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:
- Those whose compulsion to act is indeed driven by a sense of calling.
- Those whose compulsion to act is driven merely or primarily by a longing to escape a current or previous state of crisis or deprivation.
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.