Sidelined Protagonist Syndrome

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.

4 Replies to “Sidelined Protagonist Syndrome”

  1. The most egregious recent example (and I can’t think how you forgot it) is probably Diplomatic Immunity, by Lois McMaster Bujold, where the protagonist (Miles) is *unconscious* through the complicated and political plot resolution. The reader, following him exclusively, gets to read how his wife solved the whole thing while he was out cold, rather than watching her (or him) solve it.

  2. this is also called deus-ex-machina (god from a machine) in lit crit terms. a related phenomenon is bait and switch, as in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. In that case, the hero doesn’t get what he’s been chasing after — instead, a wise old woman scolds him (and us as readers) for running after the wrong things. Good trick if you can pull it off: set the reader up for something big and them make them feel guilty for wanting it. Except not every reader will fall for it. I didn’t.

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