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Motivating the Reluctant Protagonist

Hamley Hansen-Karademir Corbett

In a recent workshop I gave, two of my students had a similar problem: both their protagonists were stubbornly resistant to doing what the story required of them.

This suggests the often-encountered problem of a writer trying to force a character into doing something contrary to her nature. But that wasn’t the case here. Instead, the characters were consistent and credible within their fictive worlds. They just were having difficulty facing up to the challenges their stories presented.

One of the protagonists was a young woman who inadvertently caused her mother’s death when, as an adolescent, she foolishly tried to use her magical powers.

The other was a doctor in a corporate hospital who discovers medical decisions are being made purely on a cost-benefit basis, and people are being allowed to die for the sake of profit.

The reluctant hero is by no means an exception in fiction, of course. Christopher Vogler, in his seminal The Writer’s Journey, discusses at length the hero’s “refusal of the call.” This refusal is typically anchored in self-doubt or even outright fear; the character sees the challenge ahead as overwhelming, beyond his real powers, a recipe for disaster.

That formulation certainly applies in both of the example I’ve given, but in much different ways.

The girl with magical powers is afraid of who she is.

The doctor is afraid of what he must do.

As will become increasingly obvious as we discuss this further, these problems are by no means mutually exclusive. But for the sake of the discussion let’s for the moment keep them distinct in our minds.

Through my teaching, writing, and reading, I’ve begun to see that protagonists come in two distinct varieties:

This distinction matters because characters who have a sense of calling will likely both begin and end their ordeals with a much difference understanding of themselves in the world.

I will get back to our two examples shortly. But first, I need to lay the groundwork for why exploring their resistance suggests these two distinct approaches.


Underlying my thoughts on all this is my belief that the most important aspect of any character is her Yearning, which I define as her dream of life: the kind of person she longs to be, the way of life she hopes to lead.

This Yearning creates a deep-seated need that the individual cannot honestly escape (though many try–i.e., they resist its pull toward a better, nobler, wiser, braver, more honest way of living). It is similar to the ancient Greek idea of eudemonia, which translates loosely as “fulfillment,” but includes not just individual goals or happiness but a reckoning with one’s destiny, purpose, or fate.

But as we’ll see, not everyone has this sense of being called forward to a better life. Some get pushed from behind.

The Yearning as a Sense of Calling

The individual sense of a unique destiny or purpose is what Vogler is referring to by a calling. It isn’t merely the province of mythic heroes. One often finds something of the sort in the biographies of exceptional individuals. A few examples:

A sense of calling isn’t restricted to the great, however. One can find it in dedicated members of the armed services, social movements, religious orders, and a variety of other professions from medicine and law to teaching, police work, nursing. What is a personal vocation if not a calling?

Finally, what we’re talking about here isn’t a calling to greatness, but a calling to character.

For an example of this from fiction, consider Gustave Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart.” The servant Félicité lives what can only be described as an ordinary life, made unique in only two ways: the generous selflessness of her love, which she offers regardless of recompense, and the rigid simplicity of her religious devotion, rooted in a literal interpretation of things so profound that, when she sees a similarity between her pet parrot and the image of the Holy Ghost in the local church’s stained glass window, she ultimately identifies one with the other.

That’s not the stuff of international fame, royalty, or Nobel prizes. But it does speak to a life lived in accordance with a firm sense of personal identity.

The Yearning as a Natural Outgrowth of Experience

There is, however, an alternate view.

Modernity has not been kind to notions such as destiny, purpose, or fate. They speak to a transcendent, quasi-religious understanding of man, which scientific materialism has seen fit to discard as unnecessary, even mistaken.

Absent that sense of purpose or destiny, however, how is one to understand a character’s Yearning? Where does the dream of life come from?

It comes from experience—we come into the world screaming, naked, and scared, and quickly realize we are wholly dependent on others. We fashion our identity not on some intrinsic sense of self but on a continuous assessment of who we need to be to get what we need—food, comfort, affection, safety. We form affinities and animosities and these shape our sense of who we are and what we want from our lives.

Now, there are some who believe that this created identity is what is known as the ego or personality, but the Self or Soul–the individual’s true, more complete identity–resides “below the surface” or completes the ego in some way. That’s the beginning of a much longer–and fascinating–discussion we regrettably can’t indulge at the moment. For now, let’s just note the usual rebuttal that individuals undeniably possess unconscious traits and impulses, but they do not conclusively point to a unique, well-formed Self or Soul or core identity at all.

Comparing the Limitations of Each Approach

Seeing the Yearning as a sense of calling provides a character with a profound sense of self—and responsibility. It works well for motivating characters who recognize that trying to escape one’s fate is futile, unless one wants to live out the remainder of his days hiding from himself.

On the other hand, a profound sense of calling seems to disregard all those individuals (and characters) who have not experienced some Saul-on-the-Road-to-Damascus moment—they’ve never undergone an incident where the direction of their life suddenly seems not just clear but inescapable. This would seem to apply to a great many people who have found their way step by step in life, without some overarching plan or vision.

The difficulty with the first approach—the Yearning as calling—is that it seems to apply only to a certain class of individuals, and risks seeming antiquated or quaint.

The difficulty of the second approach is that it’s difficult to generate the kind of motivation that truly inspires an individual to great sacrifice. If all one is doing is trying to find one’s way, and if one’s Yearning has largely been formed by a desire to avoid or minimize life’s deprivations (and take advantage of what opportunities seem reasonably within reach), why risk too much on any ambition? Why not negotiate, compromise, look for a better alternative?

Returning to Our Two Examples

Both of the examples I cited at the outset of the post present a character resisting what needs to be done, but for distinct reasons, one rooted in identity, the other in circumstances. As we’ll see, despite this difference, both will be goaded to action in the same way–by external events. This is due to the simple fact that people commonly do not change unless forced to do so. Even people who change due to some internal prompting, do so in the wake of a dark night of the soul, when some sort of personal reckoning wakens them to an internal peril: a loss of meaning, significance, merit, or direction to their lives. Even in this case, therefore, change is prompted by a sense of disaster; it’s just that the disaster is internal rather than external.

The young woman terrified of her own magical powers has experienced a sense of calling—she realizes she has a unique prowess which speaks to a sense of duty to use that prowess wisely. But she has also seen her own youthful misjudgment lead to terrible consequences. How can she overcome her resistance to accept those powers and use them?

Two alternatives to her situation suggest themselves.

In both approaches, it is exterior circumstances that force her hand. Even though her resistance is based in an unwillingness to embrace her identity, it is an external event—intervention of a mentor or a great threat (or both)—that shake her out of that resistance.

That said, there is a unique inner resonance to her eventual acceptance of the need to act: I understand I have these powers. They are central to my identity, whether I like it or not. I was, in a sense, born to use them. If I don’t accept that, I’m living a lie.

Now, turning to our reluctant doctor. He has been a go-along, get-along guy all his life. Who is he to rock the boat?

Here the character has no underlying sense of identity or purpose that is core to his being. But just like the young woman and her magic, it will be exterior circumstances that force his hand.

The most likely circumstance is the death of a patient for reasons he understands were unnecessary, even malicious. But he’s alone against powerful forces, and it’s unclear law enforcement would get involved given the fact the death concerned a person who was gravely ill to begin with, several doctors are willing to say he died of natural causes, etc. There’s no clear-cut black and white answer. Why risk his career?

Although there is no core sense of identity or purpose, there is certainly a grave sense of moral wrong. Depending on how demanding a conscience the doctor has, that may prove enough.

But more likely, just as in our first example, he will find himself compelled to act because of some great threat to himself, someone he cares about, or a great many others who deserve his protection. Even though his sense of identity may not compel him to act, he recognizes that unless he does, great harm will result. (He may also, because he is a doctor, respond to a sense of vocation as discussed above–i.e., he may awaken to his original sense of purpose in becoming a healer.)

So what differentiates the two examples?

In the case of the young woman with magical powers, even though external circumstances ultimately goad her into action, the overcoming of her resistance largely rests on the issue of identity—recognition that her powers are unique to her and she cannot escape them. Though exterior or interpersonal dangers may prompt her to accept that identity more quickly than she might have liked, her decision still boils down to a recognition of who she is, and what that means.

In the case of the doctor, he realizes that it could have been anyone who discovered what he did, but external circumstances singled him out.

Both have a figurative gun to their head. But the young woman’s gun is pointed from within, the doctor’s from without.

Okay–So What?

The fact that both these characters get their most effective motivation from outside suggests their distinction may be more a difference in degree than kind. But that’s only true if you disregard the element of individual identity at play.

The distinction in identity issues also creates a difference in emotional tone and consequence.

Both the doctor and the young woman will likely see the ordeal of the story as a uniquely defining moment. But their answers to the question, “Why me?,” will have a distinctly different resonance.

The issue becomes more subtle and interesting when the call does not concern some transcendental power, like magic, or becoming the mother of dragons. For example, return to the examples of great individuals discussed above, or those with a deep sense of personal vocation, or even humble Félicité, and imagine what, for such individuals, distinguishes “rising to the occasion” from “answering the call.” (Spoiler Alert: That will be the subject of a subsequent post.)

Does the protagonist in your current work-in-progress feel a reluctance to act? If so, what ultimately forces her to overcome her resistance? Does she recognize a sense of calling at some point in the story? Or is she simply in a position to act due to “the luck of the draw?” If the latter, what forces her to see the necessity of acting, and not leaving it to someone else or in some other way seeking some sort of compromise? At story’s end, how has the character’s sense of herself changed? Why?

About David Corbett [1]

David Corbett [2] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [3], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.