1. Mikmaxs
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    Mikmaxs Active Member

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    How do I pull this off? (Or: My main character is useless.)

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Mikmaxs, Aug 8, 2016.

    So, I'm having a minor dilemma in how to properly make promises to my reader.

    My main character's arc, as I have it planned, is that she's just-not-quite-competent enough for most of the book to do what she's trying to accomplish. She's got power, (Magic power, plus a lot of physical strength for a girl of her age,) but not much experience with it, and she is pretty quickly out of her depth. She gains skills and experience over the course of the book, and by the end, is able to do a badass thing and finally save the day.

    She also has a sidekick bounty hunter, who is not incompetent at all. In fact, he's not just competent, he's incredibly skilled and powerful. There's reasons for this, but it's still causing a problem, because he ends up driving most of the story. My main character is the motivation for most actions, but he's the one who ultimately pulls off most of the cool stuff.

    My dilemma, then, is that I don't want this to look like just another 'Man saves the day while a useless girl tags along' story. It'd be silly to expect my main character to be able to handle everything on her own, (She's a fifteen year old girl who's trying to track down a small army of bandits to rescue her family, of course she won't be able to manage it by herself,) but the situation that presents itself could very much appear as though she's 'Just a useless girl' unless I frame things just right.


    I thought of this because of a series of chapters that are being placed back-to-back. My main character has tracked down a group of slavers that have information she needs. They get ambushed by thieves, so she helps fight off the thieves with her magic, but gets knocked out. Upon waking, she finds that the thieves have all been killed or captured, but when the slavers realized she had magic, they captured her as well. She then conspires with the thieves to escape, but they abandon her as soon as they're all free of their cages, leaving her to be captured again. She then tries to escape one more time using some magic and a Chekov's Gun I established earlier, but fails once more in the attempt. With each failure, she gets more and more battered, bruised, and otherwise injured.

    Finally, the bounty hunter sidekick (Who wasn't around for reasons,) shows up, rescues her, gets the information they need, and they leave.


    While it works, story-wise, I can see how someone would read problematic subtext into these scenes, and I'd really like to avoid that if I can.
     
  2. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    Your bounty hunter could be a woman too.

    That seems like the simplest solution, really.
     
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  3. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    This kind of sounds like the movie True Grit. In that movie, the protagonist girl, also hires a bounty hunter who does a lot of the work. Would you say it was something like that?
     
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  4. Mikmaxs
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    Mikmaxs Active Member

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    ...
    Whaaaat?
    No no no, my story is, uh, nothing like True Grit. NOT AT ALL.
    Ahem...

    Seriously though, the story I have definitely shares more than a few similarities. (It also takes place a few years after a nationwide war to bring split countries together, which the bounty hunter fought in, and they live in a semi-lawless backwoods part of the country with relatively lax law enforcement.)
    In True Grit, though, Maddie isn't *expected* to be competent, and never really has to be. In fact, I can't really recall her failing much at any point. When she finds Tom Cheney she fails to kill him, sure, but that was actually Rooster's fault: He reloaded her gun improperly, causing it to misfire.

    @izzybot...
    The bounty hunter can't be, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it would mean having to gender flip one of the villains as well which complicayltes other things, (For reasons which are too complicated to get into now,) and it would also throw off the balance of characters. I've currently got two men and two women in my main cast, and I like it that way. (They pair up in different ways, too. Two magic users, two non magic users. Two young people, two older people. Two talented veterans, two rookies. One person to represent each of the 3 major religions, with two covering the most common set of beliefs.) (These characters don't interact as a group for a while, but that dynamic exists nonetheless.)

    Also... I kinda just don't want David to be a girl. He's the oldest character I've got, in terms of how long I've had their history and backstory written out.

    So, while I see how that idea could work, I can't see myself using it.
     
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  5. IHaveNoName
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    IHaveNoName Active Member

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    Then let her escape. Barely. She's battered, bruised, can barely walk, but she makes it on her own... and then the bounty hunter shows up (and says "Sorry I'm late, did I miss anything?"). The girl accomplishes something (kind of) and the bounty hunter still saves the day (but not as much).
     
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  6. Mikmaxs
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    Mikmaxs Active Member

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    If I do that, though, then I'd need a plausible way for her to actually escape.

    On a more important note, though, that fix breaks things thematically. Her character arc is meant to begin with her being incompetent, but with the spunk and courage to try anyways, since nobody else will and the job needs to be done. By the end, she will have become competent, through hard work, practice, and experience. (There's more to her arc than that, but that's the relevant part.) If I have her escape on her own, it undermines her incompetence.

    Also, I can't have her escape sort of but not really but be about to die without help anyways" since I did that a few chapters prior to this debacle...
     
  7. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    You really only have so many options. You might just have to settle for being okay with the unfortunate implications or compromise somewhere. Just don't be afraid of those compromises - ultimately they get you thinking about your plot in new, different ways and it can only improve upon the story in the end. I'm personally not a fan of ever being totally married to any aspect of a plot.
     
  8. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'd say work (hard) on the power dynamic between the sidekick and your main character. If she has a strong personality and he doesn't, that might work to balance things and make her seem more vital to the enterprise. If there is a strong reason why he has decided to help her ...other than the fact that she needs help and he feels pity for her ...that would also work. Is he in debt to her (or her family) in some way? Think of something that gives her a certain amount of control over him. Then the physical differences between them won't matter so much.
     
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  9. Janus3003
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    Janus3003 New Member

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    At what point in the story do these failed escape attempts and rescue happen? I think you could use it as a means to help her development. She's frustrated by her failures, especially when compared with the bounty hunter's skills. Does she start training like the bounty hunter? Does she let anger get the better of her and deals with it in less than healthy ways? Does she learn to recognize and accept the traits that make her who she is?

    In relation to that last question, I'd like to point out that a damsel in distress is not an inherently weak character. A strong individual can be held prisoner and in need of rescue. Throwing a woman with multiple PhD's into a jail cell does nothing to her strength as a person. Beating the crap out of Stephen Hawking won't make him any less of a genius.

    As for the writing itself, don't get bogged down in detailing all the escape attempts. If it were me, I'd detail the first and last ones, with simple summaries for the others.
     
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  10. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, how deeply incompetent does she have to be? It presumably wouldn't make sense for her to fight her way out, but what about picking locks, taking out a grating and shimmying down a duct, contaminating the allergic guard's cigarette end with a smear of peanut butter, figuring out where the entrance to the disused root cellar is and hiding in it so that they think she's escaped and leave the door unsecured while searching for her... I realize that none of those may make remotely fit your setting, but you see what I mean in general?
     
  11. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    As long as your MC is trying her hardest while digging a deeper hole for herself, I don't see a problem. Her sidekick (who really sounds like more of a hero type) could easily be the competent one, the one who sets the standard for how to get things done. But whether man or woman, the sidekick would have to bring his/her own brand of screwing up into the story or the MC wouldn't have no reason to take over in the third act and make things right.
     
  12. Scot
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    Scot Active Member

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    You MC needs to be the brains of the outfit who uses guile, and perhaps her feminine charms, to eventually escape from whatever predicament she's in.
    You could introduce a comedic touch by having the loyal sidekick invariably turn up just as she's escaped from the cage/cell/whatever. Yes, he's slaughtered all the bad guys, which makes their getaway easier, but he didn't actually rescue her.
     
  13. Mikmaxs
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    Mikmaxs Active Member

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    @izzybot:
    I don't mind dropping aspects of my plot to make the story function, but I'm pretty married to my themes and tone.
    @jannert:
    He's a bit of a random elememt at the start, so there's no family connection, but (while my MC doesn't realize it,) he's helping her at least in part because he went through something moderately similar as a child and wants to help her out.
    I also can't she's the brains of the operation while he's just a talented lackey, but Adelyn (My MC) *is* the one driving the plot forward and making all the tough calls. David (the sidekick) is paranoid and cautious, so he takes the safer course when it's left up to him.

    @Sack-a-Doo! :
    The sidekick, David, really wouldn't screw things up. Make mistakes? Sure, but in the "I wasn't able to win a fight against a stronger opponent" sense, not the "I overexterted myself and got backed into a corner" sense. The MC needs to set things right at the end simply because the challenge was so great that it couldn't be overcome by normal means, not because they screwed up.

    It also occurs to me that I should describe my current situation a little better:

    Adelyn (MC*) is on her own, after a fight with David (sidekick*) led to their splitting up. She finds the people she was looking for, who have information about the location of their real goal, but before she can figure out how to get the information she needs, they're attacked by bandits.
    Adelyn helps fight off the bandits by using her magic powers, but is knocked unconcious in the process. Upon waking, she discovers that the slavers won, but after witnessing her magic decided to take her captive as well, figuring that a witch could be quite valuable to sell.
    While still in transit, she contrives to escape with the help of the captured bandits. They make their move, but the bandits immediately leave her behind as a distraction to be captured yet again.
    Disarmed, she's led to the leader of the Slavers. She makes a last ditch attempt to escape which fails miserably, then is thrown back in a cage.
    Several hours later, David shows up and rescues her.

    I don't want to employ any of the coincidential timing so common in action/adventure novels, where the rescuer shows up at the exact second they're needed most, or I'd just have David arrive soone...

    Huh. I just had an idea.

    If David shows up *before* Adelyn makes her second escape attempt, but rather than directly breaking her out he tries to negotiate with the slavers first, he could be on hand to help her without it being forced.


    Well, that still doesn't fix my Damsel problem, but it makes the chapter flow more smoothly.
     
  14. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'm glad you seem to be getting ideas from what people here have said. You're making progress.

    However, if you want your MC to be less of a 'damsel,' then you will need to make some changes in how you portray her. She'll only be less of a damsel if you write her that way. So maybe take a few of your ideas about that character and turn them around a bit? If you cling to keeping her as she is, this won't change.

    I still say you should create a stronger connection between the sidekick and the damsel if you want this to work. At the moment he's just helping her because he was helpless as a child himself? That's not going to strengthen HER, which is what you need to do here. Give her some backbone. She doesn't need to be physically strong, but something in her needs to radiate competence, self-confidence, determination, whatever. Give her a characteristic that her sidekick either greatly admires, or something he actually needs. Make them more of a team. At the moment, you've got them as rescuer/damsel. Do something to change that.
     
  15. Mikmaxs
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    Mikmaxs Active Member

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    He decided to start helping her at the start due to the connection, but that isn't to say it's his only reason.
    She, meanwhile, lacks skill or experience but drives the story along by being incessantly persistent and almost constantly choosing the path of most resistance. She recognizes that she's unskilled (at least, unskilled as a rescuer of kidnapped people,) but tries to compensate by doggedly pursuing knowledge and training.

    Does that sound reasonable, or is it still more of a "Useless with quirks that don't make her not useless"?
     
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  16. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hey, what about me?

    Anyway, is it absolutely necessary that the bandit escape totally fail? I'm still wondering how utterly incompetent she needs to be. It feels a little bit as if she's starting out as a formless mass.
     
  17. Mikmaxs
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    Mikmaxs Active Member

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    I decided about halfway through my post that individual responses for everyone would get tedious...
    Anyways, the bandit escape *doesn't* technically fail, in that it went very well... For the bandits. In the first two instances, in fact, her mistake was assuming that people wouldn't take advantage of her, and being unable to keep an eye out for herself while helping others.
     
  18. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm still unclear on why she has to be recaptured. Are there other plot reasons, or is it primarily to underscore her incompetence?
     
  19. Mikmaxs
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    Mikmaxs Active Member

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    Her being recaptured spurs the slavers to take her up to their leader, ultimately putting her in mortal peril which prompts her final escape attempt. If she actually escapes, it throws the plot off the rails. If she doesn't try, then she comes off as lazy.
     
  20. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    See, it all boils down to how you write the character. You said at the start of this OP that YOU think the character lacks something. That means you need to have a good hard think about what you could change. Either change her, or change how you write about her. Or both.

    If you are willing to delve into her thoughts and feelings (and not just skim over them to get to the action bits) she will be a strong character, even if she doesn't have a clue and doesn't have any prowess to speak of. If we can identify with WHY she's like this, she'll be a strong character.

    Strong character doesn't mean strong person, by the way. It means strong in the sense that the character's dilemma and personality makes the reader identify with her.

    So yes, I think you're on the right track. If she's doggedly pursing skills and knowledge she doesn't have yet—and we are let in on her wishes and hopes and fears on an intimate level—that not only makes her a strong character, but gives you some good story goals as well.

    Just adding or subtracting personality 'quirks' isn't really the answer, is it? It's getting the reader to identify with her that's the trick, here. Maybe get into what she thinks about her rescuer? Does she resent the fact that she has to rely on him? That will make her a strong character. Does she recognise qualities in him that she wishes she possessed herself? That will make her a strong character. Does she hate herself for being a wimp, or being unable to defend herself without help? That will make her a strong character. Does she find herself growing to love him (not necessarily in a romantic way?) That will make her a strong character, if we see him evolving from acquaintance, to teammate, to friend, to maybe more, through her eyes.

    Just showing her sitting around while the other guy does all the work without delving into her thoughts and feelings will NOT make her a strong character, even if she has lots of superficial quirks.
     
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  21. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Maybe her recapture could be different? Right now, it sounds like her allies in the escape leave her behind like an unwanted package, and without them she's helpless. She sounds very passive in that transition.

    Maybe something less passive, something that involves her making decisions? Even, "Dammit; enemies behind and zombies ahead. The enemies want me alive. The zombies want to eat me. I'm (bleep bleep profanity bleep) going to have to turn around." is HER making a decision. And if she leaves clues about her location that can be found by her ally, that's another reduction of her passivity.
     
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