I have a small pet peeve in fiction, even though I do it myself--characters who are always willing to drop everything and help the protagonist when she needs it. I'm not referring to the best friends (that's kind of their job), but the random people your protagonist runs into over the course of a story. The characters 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 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 of some type. There are times when things need to go the protagonist's way. From a plotting standpoint, it's easy--this is where the protagonist learns X and this character will tell her.
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? Or why would the kitchen maid sneak the hero in when the evil wizard would fry her on the spot for doing it? The answer or solution to a problem falls from the sky and lands right in the protagonist's lap without her exerting much effort to obtain it.
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 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 comes when a lot of effort leads up to an easy answer or solution, but 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 great way to show who that character really is. It can expose flaws as well as strengths and add another emotional layer to the scene.
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?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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