In genres like mystery and fantasy that big and difficult thing might mean a perilous quest (slaying the dragon, catching the bad guy, destroying a ring atop a rather unpleasant mountain), for genres like romance and literary fiction that might mean a perilous inner journey (navigating forces outside of one’s control, getting an attractive individual to kiss you, getting over one’s self). Or some combination of all of these.
Often authors will approach novels knowing the protagonist needs to get going on their big quest and start tackling those really difficult things. There’s just one problem: the authors sometimes forget there might be a much easier solution staring the protagonist in the face.
Why would your protagonist risk life and limb scaling a massive building with their bare hands when they haven’t even checked if the front door is unlocked?
“Just use the thingamabob!”
A series of problems arise when protagonists jump straight to the most difficult and dangerous solutions without first attempting easier and more logical ones.
Most importantly: it makes your protagonist kind of just seem like an idiot.
This is particularly an issue when you’ve given the protagonist a very powerful trait or piece of technology. For instance, if the protagonist has easy access to a time machine, it becomes difficult to explain why the protagonist doesn’t just use it to go back in time to solve all their problems (plz remind me to never write a time travel novel again).
This is the “just use the thingamabob!” problem. Unless the reader sees why the protagonist can’t just do the easier thing or use that convenient piece of technology, they’re either going to think your character is hopelessly dumb/reckless or they’re going to see the author’s hand glowing bright on the page and they’ll stop suspending disbelief.
Before you send your protagonist off to make a daring jump over a giant lava field with little chance of success, make sure you’ve shown the reader why that’s the only option.
Closing the off-ramps is an opportunity
Closing off the easy escape routes is about more than just closing plot holes. Spending some time showing the protagonist struggling to escape their quest has numerous benefits for the overall story.
Here’s why it’s an important exercise.
- It helps the reader understand the obstacles the protagonist is up against. Particularly in unfamiliar settings, it can be difficult for the reader to immediately wrap their head around the constraints the protagonist is operating under. Sure, there’s a scary dystopian regime in charge, but what literally happens if you try to assert yourself? A protagonist trying and failing to escape will help the reader wrap their head around the tangible dangers.
- It shows the protagonist putting skin in the game. The more the protagonist tries and the more they risk, the more invested the reader will be on their behalf. Showing a protagonist trying and failing then risking even more raises the stakes.
- It’s a good chance to show the protagonist’s weaknesses. It’s important to give a character room to grow over the course of the novel. Particularly if the protagonist starts off tripping over their own feet, it will be that much more powerful when we see them utilize their newfound growth in the climax.
- It builds anticipation. Great mysteries are built from whether the protagonist is ultimately going to succeed (Are they going to destroy the ring? Are they going to catch the bad guy? Are they going to kiss the attractive person?). Seeing the protagonist acting on the things they care about builds anticipation for the ultimate showdown.
Stop and assess your protagonist’s options
Both in the beginning of the novel with the inciting incident, and at crucial junctures where characters are risking a great deal, hit pause and assess their options.
It might help to journal the events from your character’s perspective up until that point so you can get in their head and survey the scene. It will help you identify more logical courses of actions than the one you have already chosen for them.
Then, start closing off those escape routes and keep them on the arduous but meaningful path.
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Art: Un carrefour à l’Hermitage, Pontoise by Camille Pissarro