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The Reluctant Protagonist: How to Make It Work in Your Story


A good story has complex elements and forces at work to drive the plot and generate interest. Your storyline can have a clear problem and well-defined character roles, but the characters themselves can demonstrate conflicting emotions about the roles they face within the situations that arise in your story. Enter the reluctant protagonist.

A reluctant protagonist is a character who falls into one of two categories:

  1. a person who has no exceptional abilities but must face a surreal or trying situation in which he or she has to rise to heroism, or
  2. a superhero with great power or ability who expresses the desire not to use those powers to benefit others.

The reluctant hero might venture into heroism initially and then face a period of self-doubt or even fear. However, he or she often finds motivation from a number of potential sources as the driving force that prevents him or her from abandoning the task.

Your character's hesitance can illustrate a sense of avoidance and generate a complex, relatable emotional palate for your protagonist. But as a writer, you might find yourself in a situation in which you've laid out your conflict and fleshed out your characters only to find that the protagonist does not demonstrate a nature to save the day, as the storyline requires. Here are some strategies to help your hero(ine) rise to the occasion.

Motivate your protagonist with revenge


You can generate more drive for your protagonist to go headlong into a conflict if you fuel her desire for revenge or justice. Take something away that meant a great deal to her, such as a job, a loved one, a treasured item, or the safety of the community, and her sense of restitution can move her to take the necessary action in order to resolve the conflict. If the individual in the story who took away this treasured item was a former friend, a sense of betrayal can also light a fire under your character.

When some injustice is performed against your story character, you can strengthen her call to perform a heroic act, and your protagonist can feed on this motivation to overcome any doubt or fear that previously made her hesitate. One example of vengeance is the story of Batman, who witnesses his parents' murder during his childhood. While as an adult he initially lives a life of indulgence and resists the call to use his means to exact justice, his anger is fueled first against the thug who killed his parents, and then he goes after other criminals, whom he lumps in with those who left him an orphan as a child.

A quest for vengeance can be an effective method, because you can also evoke loyalty among your audience if your readers have formed an attachment to your character and also want her to find justice.

Give your character a heightened sense of duty


Why is your character stepping into the protagonist role, even if he doesn't want to? Because it's his job. He might receive an official call from an authority figure or a higher power, or he might let his conscience drive him to act because it's the right thing to do. When a character has witnessed the trouble at hand and realizes that he is the only one who can liberate others from an adversary, he accepts his fate and steps into the role of the hero. This path for motivating your character makes him more likeable and relatable. Who among us hasn't done a job even when we didn't want to do it? Witnessing a character stepping into a role he doesn't even want can cast him in an admirable light, and your audience will be drawn to support his success.

The story of Disney's Moana begins in this way; the anthropomorphized sea selects Moana as the one who will save her island from destruction, which moves her to act. Her father's resistance to her venturing away from home brings her personal conflict, and later her own personal feelings of failure lead her to resist the call. Another story with a protagonist who feels a sense of duty is seen in the movie Chocolat, in which the protagonist Vianne moves into a small community set in antiquated ways. She shakes up their rigidity, which is met with opposition and resistance, and Vianne considers leaving town in defeat. However, once she sees the positive change she has inspired (and her role in helping her friend Josephine escape an abusive relationship), she realizes how much the villagers needed her.

This method requires that you enable your characters to solve the problem generally alone. If they have the option to call for backup when things get tough, it can diffuse the tension of your conflict and deflate the story. If you do draw on others to help, make sure you can drum up a good buddy or team adventure. Just make sure you don't dilute the glory for your protagonist, especially when he had previously been driven to the point of wanting to give up.

Offer your character a reward


You can bring a reluctant protagonist to action with a big, shiny reward. Sure, it might seem ineffective to motivate a character with gold and wealth, which can make her seem greedy, but who among us hasn't been driven by money? In this scenario, be sure to make your character likeable, and her journey toward fortune will be rewarding to your audience, too. The reward doesn't always have to be meant for the main character, too; she might be driven to reach the prize to fund a life-saving operation or to help bail someone out of a sticky situation. Most stories with this driving force end with an additional reward, like friendship, romance, or a sense of belonging. Many adventure plots incorporate this element, in which the characters set off on a (often treacherous) journey to find treasure.

Fuel a dream


Even if your protagonist doesn't see himself as a hero, he is still passionate about something. A story can include a flashback to an earlier event that kindled your character's dream; this provides a sense of longevity and gives weight to the passion your character feels about this goal. The passage of time and the challenges of life can complicate the dream and bring reluctance to your character, but you can introduce events that remind your character of his passion and rekindle his desire to pursue it.

Of course, passion is born from other strong emotions, so this method introduces some overlap between a dream and other strong emotions. An obsession develops when your character experiences those emotions and makes it his grand mission to complete the goal. For example, the book Moby Dick depicts the character of Ahab, who is obsessed with defeating the white whale that bit off his leg. His desire for vengeance builds into a grand goal that consumes his every thought and action.

Plant the seed for your character to develop his dream by giving him a desire for riches, fame, romance, revenge, or happiness, and give him situations in which his motivation grows. In such a story, resolution usually cannot be reached until your protagonist achieves that goal, or it becomes impossible to do so.

Set a trap


Nothing motivates a character more effectively than giving her no choice but to seek escape. Despite the nature of your protagonist and her general reluctance to rise to heroism, she must find a solution to a problem if she falls into certain danger. Give your character a situation (perhaps a mundane task) that goes awry, and she will face the opportunity to achieve feats she wouldn't otherwise attempt.

The story depicted in the film Castaway relates the story of a non-hero who sets out on a routine trip and becomes the lone survivor of a plane crash. Without any other option, he seeks to maintain his survival and sanity alone and ultimately to find rescue. His personal realization of his situation reflects his feelings of being unqualified to survive on his own.

The effectiveness of this type of story lies in its haunting "what-if" scenario, and your audience can put themselves in your character's place. The setting generates fascination with how your protagonist will fare and what happens next.

Your characters' humility and reluctance make them relatable, but they also create the need to give them a push. The adventures you introduce through your story will help your protagonist to save the day or achieve great heights through the progression of the plot. Add some revenge, desire, or danger to give him the motivation he needs to address whatever challenge your storyline presents.

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