Q&A

Can My Protagonist Be Directionless Without Frustrating Readers?

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How can I avoid frustrating my readers when I show main characters struggling without getting anywhere?

I have been thinking about the camping scenes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; they are super frustrating and unsatisfying to read, but maybe that’s the point? Maybe JKR tried to get across how frustrated the heroes are and how difficult their task is. They struggle without direction and make little progress. They are in way over their heads – sounds like great conflict in theory! But then it just ends up frustrating to the reader as well as the characters.

Should main characters just never be so directionless for more than brief periods of time? Is this a time where too much realism ruins the story? Or do you have any tips on how to convey the characters’ struggles without getting the readers to yell at the book?

-Bellis

Hi Bellis,

To keep audiences from getting frustrated, it must feel like the story is progressing.

  • If the protagonists try something and fail, and because of that their overall situation is the same, that doesn’t give the story any movement. Harry goes to Godric’s Hollow, but it doesn’t seem like he accomplishes anything by doing so. His wand breaks, which is an appropriate consequence for the blunder, but the event doesn’t get them closer to that final confrontation with Voldemort or otherwise change their basic situation. So it’s frustrating.
  • In contrast, if the protagonists try something and fail, but that attempt moves the plot forward, it’s fine. Harry and his friends are kidnapped, which is bad for them. However, when they escape, they aren’t back at square one because they have a new clue about where a Horcrux could be.
  • The plot could also move forward in a direction that’s bad for the protagonists as long as it feels like they’re heading towards that final confrontation. For instance, maybe because they went to Godric’s Hollow, Voldemort realizes what they were doing and gathers the rest of the Horcruxes to himself. That would definitely move things forward, because then the protagonists would have no choice but to come to him.
  • If the protagonists are sitting around in the woods doing nothing, that means no movement in the story, and it will be frustrating.

In many cases with “directionless” protagonists, not only is the plot not going anywhere, but the protagonists don’t have enough agency. Helplessness is not something readers want in a main character, and audiences don’t like it when the protagonist doesn’t have a hand in the story’s outcome. When that happens, readers start asking why the story isn’t about a character that’s actually doing something.

Overall, it’s fine for problems to be challenging and for the protagonist to be unsure what to do, as long as they still do something and that something moves the story forward. That’s compatible with a protagonist that blunders around, but not one that freezes in indecision for weeks.

That means that some experiences such as helplessness are inherently frustrating. Unless it’s central to what you’d like the story to communicate, it isn’t worth making your protagonist helpless for very long. There are other ways to add realism or raise tension.

I hope that answers your question. Happy writing!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    A main character who has no direction and is just walking around aimlessly will, I think, always frustrate the reader. They’re a main character, they’re supposed to have agency and through it an aim, a direction.

    What can work instead, is to have them follow a few false leads (but let them also follow the right ones every now and then). Even a failure can lead to new developments and to an advancing plot. After all, if the red herring is out of the equitation, there’s less possibilities left. Like that, you can have them approach the big climax on a more circumspect route, but they’ll still have a direction and they’ll still do something which advances the story – unlike the camping parts in Deathly Hallows.

  2. LazerRobot

    I think, maybe, if the protagonist being aimless for a while is important to the plot (I.e. all that time they sat around doing nothing the villain was busy accruing power) then maybe it could be summarized? As in, spend a paragraph describing “the next six weeks passed uneventfully because protagonist wasn’t sure what to do with themself” and then we find out the problems that caused? I don’t know, just an idea.

  3. Bellis

    Thanks Chris and also to the other commenters, this really does clear things up for me, very helpful!

    I now have a better idea how to approach this kind of realism and when to draw on my own life experiences (which in hindsight sometimes seemed almost as frustrating as the camping scenes) and when not to… It’s always good to understand more of the principles behind it beyond “camping scenes frustrating”.

  4. Rose Embolism

    As far as aimless protagonists, the classic one for me is Arthur Dent from the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series. A related one would be Rincewind from Pratchett’s Diskworld series. They have no directed goals, except perhaps safety and respectively a good cup of tea and a baked potato ( a more proactive example would be .

    What’s notable about these two though is the plot happens without their approval, and they get dragged along with it. Whether it’s enemies or friends actions, the plot happens to them, and they have to scramble to survive.

    • Cay Reet

      I think both Arthur and Rincewind are passive characters, not directionless ones.

      Arthur gets hauled into space and just tags along with people who, unlike him, know the place he’s in now. That makes him passive, which is also bad, but he’s not directionless, because he follows people with a direction and the plot moves on, even if it is without his input.

      Rincewind wants to be left alone and simply runs as fast from danger as he can – he has an ‘anti-destination’ in mind, which is ‘away from the people or things that want me dead’. He, too, is not dragging the plot by meandering around, unlike that horrid camping trip, but follows it, even if the decisions are made by others.

    • Rose Embolism

      (Sorry accidentally hit the send button)

      A more proactive example would be Padma Mehta of Windswept, who just wants to but a certain distillery. In fact, a lot of nourish protagonists fit that mold.

      The situation where a protagonist can’t or won’t do anything (“Achilles in his tent”) is similar to the above, and the key is both to keep it rather short, and emphasize that things are still happening, and moving along oward a destination. Following other characters, having interactions with others and having emotional progress and tension is important. In the Engdahl’s “The Far Side of Evil “, the main character spends much of the book imprisoned, abandoned by her people. But resisting the ever more desperate torture from her interrogator, helping her friend who is also imprisoned , while concealing the fact that she’s from an advanced alien civilization forbidden to intervene, all lead to a story with a continuing and escalating plot.

  5. eddddd

    you could also (if it fits the story) focus on some other story, possibly one with lower stakes, while the protagonists have absolutely no idea on the final conflict. that’s the main way these things are structures in serialized long form stories like tv shows, for example. loads of tv shows will have a main central conflict that only rarely makes progress but still forms the main throughline of the show. the key there is to keep the other conflicts interesting and meaningful, not padding. and that the viewer expects that sort of pacing

    in other media, that also applies to, for example, the book series animorphs, and comics like gunnerkrigg court. Idk how well that would work in a single book, but I think it could work for a series for sure

  6. Neriad13

    I actually enjoyed the HP camping scenes. I’m also a person who tends to see what other people might call filler material as being crucial to character development and think that quiet moments in which characters are allowed to just “be” without necessarily advancing the plot are more important to storytelling than they’re sometimes given credit for.

    For me, the HP camping scenes were about sitting with the characters in their grief and frustration. I think the experience of seeing what they went through drives home just how desperate of a fight they’re in and gives the ending more impact. I also liked them because of how wildly different of an experience they are from what trio would normally be doing during every single school year thus far. It’s a jarring, distressing scenario, sure – but so is Voldemort returning to power for real.

    • Cay Reet

      Calm scenes do have their uses and a scene which evolves the characters is also important, but I didn’t feel like the camping scenes were doing that. One, that I could have seen, to give voice to the frustration of being driven to run. But there are several and they were unnecessary and didn’t build either the character or the plot.

  7. Lucy

    I think an important factor is the expectations that have been set for the story. In the previous HP books, there’s always something going on – various mysteries to be solved, and lots of different things to be interested in, even just the fun aspects of the background setting, because Hogwarts is an interesting place even if the characters are just walking around chatting. And then you get to that bit and it’s like driving into a brick wall.
    I’ve read and enjoyed entire books that were basically characters procrastinating, or which took a very long time for them to get any where, but it was always clear from the outset that that was the kind of book it was. Whereas changing the pace of a story that drastically in the middle doesn’t feel like a very good idea.

  8. Alex McGIlvery

    I have an article called ‘the swamp in the middle of your story’. It was written for people who struggled with the second act and want to jump over to the third act and the fun climactic stuff.
    My premise is the swamp is essential. The characters have got to a point that they know what they are doing doesn’t work, but haven’t figured out what does.
    The thing about swamps – they are dangerous. A misstep can mean disaster. The conflict is changing the worldview to come at the antagonist in a different way. Arguments between characters about what to do, failed attempts etc are good, but also a challenge from being in the swamp. A fight against despair. The best part of the camping stuff is Ron giving up and going home.
    The other vital thing about the swamp is it must set up the rest of the story. Climbing out of the muck, the characters need to have changed in some way. Frustration is great, if it makes a difference. Other than Ron, I don’t see any character changing much in the camping scenes.

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