Most writers first learn the craft of storytelling from reading their favorite books or watching their favorite TV shows and films.* This approach is fun because it means we get to consume a lot of great media, but new authors often assume they can do anything they’ve seen their favorite storytellers do, and that leads to problems. As a content editor, I often see ambitious writers struggling with the same set of tropes, so today let’s walk through some of the most common and look at how to make them work.
1. Underpowered Protagonists
The underpowered protagonist is a main character who is totally unprepared for the problems that await them on their adventure. They might have been raised on a farm only to be sent out questing against the evil elven empire,* or they might be a brand-new apprentice expected to match spells with archmages. Often, the underpowered protagonist is someone from our world pulled into the magical realm and told they’re the chosen one.
No matter the circumstances, underpowered protagonists quickly run up against bad guys who vastly outclass them. To avoid being murdered, eaten, or otherwise dispatched in the first scene, the underpowered protagonist depends on either more competent allies or random chance to save them. If the hero can believably get out of trouble on their own, then by definition they are not an underpowered protagonist.*
This is a recipe for disaster because it means the protagonist has no agency. They’re just being escorted from scene to scene, usually by their more capable friends. If the main character has no agency, readers won’t care about them, and pretty soon the whole story is chucked in the bin. And yet this trope appears a lot in classic fiction, which is partly why so many authors want to use it, so what’s the secret?
How to Make It Work
The secret is Frodo Baggins of Bag End. That’s it, you’re done. Seriously, though, Frodo is the most well-known example of this trope because Tolkien made a very important choice: he gave Frodo a special power and a special responsibility. Frodo is the only one who can carry the One Ring, and if he doesn’t, all of Middle-earth will be consumed by Sauron. That means even when Frodo is surrounded by powerhouses like Aragon, Legolas, and Gimli, his actions and opinions still matter. He still has agency.*
So if you want to use an underpowered protagonist, that’s the example to follow. Give your main character something critical that only they can do. Then they can stay important even if they’re bad at sword fighting, which opens the door for a fun arc where they slowly get more competent. Just remember that whatever you give them has to be an active process. Frodo had to fight the One Ring’s influence; otherwise, he’d have been nothing but a living MacGuffin to be delivered.
2. Episodic Plot Structures
Most written stories are designed around a single throughline, also known as a central plot. The throughline is introduced at the beginning and resolved at the end, with everything in between contributing to it. This is the classic Star Wars plot structure. We introduce the threat of the Death Star right away with Vader chasing down Leia to get the plans, have some Death Star–related adventures, then resolve the throughline at the end when Luke blows it up.*
But that’s not the only way to tell a story. Instead, you can treat each section of your book like an episode of television, with its own beginning, middle, and end. This is called, fittingly enough, an episodic plot structure, and authors really love it. They love it because an episodic structure lets them tell multiple stories within the same novel, and they love it because so many of them learned storytelling from watching TV shows.
Unfortunately, authors also have a lot of trouble with episodic plots. Stories that use this structure often feel ponderous and slow paced, with no forward momentum or rising action. Readers often finish a section only to ask, “What was the point of that?” This happens because novels are not naturally segmented into smaller chunks the way episodes of television are. Readers expect a single story, and authors often try to write one even as they are creating an otherwise episodic structure.
How to Make It Work
One of the few novels to successfully employ an episodic structure is Voyage of the Dawn Treader, something that makes it worth reading despite other problems.* Dawn Treader is a travel story, and each island the characters stop at represents a self-contained episode, with its own conflict and pay off. But at the same time, each episode builds toward the overarching plot of their quest to find the Seven Lords of Narnia.
This combo is essential to episodic storytelling. If a section of the story isn’t directly linked to the main plot, then it needs to function as its own story, which means creating all the same elements a larger story has. There needs to be conflict, rising action, a climax, and then resolution. This mirrors the structure found in episodes of even the most serialized TV show, where there’s always some payoff at the end of each episode. But it’s also critical that each episode builds at least a little toward the main plot, or else readers will wonder why this isn’t a series of short stories.
3. Hate to Love Romances
Look, we can always write stories where two or more characters fall in love because of shared interests and compatible personalities like normal people, but isn’t it more interesting if they hate each other first? Then the hatred can slowly turn to love, resulting in the strongest romance ever, right?
Authors use this trope for a whole host of reasons. Characters who hate each other have a way better justification to exchange witty repartee, for starters, and everyone knows that one-liners are a great way to build sexual tension. Then there’s the much-sought-after contrast between the lovebirds’ original animosity and their eventual romance. Finally, sometimes authors just need a reason why the lovers can’t get together right away, so they create a personality clash.
The only issue is that such romances are rarely satisfying. Most often, this kind of big emotional switch just isn’t convincing. It’ll either seem like the characters didn’t really hate each other and all that hostility was just for show, or that they’ve had their personalities rewired so they can make smoochies with someone they previously detested. Then you can get into problematic territory, especially with heterosexual couples, where the woman learns that her man’s creepy or outright abusive behavior is just who he is and she needs to accept it. Gross.
How to Make It Work
One of the more successful hate to love romances is the relationship between Buffy and Spike on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. That’s a TV show, but its methods work just as well in print. Mainly, the reason Buffy and Spike hate each other isn’t because of a personality clash; it’s because Spike is a vampire and Buffy is the slayer. They’re on opposite sides of a major conflict, so love is out of the question until Spike’s redemption arc is finished. Once that happens, they can smooch without it feeling contrived.
You can emulate this success by having your lovebirds oppose each other as part of a larger conflict. When that conflict is resolved, you get all the contrast and satisfaction of hate turning into love, without needing to conveniently ignore why the characters didn’t like each other in the first place. This will still require some time to be believable, as characters probably won’t leap into each other’s arms just because the war is over, but it doesn’t have to take five seasons like Buffy did. Spike needed that time to redeem himself from being an evil vampire. If your lovebirds’ conflict is less black and white, they can get together faster.
4. Main Character Death
We all know the main characters are supposed to live to the end of the story. In fact, it’s so well known that a lot of authors want to rebel against it. They don’t want to be all boring and conventional, so they kill off half the cast, presumably while shouting about how this isn’t your grandparents’ story anymore.
Jokes about grimdark stories aside, there are some very real benefits to killing off major characters. Such deaths create intense drama that can really elevate a scene, perfect for bringing the reader to tears. Even more importantly, killing some major characters makes it feel like others might die too. This seriously ups the story’s tension and makes the world more immersive. It’ll keep going whether these characters live or not!
Once the initial rush wears off, authors quickly discover there’s a reason most main characters survive until the end. Readers grow attached to their favorite characters, and if that character dies, they might just put the book down. If that’s not enough, dead characters often leave unresolved plot threads behind, or they might have provided something critical that the story no longer has. If you kill off the only funny character, the story can get dismal and depressing fast.
How to Make It Work
To kill a main character without damaging your story, the best course is to follow the example of Eddard Stark from the novel A Game of Thrones.* Ned’s death is the conclusion of a long arc that tests his idealism and rigid honor against the realities of Westerosi politics. He refuses to compromise and dies for it. This is an extremely satisfying moment, even for readers who loved Ned and wanted him to live. There are no loose ends for his character, and the greater story of House Stark is taken up by his wife and children.
Martin actually repeats this trick with the Red Wedding a couple books later. This time, the arc is Robb not following his mother Catelyn’s practical counsel, eventually getting his house destroyed for it. In both cases, the key is that the character’s deaths provide satisfaction. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will make readers happy, but they’ll feel like they got something out of it and be willing to keep reading.
5. Immoral Protagonists
Just like most main characters survive their stories, we also know that they’re usually good people. That’s why “protagonist” and “hero” are synonyms for storytelling purposes. And just like last time, authors are ready to rage against this machine!
It’s easy to see why immoral protagonists are so tempting. Flawless paladins can get insufferable quickly, and making your main character a bad guy adds a lot of novelty to the story. It lets you tell stories about a wider range of characters, and it’s just so satisfying when the antihero wins the day through trickery instead of always fighting fair.
But all of those benefits pale in comparison to the costs. A main character who is actually immoral, not just flawed, will be really hard for readers to like because they’re always doing bad things. Why would we want this jerk to succeed after they just sucker punched a senior citizen? Once readers stop cheering for the main character, they quickly lose interest in the story and after that you’ll rarely get them back.
Authors have a difficult time spotting this problem because they often identify with their main character in a way most readers won’t. What’s more, TV and film are both full of immoral protagonists that audiences love, further confusing the issue. But those characters are played by charismatic actors who sell the role no matter what they actually do. Prose stories don’t have that advantage.
How to Make It Work
In the majority of stories, there is exactly one way to make an immoral character work: give them the trappings of immorality but don’t actually make them immoral. This trick works so well it’s nearly universal. In Discworld, Granny Weatherwax claims to be an evil witch, but she only ever hurts bad guys. To everyone else she’s nothing but helpful, if a bit intimidating. In Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the titular character is a villain but the only crimes he ever commits on purpose are stealing from the rich.
The list goes on. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Jamie is a super bad guy who pushes children out of windows and betrays his king, until he becomes a POV character. Then we find out he only pushed Bran to save his family’s lives, and he betrayed his king to save an entire city. In the Gentleman Bastards series, Locke is a greedy thief who only steals from people with more money than they know what to do with. There are other methods to make an immoral protagonist work, but if you’re just starting out, this is the only one you’ll need.
Storytelling is a complex beast, and mastering it will always be difficult. But as humans are a social species, you don’t have to start at square one every time. You can look at the mistakes others have made before you and learn from what they did. Whether the solutions I’ve laid out here work for you or not, from now on you’ll at least be aware of the problem.
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