By: Ruthanne Reid
Conflict is one of the key elements of fiction. It’s also a reason to keep reading; it’s important to put your protagonist in a sticky situation that requires resolution, preferably before typing the words, “The End.”
Or, to put it another way: “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”
In this post, we’ll discuss six easy ways to get your protagonist in the kind of trouble that creates conflict in a story and keeps your reader reading.
I’ve split these keys into two different kinds: active (involving character choices) and passive (involving things completely outside their control).
How to Get Your Protagonist in Trouble: The Formula
Whether your character is active or passive, the key to getting them in trouble is remembering to put them in over their head. Whether they chose the situation or not, the problem is too big for them—requiring personal growth and sacrifice to achieve the goal.
Obstacles + protagonist response = a reason to turn the pages.
Ways to Get Your Active Protagonist in Trouble
In stories, as in life, characters are faced with hundreds of choices. Unfortunately for them—but fortunately for you and your readers!—those active choices are about to get your protagonist in a heap of trouble. Here are three ways for that trouble to come about:
This is a really easy one, and perfect for YA or any story following a coming-of-age arc. In order to pull this off, you use world building and/or a mentor-figure to establish the rules of this world. Then have your protagonist break them.
- “Don’t ever go in there” = he goes in there.
- “Don’t ever touch the red jewel” = she touches the red jewel.
- “Always flush the flux capacitor before entering cybersleep” = he doesn’t flush the capacitor.
- “Never leave your boat too close to shore” = it’s practically half in the water.
Understand, this particular point isn’t about being lazy or forgetful or distracted. This is about a specific, conscious choice on the part of your protagonist, either in order to establish independence, to “show them a lesson,” or just to prove some kind of willful point. That sparks conflict in a story, and your reader will definitely have reason to go, “Uh-oh.”
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