Archive for May 7th, 2009

May 07 2009

Writing Tip of the Day: No Guardian Angels!

Published by under Writing Articles

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Your hero should be accountable for his actions.  If his actions don’t have consequences for him, the plot will be much less satisfying.


Guardian angels are characters that remove accountability and make the hero’s actions meaningless.  For example, Heroes’ Claire had at least three guardian angels (Noah, Peter, Nathan and possibly her mother).  That’s really undramatic.  By giving your character guardian angels, you remove opportunities for them to deal with the repercussions of their decisions.  That usually makes them boring and less impressive. For example, when the feds come to lock the mutants up, Nathan has Claire removed from the wanted list.  Repeatedly.  If Claire is meant to seem like an interesting, proactive hero rather than a helpless damsel in distress, it would be much more compelling if she solved her own problems.


Another problem with guardian angels is that they tend to sideline the hero.  Children protagonists are particularly vulnerable to this. If the parent swoops in to solve the kid’s problems, why are we reading about the kid?  No one wants to read a parentis ex machina, especially young readers.


When a protagonist requires assistance, here are some suggestions to make it more dramatic than just having another character solve his problems:
1. I recommend making sure that the help creates some sort of problem or price that needs to be paid back later. For example, perhaps the helper expects some sort of payback and/or opens up another major problem. For example, in Breaking Bad, the main character (spoiler) allies with one drug lord to protect him from the drug cartel that previously employed the main character. The relationship with the new drug lord creates its own set of problems, and the new drug lord is not able (or willing) to protect everyone the main character cares about from the cartel.


2. I’d recommend keeping the assistance as limited as possible. For example, in The Matrix, the first scene between Neo and Morpheus is a lot more interesting because Morpheus isn’t there to personally escort Neo to safety. He’s just talking to Neo over the phone, which makes Neo’s actions in the scene a lot more interesting than if Morpheus did all the work himself. Please don’t let your main character(s) get sidelined.


3.I’d recommend putting the helper at serious risk.I think this is helpful because it will make the assistance more high-stakes, whereas someone who can save the main character by flipping a switch will probably not create an interesting scene.


4. I’d recommend murkying the waters — altruism is not your friend here. If Character A saves Character B from a major problem, it’s easier to build upon that moving forward if A acted out of self-interest and/or any other motive which suggests that it wasn’t just a free favor. For example, a self-interested character might expect Character B to help in problems of his own, involve Character B in a new conflict, or have Character B do something he might not otherwise want to). Alternately, Character A might be helping Character B because B is useful to him now but there may come a time when A and B conflict or when A could benefit by throwing B under a bus. For example, a criminal might help a detective put away a rival criminal, and later use the detective’s trust to feed the police misleading information in a case against someone the criminal wants to protect. (Alternately, in Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter was a convicted serial killer that cooperated with police to find another serial killer in exchange for being transferred to a less secure facility, which allowed him to escape).

10 responses so far