Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Think Carefully About Your Protagonist's Reward

Every protagonist wants something out of their story. Maybe it's to take back the throne they were denied, to get revenge for a murdered father, or just to finish the mission so they can go back to that cabin in the woods. However, it's important to think about your protagonist's reward for completing their story, and to ask what sort of message that sends to the audience. Both for critical reasons, and to make sure your story doesn't slip off into trope town in the last couple of pages.

My pleasure is to serve... what, a kingdom and a princess? Well, if you insist...

What Are You Giving, and Why Are You Giving It?

We've all read enough fairy tales to recognize the formula. Protagonist does something clever, noble, etc., and in the end is rewarded with the princess's hand in marriage, and a kingdom of their own. You know, the Standard Hero Reward. And most of us wouldn't dream of putting that trope into our books, even if we were writing a kind of updated fairy tale romance. However, this trope's children still invade our books from time to time.

Goddammit... where are these things coming from?
The eldest child of this trope is the Rescue Romance, where someone who was protected in a dangerous situation will develop a romantic attachment to the person who saved them. That trope's younger, wilder sibling is Rescue Sex, which is fully down with the idea that if you swing in like Errol Flynn, then a tumble in the sheets is the least you should get for your efforts.

Now, these are problematic for reasons that range from suspension of disbelief, to character agency, to what it says about the values of the world we've created. However, it's important to examine them, and to ask why you considered using them in the first place as a mechanism to move your story along.

Let's take the Rescue Romance, for example. It's a perfectly serviceable bridge for establishing your protagonist's good intentions, and perhaps for showing just how capable they are in a tussle. It also gives them an immediate connection to the character you want them to develop a relationship with. And it's a famous enough trope that the audience enough is guaranteed to be familiar with it.

So why not use it? Well, it carries a lot of bad baggage, and that can turn off your reader. However, if you can dig through the trope's guts to find out ways you can re-invent it for your story, then you might be able to cannibalize the parts that work, while avoiding the elements of a problematic reward.

The easiest example is to have the rescue, but to have something go wrong with the romance. For instance, the protagonist's efforts to protect the other character might make them look dangerous and brutish, instead of heroic. This would give the character a challenge to overcome, and teach the lesson that while violence can solve the problem at hand, it may not have the desired effect. Alternatively, the character who did the saving may not be interested in romantic attachments... but the character who almost became a victim is. So now the protagonist has a character who's convinced that they're romantically attached, and that this one incident means they have a deep relationship. It could even be a solid lead-up for a stalker-style scenario where no good deed truly goes unpunished.

Is It All Just Sex?

No, but that is one of the most common kinds of problematic rewards we throw at our protagonists.

Any time you reward your protagonist's behavior, it's important to ask what message that communicates to the reader. For example, if your protagonist steps into a bar fight, and puts three men in the hospital, what is their reward for that? Are they arrested? Sued in civil court for damages? Or is the whole thing declared self-defense, and the cops send them off with a wave and a smile? And does that solve the problem of gang members hanging around the local watering hole, or do people try to get rid of your main character before they make things worse?

And then I just walked away... can you believe that?
Whether it's getting their old job back and being given a raise by a boss who didn't believe in them, managing to finally achieve that dream of being a famous singer, or finally getting their crush's number, ask if the reward your giving your protagonist fits with the story you're telling. And, if it doesn't fit, then ask how you can alter it to fix the issue.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Sorry I missed last week, but I had a convention to attend. If you'd like to check out more of my work, take a glance at my Vocal archive. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to support my work, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or click here to Buy Me A Coffee! Either way, there's a free book in it for you as thanks for your support.


  1. Solid insight here into a topic that's scarcely touched upon in the crafting of honest and memorable narrative. Well done yet again, Neal.

  2. Thanks from me to, I never thought about the topic of rewards actually.