SOMETIMES, A CHARACTER NEEDS A SWIFT KICK in the “but” to get going. Maybe he wants to quit his soul-sucking corporate job and study journalism, but the golden handcuffs of his benefits hold him back. Or maybe she wants to volunteer with Doctors Without Borders, but her family’s conservative values give her pause.
A main character who hears—but ignores—the call of their story is known as a “reluctant hero.” Their motto? “I know I should, but …” Whatever their road to adventure, they’ll find a “but” to avoid it. When you have a character like that to manage, Dear Writer, you just have to take matters into your own hands.
Tarot writing prompt
Find a reluctant hero. Perhaps you have one waiting in the wings! Give them a concrete goal (to adopt a child? run a marathon? start a cat rescue?)—but not enough motivation to act on it.
Now, write a scene in which they demonstrate (and justify) their reluctance.
It’s late. Jenna passes the feral cat colony on her way to the mailbox. Wary eyes shine out at her from the bushes. Recently, she has noticed the cats seem thinner. She would love to help, she really would, but … There are so many animals in need, so many cats, and she’s just one person. Exhausted by the mere thought of yet another responsibility—on top of the kids, the overtime, the house that needs painted—Jenna grabs her mail and heads back, making sure not to glance at the bushes.
Next, create circumstances that kick your hero right in their “but.”
Jenna’s foot clunks against something. A plastic bowl. She picks it up and sees it’s filled with kibble. Someone must be feeding the cats, she thinks, relieved. And then she smells it. A chemically, garlicky odor. Stepping under the streetlight, she looks again. The kibble has been sprinkled with white powder. Rat poison, unless she misses her guess. And with that, Jenna feels the soft, heavy weight of the lives of dozens of cats descend upon her shoulders. Like it or not, it seems it’s up to her to save them.
THE PRECIOUS CHILD: Like Jenna, even the most reluctant of heroes is likely to jump into action if something they value—something that can’t fight back—is threatened. The literary term for that “something” is “precious child.” This might be an actual child, or it might be an adult whose spiritual or political beliefs make them vulnerable. It could also be a family home under risk of foreclosure, an imperiled natural environment, or a member of an endangered species, to name just a few possibilities.
As writers, we manipulate our characters however we must to get them fully committed to their story—even if that means putting out a bowl of fictional poison or dropping a lit cigarette in the dry brush at the edge of a fictional old-growth forest. But once they’re committed? We can only hope our heroes outgrow their reluctance and learn to meet the challenges of their story head on!
This post was inspired by The Chariot card of the tarot, which advises us to focus on our goals and harness our will to achieve them. In this version of The Chariot (cleverly combined with the Seven of Spades/Swords), from THE ILLUMINATED TAROT, by Caitlin Keegan, published by Penguin Random House, two horses, representing the “horsepower” of focused will, have left the confines and comforts of the barn and are joining dynamic forces to achieve new aims. (Image used by kind permission of Caitlin Keegan.)