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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Tip #8 for Fiction Writers: Our Protagonists Must Risk it All.

Tip #8:  Our Protagonists must Risk it All   

By Peter Gilboy

Our stories are not like real life. Our main character does not go to the bathroom twice a day. Our main character does not wash the dishes or shop for tomatoes. Or clean the fridge. Our main character probably does not wonder about the calories in his or her meal.

Why not? Because in our stories all the little things in life are pushed aside. Our story--the decisions of our protagonist--come to the front. That he or she takes risks.
Annie Taylor Discovers the darkest lie of all.
(Coming Soon)
What is the story? It always centers around a decision our main character makes. Our story centers around a dire risk that the protagonist chooses. Of course our characters each have their own desire. That’s what moves them forward in our stories. But our main character must have the strongest desire of all, so strong that he or she will risk everything.

That risk must also change his or her world. Not the planet. Just his or her personal world. And if he or she fails, it’s not regular life that returns, but a wholly different and unwanted life. Our character risks everything.

Take the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The 'inciting incident' (see previous 'tips' about this) is when Katniss' sister Prim is chosen to fight in the Hunger Games. Katniss steps forward, pulls her sister aside, and takes her place knowing she will almost surely die.  All is risked. It's all or nothing.

Or take Jodi Picoults story, Larger Than Life.  It's about a wildlife researcher in Africa who goes against every rule: Rather than let a baby elephant die as it naturally would without it's mother, she brings it back to her tent.
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Okay, that doesn’t seem like much. The researcher is not going to die, like in The Hunger Games. The world will not collapse even if the baby elephant dies. The sun will not explode. No nukes will detonate as they might for Jack Bauer. 

But within her life, within the context of her story, the risk is enormous.  If she is found out, she would lose her credentials and her career.  Her life as a research would be over. And, because she's taken this risk, we are pulling for her. We are concerned for her.  We like her and want her to succeed. Of course we like the baby elephant too.  And how the heck is she going to hide a baby elephant in her tent?  You'll have to read the story to find out. 

Or take Mildred Pierce. That’s the name of the novel by James M. Cain and the HBO miniseries. Who is she? She’s a middle class housewife in the 1930’s, a victim of the depression, who is stuck with a worthless husband, and who has two daughters, Veda and Ray.

Product DetailsWhat does she risk? She risks being even poorer by kicking her loser husband out. She risks the scorn of her children by deciding to take a menial job as a waitress. She even has to hide her uniform from priggish and abusive daughter Veda who will do everything to not be seen as “common.”

Not much of a risk, you’re thinking? Wrong. In the context of the story it is everything—the loss of the respect of her children.
What else does she risk? She risks starting a restaurant. In the midst depression.  

Okay, I understand; it's not a Jack Bauer moment where Los Angeles will blow up or the president will be assignated. But given Mildred Pierce's world, it's enough. And we feel that because the author has successfully brought us inside her world. 

And yes, Mildred Pierce's risk will evoke an opposition, an antagonism, from the world around her and its peoples. That’s what makes her risk even greater.

In short, Mildred’s risk is everything in her own world. If she fails, she’ll be worse than penniless. She’ll be in the street.  She’ll lose the respect of Veda. She’ll be left with nothing at all.

When you're reading a book or even watching a TV drama, ask yourself what happens if the protagonist fails. If he or she just goes back to the same old job and life, then the risk isn't great enough, isn't interesting enough. And it's not enough for our stories either.

What happens to Mildred Pierce?  Sorry, no spoilers here.

As you read your next novel or watch a movie or TV drama, look for the choices the characters make. Big or small to us, they will be huge to the character himself or herself. 
Adam Snow says he 
didn't do it.  Sure.
Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if the protagonist fails?” That's the question that the author of the story has already posed to himself or herself. 

The answer to that question is what draws us in. It makes us care. It will make us follow the story from beginning to end.

Summary: Our protagonist makes a choice. It could be Jack Bauer returning to save Los Angeles from an atomic bomb, or it could be Mildred Pierce taking a waitress job. 

The character takes an action hoping for success, hoping that the world will receive their actions well; but instead that same choice raises the steady forces of antagonism against them.

That’s what a good story is. 

Peter Gilboy is a former ditch digger, short order cook, bartender, truck driver, soldier, counselor and academic.  He has been in jail only once. Peter almost always takes his meds.  
His website is    You can contact him at

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