Character Development

Foolish Things Your Protagonist Can Do (And Why They Did Them)

In the course of your story, your protagonist makes decisions all the time. Should they follow that hunch? Believe that neighbor? Go out with that guy?

And if you’re in the business of making them miserable (which you should be, btw) then you may want to have reasons why they make the bad decisions that they do. 

As you develop their characters, ask yourself what were they thinking? And here are eleven possibilities that may make things clearer for you.

1. They believe the first thing that they are told. If current events have taught us anything over the last few years it is to check your sources! But your character may not have the wisdom or energy to do that. So, they fall for the first alternative truth that graces their Twitter feed. Classic example? Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice.  She was immediately told by Mr. Wickham all of the sins that Mr. Darcy had committed. Instead of questioning her source, (which is a reference to the prejudice in the title) she just believed it as gospel. Yes, this did cause a lot of conflict later! 

2. They claim an exception as a rule. Your protagonist may be so optimistic or so foolish that they ignore conventional wisdom. Their biases, or their pet causes, or their willingness to shoot first and ask questions later can get them in a lot of trouble. They may be told that most commanders in the intergalactic space force burn out in four years. But your protagonist has an uncle that’s been a commander for 20! So therefore, your protagonist uses the exception as a basis for decision making. Of course, trouble ensues. And this makes great conflict! 

3. They do what everyone else is doing. Your poor, poor protagonist. Peer pressure could be their biggest problem! It could be that they have surrendered their individuality or their own agency to fit in. At some point they are going to realize that their conformity is causing them to suffer. It will take a great deal of courage for them to change — but change is critical in a good story arc.

4. They have a blind spot. What if your protagonist is in denial that there is anything really wrong with them? Yet it could be the very thing that they are ignoring that is causing them the most trouble. For example, your lazy, gluttonous, smokes 2-packs-a-day character may be baffled that they are diabetic, cancerous, or have high blood pressure. The town gossip wonders why she doesn’t have any friends. Consider using a realization and growth as a part of your story arc.

5. They romanticize their choices and regrettably face the consequences. What if your protagonist has dreams and desires that are devoid of reality — like being a teacher sounds fun because you work with kids all day. Or, hiking the Applachian Trail on a whim, or giving their kids a pet rabbit at Easter because it’s so gosh darn cute. (Let’s not forget conspiracy theorists who alienate others because of their misinformation!) The bad decision for your main character could be that they have romanticized the choice they want so badly that they forget the cost involved. 

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6. They make bad decisions based on non-existent patterns. In the famous Jane Austen book, Emma believes because she had one successful match with Mr. And Mrs. Weston that she would be just as successful in setting up Harriet Smith.  Your protagonist might have such a conclusions with their one-off successes. “We did it twice like this and nothing happened, so we can guarantee that nothing will happen again.”

7. They make bad decisions based on biased facts. They may “gather research” so that they are making an informed decision but they stop when they have enough that supports their theories. They may disregard advice from friends or advisors because they want what they want and they aren’t going to listen to anyone else. Or, better still? They have a beef against the bearer of good news so they decide not to believe it.

8. They resist new ideas. Let’s say your protagonist’s mother used to diet by eating only cottage cheese and grapefruit, what dieters in the ‘70s used to do, so she does that to lose weight instead of something more scientifically sound. She trusts her mother, so she makes her decision, a bad one, on old information, and of course, it doesn’t work. But better still are those new ideas that can have severe consequences.

9. They are overconfident in their abilities. Turns out this is a pretty common phenomenon. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is the cognitive bias that some people have which blinds them to their lack of ability. We really don’t know what we don’t know — and this can get us in trouble. Your protagonist could be guilty of this very thing. People who are guilty of this often have poor job performance, alienate others, and are limited in their future opportunities.

10. They have a blind faith about their dreams. What if your protagonist believes the spiel: “If you want it badly enough, it will happen.” They might might leave their small town, travel to the big city, and be convinced that they will make it big in a matter of weeks! We all know that reality is far different from small town dreams and the “just believe in yourself” mindset. Your poor protagonist may have to learn the truth the hard way.

11. Your protagonist loves shiny new objects. What if your protagonist believes that the newest trends will solve all their problems? It’s an electronic gadget or a MLM endeavor. You can have a character who believes the hype that comes around new technologies, inventions, buzzwords, and fads. As a result, they become quickly dissatisfied and may or may not learn from their mistake. Instead, they just gravitate toward the next shiny thing.

There are so many more foolish things your main character can believe. As you put them in conflict after conflict, turn up the heat with their own poor judgement and bad decisions. And your reader, who has made plenty of mistakes on their own. Will love it!

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.