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.”
Since fear is something I personally struggle with, I love seeing characters dealing with it. The beauty is that this particular character flaw can get your protagonist in trouble in two ways:
- Fear makes your protagonist run the hell away from The Issue At Hand. (Hey, self-preservation can be a good thing!)
- Fear makes your protagonist run the hell toward The Issue At Hand. (There's nothing like trying to prove yourself to make you act in a foolhardy way.)
Of course, in order to do this, you have to know what your protagonist is afraid of—and that's a whole other issue. Suffice it to say that you need to know what makes your character tick.
I love heroes. Really, I do; give me a Steve Rogers over a Crossbones any day of the week. The courage and selflessness necessary to risk one's self for others with no assurance of recompense is an amazing thing.
However, as we learned from watching all those Gryffindors in Harry Potter, this particular trait can also get a character in a load of trouble.
Displaying heroism means your character sees a problem and immediately tries to fix it. There's no better way to get them into the thick of things; this can even get your character into the middle of a mess that has nothing to do with them.
It's also a pretty nifty way to get your reader rooting for your character, if you can balance that heroism with a bit of vulnerability and empathy. Nobody likes a one-dimensional hero, of course.
Ways to Get Your Passive Protagonist in Trouble
Not all conflict arises from the choices we make. Your protagonist doesn't have to go looking for trouble—sometimes it will obligingly show up on their doorstep. Here are three ways to bring the trouble to your protagonist:
#4: Wrong Time, Wrong Place
Time and place are great tools to drop your protagonist in hot water. Your ordinary character can be minding their own business when . . . the bank they're in is robbed! Or the meteor is heading right for them! Or he's in line at the post office when the woman in front of him goes into labor! The way your character responds to the issue of bad timing is crucial for developing your protagonist's personality, as well as setting the stakes.
The key here is that the situation forcing your character to react is outside their control. A young woman simply making rice wine in Japan in 1945 is in the wrong time and the wrong place; now, she has to figure out how to exist in a world that's completely changed around her. An elderly man living in New York City in 2001 must change his entire routine when the two towers fall.
No matter who your character is, the wrong time and the wrong place can create conflict in a story that will push them in the direction you need.
#5: Authority Calls
Your character can be minding their own business when sudden authority swoops in and changes their world. This can be:
- Getting called for the draft.
- Suddenly being fired.
- Being ordered into an arranged marriage.
- Being assigned some kind of quest (this doesn't have to be dragons—it can even be something like, “Go find a copy of that backordered game for my kid or you don't get your promotion.”)
Authority can put your character in hot water even if your character did not ask for it, and serves well to get even the most passive protagonist off their derriere.
#6: Desire Outweighs Comfort
“Make your characters want something right away even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
― Kurt Vonnegut
Even passive characters need something. One of the key differences between an active and a passive character is that your active character will have already gone after that thing without much prompting. A passive character, on the other hand, has to feel that need keenly before they're willing to stir the pot. In other words, they won't move until it hurts.
If your character's need is sharper than the familiar comfort of ignoring that need, then your passive character will finally act. And usually, if they've waited so long the need has gotten painful, it's just a little too late for your protagonist to start on the journey, putting them in very hot water indeed.
Trouble Is Messy
Your reader wants to see your character get out of the mess, and also wants to see your character change in the process.
Be willing to let your character make mistakes along the way. That's part of conflict; that's part of trouble and resolution; that's part of personal growth. It also makes for a darn good story.
How do your favorite protagonists get into trouble? Let me know in the comments.
Think of the protagonist in your current work in progress, then take fifteen minutes and summarize how they're getting into trouble as a passive or active character. When you're done, post your practice in the comments. Don't forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.