My Action-less Protagonist

I have a serious problem with lack of action, in my last scene, of all places. Not action being done (I have plenty of that — my last scene is a fight scene on board a ship), but action my protagonist does (or, in this case, doesn’t do). She waits for her hero to save her. Yet again, I’m writing my heroine/protagonist as a rescuee. Not the doer.

When I first fleshed out my book, my protag was completely at the whim of everyone else…her hero, her antagonist, even the flippin’ maid. My instructor (in the McDaniel Romance Writing Program) said, “No way. She has to DO. She has to be the one taking the action, solving her problems. Don’t make her a victim.” So I rewrote my plot and now,  throughout the entire book, she gets herself out of scrapes on her own. Then then my final scene comes along, and I revert to my default position: while she tries to avoid doing what her antagonist wants her to do, she doesn’t get herself out of trouble. She is rescued.

Why do I have this issue with creating action-less heroines? Is it because many of the romances I’ve read have these victim-type “leading ladies?” Is it because I secretly wish for this in my own life? In what I write? I am not sure.

As I think more about this, I have to go back to what my instructor asked me in her comments about my protagonist’s transformation. How does she change? In the beginning of my book, she has one unwavering goal, and that’s to remain independent, get to her 21st birthday so she can inherit her money and then live her life as she wishes. She doesn’t want help, she doesn’t want male companionship, and she certainly doesn’t want to get married. By the end, all of that has changed. She gets in over her head and acknowledges that she needs her hero’s help (and is willing to accept it), that she wants to be married, and that she doesn’t want to be alone.

Based on that, it would seem to me that having my heroine be rescued follows her character arc. She was already independent. What she wasn’t was able to rely on others. I told my instructor that I need…no, want…My Girl to be saved by her hero.

And then I read a post by Michael Hauge about what the driving force of all successful screenplays are: Desire. He broke that down into elements that help enforce that, and here’s #4:

“It must be within your hero’s power to achieve her desire. You never want your hero to wait to be rescued, in any sense of the word. If she’s pursued by a killer, trapped in a mineshaft, or cornered by dinosaurs, she can’t wait helplessly for the Mounties to arrive.”

Oy. That hit me like a brick. Everything my instructor has been telling me is right (my apologies for not believing you!). I didn’t want to hear that My Girl had to save herself. But perhaps I have to.

I think I have this Cinderella idea in my head regarding My Girl. That My Girl will be rescued by her Prince Charming. But Cinderella was totally helpless. Lovely, for sure, and in the Disney version, she sings very well. But she doesn’t DO anything. Everything is done to/for her. Even the mice unlock the door to her tower as she sits there and cries! That’s not My Girl.

Yes, it’s part of My Girl’s character arc to learn to depend on people…but I think what I’m forgetting is that by having her be rescued, we lose part of her, of who she is. She is an independent, do-for-herself girl. Yet she can depend on other people and still maintain her independence. In fact, she has to, because if she loses that independent streak, then she’s not My Girl anymore, right?

The EASY way to finish the book is to have her hero rescue her. And I think that’s part of why I chose that path in my first pass at the ending. The other reason is because I’ve always loved the traditional “girl gets rescued” fairy tale. But that’s probably only good in fairy tales.

The HARD way to finish the book is to think of something My Girl could do to extract herself from the latest mess, to beat her antagonist. Something crafty and creative. Something that puts her outside her comfort zone, extending her character arc even further. This will require ample thought. In the meantime, there’s plenty more for me to work on.

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