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Monday, November 20, 2023

Why the Protagonist Must Be a Problem-solver

In some ways, this post's topic sounds obvious, in others . . . not so much. On the surface, the tip seems simple, and yet, it is easily and often overlooked.

Your protagonist must be a problem-solver.


A problem-solver.

I don't care if she's the laziest, most passive, most dimwitted person on the planet, within the context of the plot, she must be a problem-solver (even if a reluctant one).

Otherwise, she'll feel like a weak character.

Otherwise, the plot will feel weak.

Of course, I'm sure you can find rare exceptions to this.

But 99% of the time, your protagonist needs to be a problem-solver.

So let's talk about why.

Why it's Important for The Character

Imagine a protagonist who doesn't problem-solve. She encounters the antagonist, reacts emotionally, but doesn't do anything to try to win the conflict, or at least gain the upper hand of the conflict. She won't be interesting for very long. It's hard to care about what happens to her, when she's putting no effort in to resolve it, when she doesn't care enough to try to fix it herself. It may start to feel like she's stuck in a loop--just circling the same internal responses over and over again, never really progressing, never really moving on.

Sometimes writers mistakenly think this makes her more sympathetic, but in reality, as counterintuitive as it may sound, the opposite is true. Audiences lose interest or become annoyed.

We've all met people who talk, and whine, and fume about their problems but don't do anything to better their situation. We may feel sorry for them at first, but eventually, we want them to take action to improve their predicament. Often we may even find ourselves giving advice (or in some cases, doing the problem-solving work for them).

We feel the same way about characters.

Your protagonist doesn't need to be the next Sherlock Holmes or Violet Baudelaire to be a "problem-solver."

At the most basic level, what this means is that when she encounters an antagonistic force (a problem), she's coming up with--or perhaps shifting--goals and plans (however big or small, or grand or modest), and taking action to try to make those a reality.

If she's not doing that, she's probably too passive in the plot and not exercising enough agency. The story is happening to her, but she's not doing anything to make the story happen. She's not influencing the direction of the story.

When the protagonist is the one coming up with goals and plans, and implementing them, the audience becomes more invested in her. They want to stick around to see if she's successful. She also now holds some accountability over what happens--the consequences--and that actually makes her more interesting and more sympathetic. What happens, good or bad, is on her. She holds responsibility. 

If your protagonist isn't problem-solving, it may be a sign that her wants aren't strong enough. Solid stories will showcase the protagonist's deepest desires (however big or small, or grand or modest), what she would sacrifice almost anything to obtain, avoid, or maintain. If the right desire is in jeopardy, the protagonist should naturally be driven to problem-solve. Characters with strong wants are more compelling. And in reality, we all have powerful wants we house deep within our hearts. 

Great stories will test and challenge the deep desires of the protagonist's heart. And if that's not happening, you likely haven't figured out your protagonist's deepest desires or you need to alter the character so that she desires what she desires more deeply. Don't settle on something she kinda wants. Find what she'd be tempted to sacrifice her life for--literally or figuratively (meaning her current lifestyle). What does she want to obtain, avoid, or maintain bad enough, that she'd consider doing things she wouldn't ordinarily do? That's the kind of want you should showcase--whether it be obtaining recognition as employee of the month, avoiding responsibility by taking on a new identity, or maintaining control by offing all rebels.

It's usually helpful to focus on an abstract want--obtain recognition, avoid responsibility, maintain control--that can then manifest into various concrete goals. Most people aren't going to give their "lives" to become "employee of the month," but many have gone to such lengths to obtain recognition; becoming employee of the month is just one way to obtain that. So even if the goal seems modest on the surface, tie it to a deep abstract want. (A bit of a tangent, but it's useful, so I left it in here 😉)

When the protagonist is problem-solving, it conveys to the audience what she cares about. If the rebels are increasing in power, and she doesn't do anything about it, then obviously she doesn't really care about being in control very much. That's not a deep desire of her heart. So we need the protagonist to problem-solve to help convey character.

And finally, if she's not struggling to overcome (problem-solving), she's probably not growing through a character arc. She's stagnant. She's not changing her worldview as she strives for success, nor is she wielding her beliefs, growing in resolve. This can make any attempt at an internal plotline feel repetitive or nonexistent, because the character isn't progressing on an internal journey. She's just stuck in the same spot.

Why It's Important for the Plot

Solid stories will showcase the protagonist's deepest desires, and even if those desires are abstract (obtain recognition, avoid responsibility, maintain control), if the character wants them bad enough, they will manifest into concrete goals (employee of the month, new identity, off the rebels) that have specific plans (show up on time to work, move to a new city, locate the rebels' base).

So the protagonist has a goal. The antagonist opposes the goal.

And since there should be an antagonist for nearly every scene, this means there are problems in nearly every scene.

If the protagonist isn't trying to solve those problems, by adjusting his goals and plans, then it's likely the plot isn't properly progressing. Like I mentioned with the internal journey above, the external journey probably feels repetitive, or in some ways nonexistent. It's just circling the same situation over and over, in the toilet bowl.

If you find yourself arguing against this, then it's likely because another character is the one doing most of the problem-solving, in which case, it's also highly likely that character is the true protagonist, and your "protagonist" is really more of a viewpoint character spectating the external plotline.

The plot needs conflict in order to progress properly. If the antagonist shows up, and the protagonist allows himself to just get beaten, it's not strong conflict. Sure, stuff is happening, but if the antagonist is hammering him to the ground without his resistance, it's not much of a conflict. It's passive victimization. And while that might work in a scene or two, it's not going to hold for a whole story, or even a whole act.

A passive victim isn't a problem-solving protagonist. Obviously.

So, suffice it to say, your protagonist needs to be a problem-solver.


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