unfold and it's exhausting to have every single thing in an entire novel be a fight. There are times when things need to go the protagonist's way. From a plotting standpoint, it's easy to see how it happens--this is where the protagonist learns X and this character will tell her X.

We don't always stop and consider why that character would help.

Sometimes the character offering all that free help just flat out, would not, help in any normal circumstance, and this is where things can feel forced. For example:
  • If squealing on the boss will get a character fired, why would he spill that information? 
  • Why would the kitchen maid sneak the hero into the castle when the evil wizard would fry her on the spot for doing so? 
  • Why would a potential witness reveal every last detail of what they saw if there's a good chance the bad guy will retaliate and hurt them? 
When characters help for no reason of their own, the answer or solution to a problem effectively falls from the sky and lands right in the protagonist's lap without her exerting much effort to obtain it. Easy wins often feel convenient at best, contrived at worst.

But wait! you say. She did all that work to get to that person. Doesn't that count?

Sometimes, yes. When the character being asked to help has plausible reasons to help, and the "work" to get there contains actual stakes and changed the protagonist in some way, and the help is more like the reward for going through all that effort. Or if the help actually makes things worse.

The trouble usually comes from two areas:

One, when a lot of effort leads up to an easy answer or solution, and the effort is nothing more than a delaying tactic. There are no consequences for that effort, and if you cut those scenes and just had the protagonist walk up and ask the character for help, the result would be the same.

Two, when there's no effort at all, and the protagonist simply asks for help or information, and the other characters hand everything over without pause. There's no conflict to achieving the goal, it's just handed over.

If you have a scene where your protagonist asks for help (or information, or aid, or anything requiring another character to act in some way that benefits the protagonist's plan), consider these questions:

1. What does the character have to gain by helping the protagonist?

While there are generous souls out there who help when asked out of the goodness of their hearts, people tend to be selfish in nature (and not always in a bad way). They're not going to risk their life or job or even comfort for a total stranger or someone they hardly know. If they're being asked for help, what do they get out of the deal? Why are they willing to help?

Why this matters:
This can determine if the character is just moving the plot or acting logically for that character in that situation.

(Here's more on What “Burnt” Can Teach Us About Conflict and Stakes)

2. What does this character have to lose by helping the protagonist?

Not every request for help will be a life or death, high-stakes situation, but if the character has good reasons not to help, and he does anyway, it's probably going to feel contrived. You see this most frequently in information-gathering scenes, where the protagonist needs information another character has--often sensitive information--and he hands it over without a thought.

Why this matters: This can determine how difficult it might be to obtain the help the protagonist needs. If there's a lot for the character to lose, he'll be reluctant to risk himself and the protagonist will have to work that much harder to convince him to help.

(Here's more on Don’t Make This Common Writing Mistake: Creating Cardboard Conflicts)

3. What kind of person is this character?

The nice old man at the corner deli is more likely to answer questions or do someone a favor than the highly paid bodyguard of the local drug lord. Some people are naturally helpful, others prefer to keep to themselves. If you want the scene to go easy on your protagonist, you might have her ask a helpful person for aid. If you want the struggle, then help she needs might come from some who has no reason to help, and every reason not to.

Why this matters: This keeps characters feeling believable and acting logically. No matter how the character responds to a request for help, if he's true to his nature the scene will feel believable.

(Here's more on What Are Your Characters Not Saying?)

4. What will the protagonist have to do if this character refuses to help?

This can be a fun brainstorming activity to determine if not getting the help is the better outcome for the scene. Since protagonists tend to get the help they need, readers expect things to turn out in the protagonist's favor. Having a character say no and refuse to help could be an unexpected twist that surprises readers and keeps them guessing.

It's also a quick way to check your stakes. If there are no consequences to not getting the help, and the protagonist just moves down to the next person on the "ask for help" list, is this a scene you even need? Another potential benefit is to add conflict to a scene--the protagonist wants the help/info/favor and the character says no.

Why this matters: Sometimes we get so focused on moving the plot forward we forget to consider what might happen if things don't go as planned.

(Here's more on Goals, Conflicts, & Stakes: Why Plots Need All Three)

5. How far will the protagonist go if this character just need a little "convincing" to help?

This is a wonderful way to work some character development into a scene, or even move the character arc of the protagonist. How far is the protagonist willing to go to get what she needs? Is she desperate enough to cross any personal, ethical, or legal lines? Is this a way to show a darker aspect of the character? Maybe it's a perfect time to see the strength and resolve of a protagonist who refuses to sink to the antagonist's level to get what she needs.

It's also a fun way to have an un-helpful character pass along bad information or hinder whatever the protagonist needs help with. For example, the protagonist asks for help, the character says no, the protagonist crosses a line and does something she'll regret later, and the character caves and does as asked, but lies or hurts the protagonist's plan out of revenge. Things turn out badly and the protagonist knows it's because she crossed that line (or doesn't know if she still needs to learn this lesson).

Why this matters: Pushing a character past her limits is a fun way to show who that character really is. It can expose flaws as well as strengths and add another emotional layer to the scene.

(Here's more on Three Ways Moral Dilemmas Can Strengthen Your Novel)

There's a reason conflict is one of the cornerstones of any novel, and the easier it is for your protagonist to get help when she needs it, the less conflict you'll have. Next time your protagonist needs help from a fellow character, consider how much that person is willing to help and why.

How helpful are your characters? Would your story benefit from a few of them being less helpful?

*Originally published August 2014. Last updated May 2020.

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. 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 Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View 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 compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue 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. These are great points to consider. I have to be careful with too many "coincidences," including helpful characters. Thanks, Janice!

    1. Most welcome. I think we all do it, especially on a first draft. We know how the plot goes and write it so it goes that way. I've discovered writing a rough synopsis of the plot helps me get those first ideas out of the way and I can catch (usually) contrivances before they get into the story.

  2. Ooooh! So helpful to think of all the different approaches here. Great post!

    1. Thanks! That's half the fun of writing--all the different ways you can do it so it never gets boring.

  3. I live by one rule: if it can cause conflict, we are not writing this the easy way. Why? Because that would be boring.

    Then, if it is ever easy, it is a surprise.

  4. Thanks for this post. Very helpful. I have much to ponder now.

    1. Most welcome, hope it sparks some great ideas for you.

  5. Number 5 hit me between the eyes, as that's the spot where any laziness I've allowed (on my part of course) with the protagonist is foiled, because they have to stretch themselves to affect the change in circumstances they need.

    It can be so simple sometimes - just remembering that people who are surprised respond instinctively, people who are in service positions are mentally prepped to 'help', cops are suspicious and looking for 'wrongs', kids can be bribed, the guy walking his dog is more likely to be open than the guy with the phonebud and dead eyes... Suddenly, I'm getting excited about this random contact, because my character has to think differently, act outside comfort zones and use knowledge that is usually hidden just under the surface.

    Such fun! Thanks - as always, you poke me with a pointed stick. :)

    1. I call that the Muse Stick. (grin) Glad it inspired you about your story. Five is one of my favorite places to play, so I hope you enjoy it just as much. It certainly keeps things unpredictable and raises the tension.

  6. For some reason, this made me think of "The Wizard of Oz". The Wizard has no reason to help Dorothy and her companions just because they showed up on his doorstep. In fact, he actually sees Dorothy as a threat. Unlike the movie, in the book Dorothy and her friends meet some seriously grim fates at the hand of the Wicked Witch while trying to fulfill the Wizard's conditions. Baum did NOT make things easy for his characters.

    1. That's probably why his books are so well loved today. I'd love to see a darker, more true to the books remake of Oz, but since it's such a children's classic I doubt they'll do it. Be so cool though.

    2. Oh, and if they did, who but Johnny Depp could play the wizard!?

    3. Or the scarecrow! He'd be good in either role.