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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