Your article on how to bring swords to a gunfight was very interesting, and I’m dealing with a (somewhat) similar idea except that it involves characters. The plot’s picking up speed. Things are getting serious. Your protagonist is in over their head. They don’t know what’s going on and suddenly they’re smack in the middle of a punching match / firefight / laser battle / duel / car chase / some combination of the above. Oh, noes! You want your character to be super awesome and have a super awesome throw down, or at least survive the encounter, but they’re just your average protagonist with no fighting expertise! What should you do? Basically, my question is: how do you bring an inexperienced protagonist to a firefight?
This can also be a problem with groups of protagonists, where maybe only one has real fighting expertise or training and the others are suddenly deadweight as soon as the fight starts. And if you’re writing, say, a thriller, your character probably wouldn’t realistically survive their first elbow brush with the baddies, much less learn how to fight over the relatively short time span that most novels take place in. Is the only solution to this problem to give characters fighting backgrounds? Is there a way to bring an inexperienced protagonist to the top in a fight without snapping believability? What’re your thoughts?
Hey Bunny, nice to hear from you again!
I’ve seen the problem you’re describing in a lot of manuscripts. I’ve even started calling it the Frodo-Aragorn Problem: authors not only want their protagonist to be a sympathetic underdog, like Frodo, but also want them to be a super badass, like Aragorn, for all their cool battle sequences. Fortunately, there are a few solutions, though I wouldn’t call any of them quick fixes.
1. Make Your Character a Badass
If your story has a lot of fight scenes, it’s okay to revise the protagonist’s backstory so they’re good at fighting. This is usually easy to insert into their backstory, though the exact method will depend on your story’s setting. Perhaps the character has a military background, or perhaps they grew up fighting street battles with rival gangs. Even a background in sports like judo or boxing can go a long way in giving your character fighting skills.
The protagonist won’t have Frodo’s underdog sympathy, but that’s okay; there are other ways to make them sympathetic.
2. Avoid Fight Scenes
If your story is about a character who can’t fight, it’s okay not to have fight scenes. That way you don’t need to explain how a complete neophyte bests or escapes from a seasoned warrior. Some storytellers think they need action sequences to make their stories exciting, but they don’t. Action sequences are just one way to create conflict and tension. Your story can be about a small town’s political struggle to tear down an old building as long as you show how these stakes are compelling to the characters.
3. Focus on the Underdog’s Experience
Okay, if you’re set on fight scenes with a protagonist who isn’t good at fighting, you can still do that, but it’s tricky. When a fight scene starts, you have to focus on how the protagonist avoids danger, using what skills they have to make up for the skills they don’t. Returning to Lord of the Rings, when Frodo is in a fight, the story focuses on how he scrambles away from stronger enemies and hides in tiny crevices or uses his intelligence to outwit them. Your character might not have the skills necessary for a high-speed car chase, but they might know that they can take a shortcut through a local parking garage that never locks their gate.
There are limits to this method though. If the power between hero and villain is too skewed in the villain’s favor, it simply won’t be believable for the hero to escape. To address this, it can be helpful to include other characters who are better at fighting, the way LotR includes the rest of the fellowship. We don’t usually focus on Aragorn, especially early on; we just know he’s being a badass ranger while the hobbits are hiding. Tolkien makes this a little easier on himself by using an omniscient narration, but you can do it in limited as well. Just make sure the more fighty characters don’t overshadow the protagonist.
When using unconventional skills to get a protagonist out of trouble, it’s extra important to establish them ahead of time, since you’re asking the audience to accept that these skills will compensate for a serious power imbalance. If your hero is going to use their knowledge of the city to escape a car chase, the audience needs to know about that ahead of time.
4. Train the Underdog
If you’re going with option three, it can also be helpful to show the hero gaining combat skills as the story goes on. This works best in longer stories since it’ll seem painfully unrealistic if the hero suddenly acquires a black belt between scenes. Rather than a sudden change, you can show the character getting slowly better after each encounter as well as the occasional training sequence. That way your hero can start off not knowing which end of the sword to hold and end the story by defeating the villain in a duel.
You may have guessed by now, but this is what Lord of the Rings does. Frodo never reaches Aragorn’s level of badassery, but he and the other hobbits get noticeably better as the trilogy goes on, culminating in the Scouring of the Shire, where they lead the other hobbits in a battle to oust Saruman and his cronies. When done properly, this kind of slow transformation is incredibly satisfying.
Finally, a few articles that touch on the subjects mentioned above.
- Twelve Traits of a Lovable Hero
- How to Narrate a Riveting Fight Scene
- Five Archetypes That Can Steal a Hero’s Spotlight
- The Why & How of Foreshadowing
Hope that answers your question!