The dilemma of the protagonist
Conflicts are essential to a good novel, and dilemmas are an excellent and exciting form of conflict. Dilemmas also emotionally involve your reader and ensure that they turn page after page.
The dilemma the protagonist faces should create internal and external conflict. It is supposed to produce discomfort and dissatisfaction and force the main character to take action under pressure. These pressured choices do not only increase the tension in your novel but are also a great way to reveal the true nature of your characters.
Therefore, the dilemma can’t be easy or obvious. If option A is clearly right and option B is clearly wrong, the reader won’t be sitting on the edge of the seat wondering what the protagonist will do next and whether it is the best choice.
To create a true dilemma the choice should either be between two mutually exclusive desirable options or the protagonist is forced to choose between two evils.
Great dilemmas can be much more complex with various pros and cons. If the outcome affects not just the protagonist but also people he/she cares about even better.
Either way the protagonist’s struggle shouldn’t be contrived. It needs to be a genuine heart wrenching decision.
I have chosen three books, to examine how they deal with the dilemma of the protagonist. The first book ‘The winner’s curse’ by Marie Rutkoski does an exceptional job. The second book does a fairly good job – ‘The Selection’ by Kiera Cass. Finally, the dilemma chosen in ‘99 days’ by Katie Cutugno was rather lacking.
Warning spoiler alerts below.
In ‘The winner’s curse’ the protagonist Krestel, is part of the Valorian society that has conquered and enslaved the Herrani. Krestel, a gentle soul, purchases at an auction a slave, Arin, and falls in love with him.
Already struggling with her forbidden feelings for Arin, pleasing her father and the superficial society around herself, Krestel’s world is plunged upside down, when Arin starts a rebellion, to take back the land that is rightfully the Herrani’s. As a daughter of the general Krestel is torn between the two men she loves and the desire to protect both nations.
The dilemma is very intense in the book. From the start the reader becomes aware that Krestel does not agree with her father and the Valorian Empire that it is all right to enslave weaker countries. She also dislikes suppression on a personal level and always stands up for the slaves, when they are treated unfairly. However, she does not expect the Herrani to rebel and overthrow the status quo.
The night of the rebellion Krestel finally admits her feelings for Arin, but feels immediately betrayed by him, when she realizes that he has been plotting a rebellion behind her back. In order to keep her safe, Arin claims Krestel as his, when the Herrani overthrow the city. Krestel is torn between the desire to help the man she loves and the sense of duty to her father (the General), her people (Valerians) and the empire.
What I truly loved about this book was that it was easy to understand Krestel’s dilemma. As a reader all of her actions made sense and that create empathy for the protagonist. It was also nice to see that while Krestel falls in love, she does not loose the sense of who she is.
Let’s compare this to a book that is able to produce a dilemma but not on the same scale. In ‘The Selection’ by Kiera Cass, the heroine America struggles between her feelings for her old boyfriend and Prince Maxom. As one of 35 girls she lives in the palace, while Maxom tries to find his wife among them (Dystopia meets the Bachelor).
While I can see the appeal of her ex-boyfriend Aspen (he is loyal, a family man, hard working and handsome), Maxom has all of these characteristics as well, in addition to being nothing but kind to America, while Aspen hurts her in the beginning of the novel, breaking up with America because his honor at not being able to provide for her, was insulted.
Personally, I felt the choice was clear in favor of Maxom, until the very end of the novel, when Aspen becomes a guard at the palace and confesses that he still loves America and never had another girlfriend.
Thus, for half of the book it is easy for the reader to feel annoyed with America rather than feel empathy for her, since she appears to be so clueless about the prince’s affection for her, which he shows profusely (giving her the winnings of a bet, even when she looses; giving her exclusive privileges; sharing his military plans with only her and none of the other contestants; not complaining when she knees him in his groin J).
It doesn’t feel like a real dilemma, since she likes Maxom, he likes her, and she’s far away from Aspen, whom she believes has moved on. The tides only change in the last quarter of the book, when Aspen comes to the palace.
The final example I’ll present is the novel ‘99 days’ by Katie Cutugno. While it was well written and kept me turning the pages, the dilemma that the main protagonist, Molly, faced, was excruciating at times.
After a year of boarding school, Molly returns home to a small-town, for 99 days before she goes off to college. She left originally due to her mother writing a book and exposing that Molly had cheated on her long-term boyfriend Patrick with his brother Gabe.
The story follows Molly as she dates Gabe, who is the only person in the small town that sticks up for her in public, while sneaking around with Patrick. Besides the fact that both brothers are good looking, and Molly grew up with them and likes the familiarity of each of them, it was hard to root for either of them. Patrick was downright mean to Molly, insulting her and treating her like garbage, while Gabe seemed to be more interested in winning something of his brothers’, than in Molly.
Therefore, as a reader it was at times hard to identify with Molly’s dilemma. Neither choice was right and seemed beneath the heroine, making it hard to feel empathy for her.
While there is nothing wrong with a dilemma between two unappealing choices- trying to figure out the lesser evil, this wasn’t applicable for a book set in the 21st century. If Molly was living in even the 19th century and had to choose between the two boys, because marriage was non-negotiable, it would’ve made sense. Here, however it felt as if the heroine was torturing herself without a point, particularly because she was going off to college in three months. If she were at least stuck in the small town for another two years of high school, it would’ve created more compassion for her plight.
It is necessary that the protagonist deals with some sort of dilemma throughout your novel, but the dilemma should be chosen with care. It needs to be believable and not feel contrived; otherwise it will be hard to create empathy for the protagonist and make the reader root for them.