Stop Protecting Your Main Characters

I think I’ve discovered my new pet peeve in fiction.

I’ve read two books in the past two weeks – different authors, different genres, one self-published and one traditionally published – that both bugged me in the same way. It wasn’t until the second book that I was able to put my finger on exactly what the problem was. In both books, the main character was reluctant to kill, and ended up in situations where killing was necessary… but were saved from having to make the choice because someone else stepped in and did the killing for them. This didn’t happen just once, either. Especially in one of the books, it became an ongoing theme.

I don’t have a problem with a character who finds it difficult to kill, or even completely refuses to do it. In general, I prefer it – although of course it depends on the character. But what I don’t like is a main character who doesn’t have to make any hard choices, because someone else does the dirty work for her.

It doesn’t have to involve killing, either. I read a book a few years back (said book was highly successful, and I actually liked it a lot except for this aspect) that centered around a moral dilemma – a dilemma that was then rendered meaningless by the book’s final pages. Suddenly, the choices all the characters had made no longer mattered. The characters no longer had to worry that they had chosen wrong, that their decisions would lead to consequences they couldn’t handle. And the book lost a lot of its power.

It makes things easier on the characters, certainly. It’s easier if, in the end, their choices turn out not to mean anything. It’s easier if they don’t have to make those choices at all, because someone steps in and does the hard thing for them. But that’s exactly why it robs the book of its power. Writers shouldn’t make things easier on their main characters. Writers should push their main characters to their limits, and then beyond. That’s what makes for a compelling story, one that sticks with you after it’s done. That’s what makes me get tangled up in a character’s life to the point where I don’t want to put the book down.

The dynamic I mentioned earlier can be done well. Another book I read in the same two-week timeframe is a good example of this. The main character didn’t want to kill. A secondary character had no problem with killing. This disparity in values caused problems, both internal and external, for the main character; it didn’t protect her. It increased the tension, and therefore the power of the story, rather than limiting it.

I want to see characters tested, pushed to their limits. I want to see them struggle, and fail, and succeed by the skin of their teeth. I want to see them make the hard choices. I don’t want to see someone else saving them from the consequences of their decisions, or saving them from having to decide at all.

Stop protecting your main characters. You’re only weakening your story.

Writers, do you find yourself tempted to protect your main characters? Readers, have you ever noticed this happening? Does it bother you like it bothers me, or do you have a different pet peeve?

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