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Trope: The Reluctant Protagonist

Updated: Apr 19

In fantasy literature, film, and other media, the reluctant protagonist is a common archetype. This character is often thrust into a heroic or adventurous situation against their will or initial desires. They may resist the call to action due to fear, doubt, a sense of inadequacy, or a desire for a normal life.

Bilbo Baggins

Despite their reluctance, circumstances compel the reluctant protagonist to embark on a journey, fulfill a prophecy, or confront a great evil. Along the way, they often undergo personal growth and development, eventually embracing their role as a hero or leader.

Famous examples of reluctant protagonists in fantasy include Frodo Baggins from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit.

Frodo Baggins

Like other tropes there is nothing specifically wrong with this one, but the trouble with this trope comes from the story arc that must happen for our protagonist to be endeared to the reader. They must grow and we know it. We know that they will have a inciting incident between 15-25 % mark, they will become self-actualizing in the 45-55 % mark and we know they will eventually become the hero and heroine we all need.

This brings us to the first two problems we have if it is not done well.

Predictability: The trope has been used frequently in fantasy literature and other media, which can make it feel cliché or predictable if not executed with originality or depth, and as noted above we know the story beat very well. So well that when you don’t do them the story actually feels wrong. It’s a self-defeating problem. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Lack of Agency: Reluctant protagonists may come across as passive or reactive, especially if they spend a significant portion of the story resisting their role or avoiding action. This can make it challenging for readers or viewers to fully engage with the character's journey long enough to get to that self-actualization mark.

Will they, or won’t they? Because we know we need to nudge the protagonist along to their destiny the conflict often turns internal leading to two more problems.

Stagnant Character Growth: If the protagonist remains reluctant for too long without significant development or change, it can lead to a lack of narrative progression and emotional investment in the character's arc. We spend the whole book waiting for them to become something.

Overemphasis on Internal Conflict: While internal conflict can be compelling, relying too heavily on the protagonist's inner struggles at the expense of external challenges or conflicts can result in a narrative that feels overly introspective. We might feel like the motivation handed to us by the author is not sufficient to make us believe the protagonist can overcome their inertia.

It also doesn’t work for all character types; therefore, it limits your protagonist pool to some degree:

Limited Character Diversity: The reluctant protagonist trope often features characters who fit a specific mold. E.g., young, ordinary individuals, inexperienced people thrust into extraordinary circumstances out of their control.

So, what do we do to combat these possible issues?

1)      Provide Complex Motivations: Instead of relying on simplistic reasons for the protagonist's reluctance, give them multifaceted motivations that reflect their personality, background, and past experiences. This can add depth to the character and make their inner conflict more relatable and engaging. Make the character real, and perhaps not even 100 % reluctant. Part of them wants to go forth and do, but… and find a reason they can’t.

2)      Show Incremental Growth: Rather than keeping the protagonist reluctant for the duration of the story, allow them to experience gradual growth and development over time. Give them opportunities to confront their fears, overcome obstacles, and make difficult choices that contribute to their transformation into a hero/heroine. Do not wait until the 70 % mark to start having a character show some agency, the reader won’t hang with you for that long.

3)      Focus on Agency and Proactivity: Empower the protagonist to take active control of their destiny and shape their own narrative arc. Instead of passively reacting to events, allow them to make proactive decisions and drive the story forward through their actions and choices. Being a reluctant protagonist means reluctant to the main quest, not reluctant to take any action. This is a wonderful way to emphasize and use, “yes, but,” writing styles where they have taken action, but the circumstances may be truly unavoidable.

Whatever you do, always remember, writers write.

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