Hey Mythcreants, I was wondering, how much impact does my protagonist have to have on the story’s climax? For instance, if my main character is a relatively low-level player in the overarcing conflict, how can I keep their impact in the story realistically limited while also not giving the audience the impression that the story is meaningless?

– Evan

Hey Evan, great to hear from you again! 

The short answer is that your protagonist has to be the most important person in solving whatever you position as the story’s main problem. If that isn’t happening, then one of three things needs to change. 

  1. Reconfigure things so your protagonist is the most important person in solving the problem. 
  2. Find a different problem for your protagonist to solve. 
  3. Find a different protagonist to solve your problem. 

The trick here is how you decide what your story’s most important problem is. Two factors generally play into this: stakes and immediacy. The higher the stakes and the more immediate a problem, the more readers will see it as the story’s main conflict and be disappointed if your protagonist doesn’t solve it. 

For example, in A New Hope, the Death Star is clearly our most important problem. It’s got very high stakes (killing everyone) and is super immediate (as soon as it clears the gas giant). It would be pretty disappointing if Luke Skywalker, our protagonist, spent the battle repairing a damaged fighter, or even if he flew in the battle but was just the wingman of another pilot who made the final trench run. 

However, you can adjust this depending on how you pitch the problem. Let’s say that in an alternate version of A New Hope, there are no secret plans for the Death Star, and the rebellion is doomed to lose the battle. In that case, your main problem could be fixing an escape ship so the characters can evacuate. In that scenario, Luke repairing the ship is a great choice, since the actual space battle isn’t that important. 

Similarly, if your story is set in World War II, then defeating Nazi Germany doesn’t have to be your main conflict. If you spend the story with a group of refugees just trying to survive, then escaping into Switzerland could make a great climax for your story. The characters might even hear about Germany’s surrender on the radio, but that’ll just be a nice piece of good news rather than seeming like a conflict they skipped out on. 

But if your entire story takes place in war rooms where generals strategize about the best way to defeat the Wehrmacht, then that will probably be the main conflict. In such a story, your protagonist would need to be someone making high level military decisions rather than a junior officer or civilian employee. There are always edge cases where the main conflict isn’t what it might first appear, but it’s usually pretty easy to spot. 

Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!

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