Sidelined Protagonist Syndrome (SPS) is what happens when a writer gets to the end of a story, finds that the Protagonist doesn’t have the means to resolve (or even influence) the final conflict themselves, and therefore pulls in an Outside Agency to do it for them. The Protagonist may skulk around the periphery of the action and deliver a running commentary on events, or they may get called in for the mopping-up scene, where they find out how the Outside Agency put the pieces together and finally came through to pull the Protagonist’s nuts out of the fire.
Key questions to ask to find out if a story is suffering from SPS:
- If the Outside Agency had not stepped in, would the final conflict have turned out the same way, or would the outcome have been completely different?
- Did the Protagonist issue direct instructions for the Outside Agency to act, or did the Agency come in of their own accord? (Having the Outside Agency ignore dire warnings from the Protagonist, only to come through in the end, may offset the worst effects of SPS.)
- Once the Outside Agency stepped in, did they need the help of the Protagonist in order to emerge victorious, or was the Protagonist just another concerned onlooker (aka JAFO)?
The worst case of SPS I’ve come across recently was Vitals by Greg Bear. Nasty. If you can think of any, please zap ’em in the comment section.