6 Ways to Create Conflict and Get Your Protagonist in Trouble

by Ruthanne Reid | 52 comments

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.”

6 Ways to Create Conflict in a Story and Get Your Protagonist in Trouble

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:

#1: Rebellion

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.”

#2: Fear

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.

#3: Heroism

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.

"All Characters Wait Here" by Tom Gauld

“All Characters Wait Here” by Tom Gauld

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.

PRACTICE

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!

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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.

52 Comments

  1. Timothy Roberts

    Thanks for the helpful tips! I’m nearly finished with my novel, so I’m definitely going to put my protagonist into more trouble before ending the story.

    Reply
    • Susan W A

      That’s cool. Just when your readers thought the protagonist was home free… : )

    • Timothy Roberts

      Ha! Yeah—he’s always getting himself into trouble–no surprise there 🙂

    • Susan W A

      Hee hee.

      Congrats on your work!

    • Timothy Roberts

      Hey, Susan, he got home, baby!

    • Susan W A

      Woohoo!

    • Timothy Roberts

      Hi, Susan! I just found a publisher. “My Headless Son Fred and His Head Baby Brother Headley,” will launch sometime next year! I know… long and quirky title 🙂

    • Susan W A

      Awesome ! Congratulations! Quite the accomplishment. I’m delighted you thought to post here to share the news. Enjoy!

    • Ruthanne Reid

      That’s great to hear, Timothy! Have fun getting your hero in trouble. 😀

    • Timothy Roberts

      Thanks! I’ll either have fun or get myself into trouble, trying to get him into trouble 🙂

    • Timothy Roberts

      Hey, Ruthanne, I just signed a contract to have my novel published by Snow Leopard Publishing! I guess my protagonist Filmon Trout got himself outta trouble 🙂

  2. RevDr. Robert Foster, AbC, EfG

    I haven’t done this for a while, so here we go (I hope I did it right):

    A thunderclap rent the air and a tall, wide man dressed in ragged leather armor appeared just beneath the many noses of the hydra. They arched back in surprise. And instant later, another man, this one shirtless, showing off an impressively muscled torso, appeared beside the first.

    “Holy shit, Amando. That was intense.”

    The blond hair man laughed, a hearty guffaw. “I told you. Teleportation is spectacular, yet not for the fainthearted.”

    The multi-headed demon recovered and lunged for the dark-haired man’s head. A streak of white, and the hydra’s mouth was clamped on a sharp blade which split its mouth wide. It recoiled with a squeal.

    “Those reinforcements would be handy, right about now.”

    “You would be correct, Sir Lavitz.”

    Amando snapped his fingers and more explosions rent the air. Instantaneously, thousands of bare-chested men appeared with swords, nets, harpoons and other assorted, exotic weaponry. Without waiting for orders, they launched themselves at the army of bewildered demons which hadn’t expected reinforcements to teleport in. That had been their domain only. The few moments of shock allowed the new comers to slaughter demons by the score.

    Lavitz’ weapon sliced through the neck of a hydra head as if it were a hot knife through warm butter. The demon reared back, stumbling in pain. One of the eight remaining heads looked at its wound in disbelief. A silver bubbling liquid seared the stump shut. The head whipped around to Lavitz, and screamed in rage. It lashed out, and then detonated.

    Reply
    • Desiree Smith

      ooooh! That sounds awesome!!

    • RevDr. Robert Foster, AbC, EfG

      Thank you.

    • Ruthanne Reid

      Haha! What a setup! Sounds to me like there’s a ton of potential here for getting in trouble. Misuse of teleportation, incorrect location, unexpectedly powerful monsters… great job!

    • RevDr. Robert Foster, AbC, EfG

      Thank you.

  3. Desiree Smith

    At this point my character is under developed so bear with me, but he is a rogue detective, that has been attacked by a werewolf and left for dead, and has woken up with special abilities…and he will used these abilities to track down the creature that did this to him and kill him….as soon as he gets his morning coffee.

    There is a point where her develops a psychic connection with the heroine, and he is told that she creates is barrier, and he tries to leave that barrier and gets weak, gets bad migraines, feels his skin stretch, and a strong urge pulling him back to her. I think he’s going to fight with that barrier a lot, and test himself to see how much he can withstand.

    Taking out a werewolf alpha isn’t for the faint of heart, and the one that has changed you is even harder, he has a lot of minions that will probably come after you, and his own instincts will betray him but I know he will go on his quest to kill him anyway.

    I don’t want my character to be the a hero type. Even though he is a detective. I want him to be more of an antihero, at first.

    This character is drawn to this woman. The beast in him NEEDS her. He doesn’t do relationships and is even avoiding his own growing feelings to break this connection.

    He’d rather take his chances fighting werewolves than take his chances surrendering to the pull.

    The female character is who I am struggling to get less passive. As of now just the desire to help a stranger that seems to need her help is what is driving her just letting her get dragged into this crazy adventure.
    (again, this still needs work but this is what I have no one has even been named yet so this is the early stages of something, and I hope it is something good)

    Wish me luck, give me some pointers and ideas if you have any?

    Reply
  4. Nancy Dohn

    Danni pealed skinny jeans off long legs and tossed them on the bed. It took a lot to gyrate around a pole in floss panties for five hours. There was no way she could do it without assistance, but when that wore off she felt like she did now. Achy, nauseated, every nerve coming awake again and not in a good way. That’s why she had called Josh on her way home. She had made good money tonight and needed a treat and she trusted Josh to deliver.

    Josh was happy about his purchase but a bit uncertain. Word on the street was that the coke coming into the area may have been cut with some thing or things that might not be healthy. Shit. Like coke is healthy, he snickered. He needed the money and his “clients” needed the high.

    He was called The Big and for good reason, he was the key runner of coke into the area. His strings, as he called them, would get the coke from him and then fun it out to where it needed to go to then be distributed at another level. It didn’t bother him that what he did made people lose their homes, their jobs, their dreams and often their lives. They made their own choices. He just provided an option. This particular batch was bad ass. It was cut with something that would make the coke five times stronger. Fentynal. The rush would be amazing,

    Josh banged on the metal door of the motel. Even he wasn’t comfortable in this area so he hoped Danni would answer soon. He fingered the packet and felt a brief twinge of remorse. To extend the coke he had laced it after he had picked it up from The Big. He had always promised Danni that he would look out for her and not give her any shit but he needed the money.

    He knocked a second time and the door opened slightly. He saw the glimmer of thong underwear and the side of one soft breast and then a hand. “Let me in.”

    “Nope.” One day he hoped she would be high enough to open the door. Sighing he gave her the packet. The door closed and opened a few minutes later, fingers thrusting a wad of cash.

    Danni shoved the deadbolt, stomach flipping with Christmas morning anticipation. Shaking fingers opened the present and carefully created two lines on the mirror.

    Reply
    • Member of the Tribe

      That was great. I really got into it

    • Danielle

      Nancy, I really like the suspense you have build in such a small snippet. I feel like I definitely want to read more – why is she on coke in the first place? What’s in the package? What’s going to happen to her??? Well done!

    • rosie

      Well done Nancy. It seems your strength is character: you built a connection with your characters almost immediately, and wove just enough description (the perfect line between too much pernickety detail and too little to picture the scene.) Although this is a controversial topic, you handled it with grace: many people tend to stereotype people based on their lifestyles (like what if you were sold into prostitution and tricked into a drug addiction? How can we judge an innocent girl who was tricked?) Well done: really.

    • Nancy Dohn

      Thanks for the feedback, everyone. This helps so very much to keep me going. I am working on this for the rock bottom contest submission. Hopefully you weill see more of it and can tear it apart for me!

    • Ruthanne Reid

      Oh, man! You’ve created an effectively heart-breaking scene. What’s fascinating to me is you’ve placed not one but two characters in trouble. I honestly want to know what will happen to them both.

    • Stella

      Agree with all the comments. You got me hooked from the start and kept me there. Love how you begin by hinting that both characters have their own problems, keeps me reading to find out what they are. Both characters clearly aren’t perfect and they’re both just doing what’s in their best interest. Would love to read what comes next!

  5. Ariel Benjamin

    Hm. My characters have a history of getting into trouble through a combination of wrong place wrong time, heroism, and then rebellion. In that order. I have a style! Yay. But this tells me I could seriously spice things up by using another…wheels turning. Thanks Ruthanne

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      Fantastic, Ariel! I love that you can recognize what your own writing pattern is. 😀 I really hope you share what you use to spice things up!

  6. Susan W A

    Hmmmm (the sound of possibilities pondered) … this is awesome, Ruthanne. I have not written short (or long) stories, and part of the reason is that I haven’t learned how to develop plots. Your explanations and examples provide me with a lot of guidance to practice. I’m thinking right now that I may try to come up with some additional short examples for a few of your categories as initial practice, then see if I can develop one a bit further.

    Thanks!!

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      I’m so glad this helped, Susan! It’s so much fun to figure out just how to get your character in hot water. You can do it!

    • Susan W A

      I love that … hilarious – “It’s so much fun to figure out just how to get your character in hot water,” she says rubbing her hands together in devious little circles. : ) I can just imagine a brainstorming session with you!

      Thanks for the encouragement.

  7. Reagan Colbert

    Ooh, I love talking about my protagonists, but I’m not sure if he’s active or passive… In the first book (which I just published) he’s passive (I think) and now in my current WIP, I think he’s turned active.
    Another thing is, he’s a mix of most of these problems. At the beginning of the sequel, my WIP, he’s gotten himself into trouble – he’s a Roman soldier in the 1st century who is secretly a Christian. There is only one thing he can do: escape from the legions. And he’s a bit of all three: rebellious against Rome, afraid for his life (and that he’ll get caught), and a hero, because he has chosen the right side, willing to be killed for it, and also helps the disciples escape Jerusalem (spoiler 🙂
    He not only gets himself in trouble, but he also gets his best friend in trouble. His friend helps him escape, but is then left alone to convince the others that Marcus (the protagonist) died.
    It’s pretty much daring from beginning to end, because a soldier simply didn’t leave the Roman army without being hunted down and killed. He gets himself into a lot of trouble by his decisions, but he is sure of one thing: He would never have chosen otherwise.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      Hi, Reagan! Characters can go from passive to active, or even from active to passive; those definitions really just depend on a very simple thing:

      An active character changes their environment without being pushed into it. A passive character only acts when they’re forced.

      Both are valid, and both can be interesting!

      Your story sounds fascinating to me! It’s a terrific subplot, and the historical backdrop is fantastic. It sounds to me like he might be on a journey of major personal growth.

  8. Jason

    This is awesome! It makes story come alive!

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      So glad to hear it, Jason!

  9. Danielle

    When I opened my eyes enough to register that the grimey, dirty sunlight was not from a grey New York day but from my admittedly disgusting windows the phone rang, reminding me of what had got me out of my out-cold stupor in the first place. I was hoping it would be Nele, just checking in as a little pick me up, like she does sometimes. No such luck. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me”, I thought when I saw the precincts number.

    “Cavanaugh”, I croaked in what felt like years since I heard my voice, and even then it did not even remotely sound like me, or, at least, not like sober me.

    “Nick?” the voice on the other end enquired. Now, few things will get you as stone cold awake as the sound of a known voice paired with anxiety, relieve and urgency. You guessed right, that’s what hit me from the receiver.

    “Bernice” I said. it was not a question. Calling me at a time like that when I was not supposed to be at work could only mean one thing. I squeezed my eyes shut with my thumb and index finger, trying to will the swelling away and concentrate on the call. Not that I had to ask what this was about. Rather, I said: “Son of a bitch”.

    “‘Afraid so”, my partner said with a hint of resignation and frustration. “You know I wouldn’t bother you … but I figured you’d like to be in on this one?”

    Reply
  10. Danielle

    When I opened my eyes enough to register that the grimey, dirty sunlight was not from a grey New York day but from my admittedly disgusting windows the phone rang, reminding me of what had got me out of my out-cold stupor in the first place. I was hoping it would be Nele, just checking in as a little pick me up, like she does sometimes. No such luck. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me, I thought when I saw the precincts number.

    “Cavanaugh”, I croaked in what felt like years since I heard my voice, and even then it did not even remotely sound like me, or, at least, not like sober me.

    “Nick?” the voice on the other end enquired. Now, few things will get you as stone cold awake as the sound of a known voice paired with anxiety, relieve and urgency. You guessed right, that’s what hit me from the receiver.

    “Bernice” I said. it was not a question. Calling me at a time like that when I was not supposed to be at work could only mean one thing. I squeezed my eyes shut with my thumb and index finger, trying to will the swelling away and concentrate on the call. Not that I had to ask what this was about. Rather, I said: “Son of a bitch”.

    “‘Afraid so”, my partner said with a hint of resignation and frustration. “You know I wouldn’t bother you … but I figured you’d like to be in on this one?”

    Reply
  11. Ken

    Valuable tips and good examples.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      Thanks, Ken! Glad it resonated with you!

  12. George McNeese

    My current WIP has a character who’s dealing with fear. He hasn’t seen his dad in over fifteen years. He wants to tell him just what kind of dad he’s been, but he’s afraid to say it because it will destroy an already fractured relationship.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      Sounds like a wounded passive character, George! There’s tons of space here for personal growth, and all kinds of directions to take him. Do you know what the end of the story will be?

  13. Riff

    My WIP involves a character (who is mostly an active protagonist) in the Victorian era,who sees strange things that others don’t. His brother thinks he is insane, but protag does not, and doesn’t want anyone else to know in case they label him in the same way. However, while at dinner at a friend’s, protag sees things that terrify him and he runs away, and his brother is forced to tell everybody else why he did it. They all come to protag’s house to convince him to see a doctor, but he refuses, and locks himself in his room for days. His brother finally persuades him to come to a social event one of their friends is holding and protag reluctantly goes. There, he keeps seeing more things, but he doesn’t run, wondering if he is just mad. It turns out that he isn’t, and they are paranormal/demon-y things (heh), that kill him at the event. Those demon things then go after protag’s friends when they find out that they aren’t hallucinations, but protag, who was sent to the same plane of existence as the demon things when he was killes (it’s a little complicated, but I don’t want to make this too long!) is able to kill them, but is not able to save anyone. He is then doomed to exist on forever, slowly but surely turning into a demon thing himself. In a way he resolves his problem by getting rid of what he saw, but he doesn’t have a happy ending.

    Reply
    • Stella

      Hey Riff. Interesting concept you have, I’ve not heard of Victorian-era fantasies where the protag dies midway before. You might have some difficulty with genre shift if your story starts normally but midway you tell the readers ‘Btw the afterlife exists and demons are real’. I was startled when you said your protag dies and the story goes on.

      Even if your protag doesn’t have a happy ending, your story should still have a sense of closure. Something I’m not quite feeling with your summary. You said he resolves his problem by getting rid of what he saw, but shouldn’t the problem of ‘seeing strange things’ go away once he’s dead? (Y’know…because he doesn’t see them any more, he encounters them. And because he knows they’re real.) Like the story idea but the plot feels a little unresolved.

    • Riff

      Thank you for your feedback, Stella.
      Yes, I’ve been having a little trouble sticking to one consistent genre throughout the story because of this. I have made the ‘strange things’ appear more like what many may consider devilish and evil, and Vincent’s insistence that they exist seem more urgent, to clue the reader in that there is be more to these ‘things’ than they may have thought. And yes the protag dying has been designed to be quite sudden, but he does keep existing (not necessarily living, however).
      So though he does die, he is sent to the spirit realm/plane/thing where the rest of the ghost demon things are, becoming one himself, so he still exists and can still see them. He can also interact with them physically there. Because of this he is able to eliminate them.
      Does that clear stuff up or does the plot still feel unresolved? If so, is there anything I can do to fix it?

    • Stella

      I think your plot could work if it’s grounded in a protag compelling enough to make us care about him even after he dies.

      For the first half, the conflict is ‘Why does Vincent keep having these troubling visions? Do these demons exist?’ This conflict is resolved when Vincent dies and the demons are shown to be real. (I think the first half could work as a short story in itself.) The question is then, what is the conflict for the second half of the story?

      If Vincent has unresolved relationships with the living characters – a little brother who Vincent desperately wants to see achieve his dream of becoming a pilot, a widow who’s struggling to raise his kids by herself – it would be more credible that he keeps trying to destroy the demons to keep his living family safe. But then these relationships would need to be established from the start of the story.

    • Riff

      Ok. Thanks!

  14. June

    Hm… My story maybe have a little bit of fear, heroism and desires, in stages so my poor Indulala has to pass through a lot (wipes fake tears)

    BTW this article helped me a lot, THANKS!

    Reply
  15. LISA RAINEY

    My y main character,raised in the orphanage, leaves for work. She had already planned her search for parents and faces

    Reply
  16. ellenmulholland

    In my current mss, my heroine has definitely come to the point where she needs to act: Desire Outweighs Comfort. Since it is YA, there’s also this Rebellion component. She knows not to do something, but she’s so fricking had it with years of being in the dark about something that she’s going to do it. And, yes, it’s messy, but is it messy enough? I see a gap to fill. Thank you so much for this article. Love it!!

    Reply
  17. Stella

    My protagonist is part of a team of warriors. Her greatest strength and greatest flaw are that she is very selfless. She consistently acts on her own instead of working with the team because she doesn’t want to put them in harm’s way, and because she overestimates her abilities. When one of her heroic ventures nearly gets another warrior killed, she’s banished from the team. My story follows her consequential doubts about her self-worth as she watches from the sidelines and her struggles to rejoin the team.

    Seems I use a lot of fear and heroism to get her in trouble, since it flows naturally from her character. Her worst fear is her friends getting hurt, and she’s a naturally selfless person. Her character arc involves learning when NOT to do things by herself and letting others choose if they want to get hurt for her.

    Thinking about how to use the other techniques. Rebellion implies a character with a certain level of self-confidence, but my plot is about her losing confidence after she’s banished from the team. And not sure about the passive techniques, since she’s pretty active in trying to get back on the team. Maybe I could use these to start a subplot where trouble finds her.

    Thanks for the great post! Was exactly what I needed to read!

    Reply
    • Axis Sheppard

      You sure know where you’re going with your character! I like your plot and your story seems inviting… I think it could be promising, so keep writing! ^^

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