May 07 2009

Writing Tip of the Day: No Guardian Angels!

Published by at 11:52 pm under Writing Articles

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

10 Responses to “Writing Tip of the Day: No Guardian Angels!”

  1. Bretton 08 May 2009 at 3:45 am

    Suppose characters have useful companions who occasionally (or frequently even) are very helpful?


    Conleth has a traveling companion named Imbria who often covers for him with her magical abilities because he has none. But eventually, Conleth has to face an awesome sorcerer and Imbria isnt there to help.

    Alex has a bonded-partner, a Timberwolf named Raulkan (it means Smokefang). I cant even begin to list the various helpful points of having a giant, intelligent, magical freaking wolf on your side for life.


  2. Ragged Boyon 08 May 2009 at 4:14 am

    This is why I have to make Showtime a competent hero. Jimelly does save him a few times, but he’s usually doing something Adrian couldn’t do on his own. For example, when Showtime is attacked by mutants, Jimelly intervenes with an anti-mutagen.

  3. Alice2on 09 May 2009 at 10:20 am

    I tried hard to fight with problem with two of my characters, Aaron (main protagonist) and Gabriel (B-plot protagonist).

    Gabe was meant to be less competent than Aaron, but it occured to me that Aaron is new to the setting they’re in, whereas Gabriel has lived there all his life. I caught myself making Aaron clueless and Gabriel his “Guardian Angel”.

    At least I noticed while I was still mapping out the story.

    Gabriel does save Aaron once. It’s sort of a turning point near the middle of the story, because it’s when the two plots really start to collide and they end up really involved in each other’s business.

    I’m fine with that. There’s no point in giving the hero any companions if they’re utterly useless.

    By the way, this isn’t anything superhero-related. Just thought I’d say.

  4. B. Macon 09 May 2009 at 11:14 am

    With Claire, it’s repeated. Her many guardian angels have saved her on at least 5 occasions. The typical parentis ex machina only comes once or twice, but at particularly important moments in the plot. I think that using a partner to solve a problem is more manageable if…

    1. There’s some sort of give-and-take.

    2. The partner doesn’t resolve anything unduly climactic. (One of the things that really bothered me about Soon I Will Be Invincible was that the main heroes got sidelined by a minor character in the climax). If there’s a main hero, make sure he gets top billing against the main villain.

    3. The partner should be in the thick of things rather than a figure safely working his influence from far behind. That will help keep the action somewhat interesting. Also, it will raise the stakes for the partner. In contrast, when Nathan intervenes to save Claire, there’s very little at stake for him.

  5. Alice2on 09 May 2009 at 1:13 pm

    I don’t plan to go “z0mg gardien angle” everytime someone rescues someone, but there was a period in my writing when all Gabe did was pull the others out of trouble. Especially strange considering he was originally meant to be a bad guy. Villain decay?

    By the way, I’ve never had the displeasure of watching it, but you guys make Heroes sound awful.

  6. Tomon 09 May 2009 at 2:05 pm

    Heroes isn’t a bad show. I enjoy it. It’s definitely entertaining.

  7. Ragged Boyon 09 May 2009 at 2:09 pm

    I never got to see if it when it first start. I’m afraid I won’t be able to follow if I start now.

  8. B. Macon 09 May 2009 at 2:29 pm

    There is a lot wrong with it, but I think it’s still the best superhero show on TV today. The writing fluctuates wildly. Since this is a writing advice site, I tend to focus on what doesn’t work. However, if I were doing a straight-up review, I’d probably sound a lot more positive about the series. After all, it’s the only show I follow regularly, so I’m thinking it’s doing something right. But the stuff it does right is often overshadowed by severe problems with the writing and acting. And the show relies more on idiot plots than any other show I can think of.

    Many of the most serious problems with the writing stem from the fact that the show is very, very ambitious. So maybe I can forgive these major shortcomings.

    That said, sometimes the writers come off as unforgivably dense. For example, one of the characters (Nikki) was widely hated by fans. When she got killed, I think most fans rejoiced. The writers brought back the actress to play Nikki’s lost twin, Tracy. Fans quickly came to revile Tracey, too. When Tracy got killed, we thought the ordeal was over. Hah! The teaser for the next season shows that she’s playing ANOTHER character. What the hell are they thinking?

  9. SquirrelShinobion 28 May 2013 at 5:10 pm

    How would a one for one favor kind of deal play into this.
    For example, the Heroes do Major Mustache a solid some where back in act 1. He promises them that they can call on him and his men if they need anything.
    Some time later, the heroes are able to call on him so his men can pull their fat out of the fire a la Flight of the Valkyries.
    Because this is a one time thing, does it make it less of a guardian angel situation and more of a classic gunship rescue?

  10. B. McKenzieon 29 May 2013 at 2:49 am

    As long as the character’s actually done something to earn it (and/or perhaps owes something moving forward), and the aid is limited in some way, I think it’s okay…

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