27 December 2016

The Best Protagonists Resolve to Take Action

by Barb Goffman

As we head into the new year, thoughts often turn to making resolutions. To drink more water maybe. (I often pick that one.) To exercise more. (I don't often pick that one.) Maybe to read more books. (That's a good one!)

Resolutions ultimately are about taking control over your life, improving things by effecting change, not waiting for someone else to do it for you. That make-it-happen attitude is great for real life. And it's also great for mystery protagonists. It's much more
interesting to read about a damsel who saves herself rather than waiting for the knight on his horse. In the same vein, it's more gripping to read about an accused murderer who sets out to find the real killer rather than watching him waiting and worrying, hoping the cops and prosecutors--or even a jury--realize they've blamed the wrong guy.

Both my short stories published this year have characters who make things happen, for better or worse. In "Stepmonster," a woman blames her stepmother for her father's death, so she sets out to avenge him. In "The Best Laid Plans," the lifetime achievement honoree (LAH) of a mystery convention is dissed publicly by the convention's guest of honor (GOH) just weeks before the event begins. The LAH responds by saying nothing publicly, trying to appear the better person. But she also plans some non-lethal dirty tricks so that the GOH suffers during the convention. Or so she hopes.

The protagonists in both stories might not be reacting in an emotionally healthy manner to their situations, but that's okay. In fact, it's better than okay. It's great. By resolving to get revenge, they set in motion a stream of events that are, I hope, page-turning. (You can find out for yourself. Both stories are available on my website for your reading pleasure. Head over to www.barbgoffman.com and click on each story title from the links on the home page.)

Many other crime stories were published this year with protagonists who take charge. Here are a few from the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (in which "Stepmonster" appeared):

  • In "Cabin Fever" by Timothy Bentler-Jungr, a young woman trapped by a blizzard with her abusive boyfriend takes desperate action.
  • In "Stormy, With a Chance of Murder" by Alan Orloff, a weatherman takes advantage of a bad rainstorm to try to win his ex-girlfriend back.
  • In "The Last Caving Trip" by Donna Andrews, a reluctant caver seeks to rid himself of a frenemy.
  •  In "The Gardener" by Kim Kash, when a lawn-maintenance man mars her garden oasis repeatedly, an avid gardener strikes back.
  •  In "Parallel Play" by our own Art Taylor, a mother in a deadly situation learns how far she'll go for her child.
The key in all the stories is the protagonist isn't passive. She takes action. And it's those actions from which the story unfolds. Have you read any great short stories this year with protagonists who make things happen? I'd love to hear about them. Please share in the comments.

In the meanwhile, get busy on those new year's resolutions. I hope one of them involves reading.


  1. You know what they say, Barb, Revenge is a dish best served cold. So that sounds especially apropos for your LAH. And I love revenge stories so that sounds like a good read to me!

  2. Thanks, Paul. And happy new year!

  3. Congrats again on your stories, Barb--and thanks for the shout-out to some of the other STORM WARNING contributors.

  4. I think that is the biggest difference between female protagonists pre-1990, and protagonists today: now they must solve their own problem, rather than be rescued. And I'm very glad of it! As much as I adored Mary Stewart and Barbara Michaels (Elizabeth Peters) I'm sure they would have written some of their endings differently today.
    Whoops - I'm going into college-lecturer mode.
    Good post, Barb!

  5. I just saw a FB post about a mother who took her daughter to see Disney on Ice.She was horrified to see story after story, princess after princess, being 'rescued'... and then she got madder and madder. She lectured her daughter that women must be strong. She went to her rabbi, after wracking her brain to see if there was anything in the Talmud or other Books that gave this behavior validity.Her rabbi told her, quite the contrary, throughout history, it's been the women rescuing the men!
    I have taken things into my own hands only some times, not enough and frankly, some times when it has been just as well, (although, I may have been out by now!).I think as writers it feels good to be able to play out what we'd like to be able to do ourselves.

  6. Your characters are so deliciously devious (esp. In LAH) Great post, Barb!

  7. I once wrote a long novel in which I made the male protagonist too passive--mostly an onlooker while uncanny things happened around him. It didn't find a publisher until I rewrote it, years later, to solve that issue. Now I'm writing cozies, so for my female amateur sleuth to take action is essential. I have to keep reminding some folks in my critique group that her boyfriend cannot come to her rescue, even if I have to sideline him in some way! And neither can the cops, at least not until she's already pretty much got things under control. That's probably what I like best about cozies!

  8. Well, let's see - in my own stuff, this year, Rose in "Great Expectations" solved the family inheritance problem with fairly direct (if secret) action. And in "Miss West's First Case", Alice West not only finds and saves her best friend Johann's life, but also tackles Commies and Nazis at the same time. (And wins.) John Franklin, in "Dark Side of the Moon", goes out, expedition mode, to find out what happened to the Heirigs brothers. (His limitless knowledge of Lovecraft mythos helps.) In "Iron Chef", Donna is more passive, at first, but I think she proves herself to be the only one with any sense at all.

    Thanks for the great post!

  9. Barb, this column is great, especially at New Year's resolution time. Can't wait to read the stories you posted on your website. And Art's story "Parallel Play" is wonderful.

  10. Thanks, Art, Melodie, Tonette, Shari, Eileen, Eve, and Elizabeth for stopping by. I appreciate your comments. And Elizabeth, I hope you enjoy my stories.

    With the sad death today of Carrie Fisher, someone posted on Facebook that her Star Wars character was one of the first fictional women he knew of who made things happen, and she changed his perception of what women could do in fiction. A timely thought for this blog.

    And Tonette, I think the main female characters in Frozen were pretty kick-ass. No? I only saw it once, but I think they saved themselves. Or was it each other?

  11. You know, Barb, I actually did think of your post today when I was reading some of the articles about Carrie Fisher and Princess Leia--especially one that called the character no damsel in distress. Echoed your points nicely (though obviously not under the best circumstances; 2016 has been a tough year in too many ways).

    And thanks, Elizabeth, for the kinds words on my story. You will indeed love Barb's. :-)

  12. Nice Caracter, I like it.
    Happy new year everyone!

  13. I enjoyed your post, Barb, and I agree that, most of the time, active protagonists are more satisfying. I think that's almost always true in novels--I get deeply frustrated with so-called literary novels in which protagonists suffer passively instead of acting to improve their situations. In short stories, though, I think more passive protagonists can sometimes be effective. In life, lots of bad things happen because decent people fail to act when they should; I think short stories can explore that situation and still be satisfying. That's one thing I love about short stories--they let us spend a little time with protagonists who would drive us crazy if we had to put up with them for 200 pages.

  14. That's a good point, Bonnie. There are always exceptions for people who know how to pull them off.


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