Painting Characters into Corners

Nancy Fuldaby Nancy Fulda

If you write stories, this has probably happened to you:

The words are flowing. The plot is exciting. Your characters, faced with overwhelming odds, find themselves in the midst of a difficult and absolutely enthralling situation. It’s the Big, Dramatic Moment of your story – and you have no idea what happens next. The bad guys are too strong, the social pressures are too powerful, the pit is too deep, or your character is too broken. Try as you might, you can’t think of a single way to get your protagonist out of the current crisis.

In short, you’ve painted your character into a corner.

Take heart: this can actually be a good thing. If you, the author, don’t have a ready solution for the problem your character is facing, then your readers probably won’t, either. Whatever else your story may become, it definitely won’t be predictable. You’ll have to get inventive, and readers generally like that.

Here are a few strategies to try when the going gets tough.

(1) Send in the Cavalry
It may sound cliché, but a cavalry rescue is only problematic if handled badly. If a character is unexpectedly rescued by someone who has not previously featured in the story and has no relevant bearing on the plot, your readers will rightfully feel cheated. But if the group or character performing the rescue is an integral part of the story, the dramatic and unexpected turnaround can work in your favor.

Cavalry rescues work best if either (a) the character’s own actions made the intervention possible, or (b) the rescue represents a significant moment of triumph for a secondary character. In the 2004 movie The Incredibles, Bob’s decision to spare Mirage’s life turns to his advantage when she frees him from Syndrome’s containment unit. In the classic film Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader overcomes years of service to the Dark Side when he rescues Luke and turns against Emperor Palpatine. Both of these rescues work extremely well, leaving the audience satisfied.

(2) Bring in a bigger problem
As odd as it sounds, when your characters are in a scrape, you can often get them out of it by piling on even more trouble. Exploding volcanoes tend to disrupt marching armies. A ticking time bomb can be used to open a locked door. Two dragons are more deadly than one – but they can also be coaxed into attacking each other. Introducing a new and unexpected element – even if it escalates the problem –allows for new and innovative solutions.

I first learned this principle while watching Disney’s The Incredibles. Elastigirl ends up trapped halfway through a series of closed security doors, unable to free her limbs. To make matters worse, a guard discovers her foot poking through the rearmost door. She kicks him, and the violent ricochet of his discharging weapon blasts the control panel into a pile of slag. The doors slide open and Elastigirl is free – but only because an additional problem was introduced into an already difficult situation.

(3) Synergy
Baking soda and vinegar create bubbles. A drum and a drumstick create shock waves. Two characters working together can master situations which neither was able to cope with on their own. The synergy in your story may be built into the magic system, or simply emerge from the differing backgrounds, education, and life experiences of your characters. Either way, mixing two elements to create a unique result is a tried and true literary practice, and as an added benefit it provides fuel for character development.

(4) Leveling up
Your character is one step away from mastering a new skill. A difficult situation creates a surge of adrenaline. The backup batteries in the power armor finally switch on. Leveling can take on many forms, but the basic principle is the same. If the problem is too large for the character to solve, then allow the character’s capacities to expand.

This solution works best if the groundwork for the character’s upgrade is laid well in advance. Pulling new abilities out of a hat is far less enjoyable than watching the character sweat, struggle, and strive for them.

(5) Let the bad guy screw up
“You are doomed. Doomed!” the villain screeches. And then he walks away, leaving the hero completely unsupervised while the train thunders down the railroad tracks.

We’ve read this scene a thousand times, in a thousand variations, and every time it drives us batty. No one likes an incompetent villain, and it’s not very hard to write one. The trick is to let a competent villain overlook a critical detail – and do so in a way that feels believable. This is challenging to accomplish, but highly effective when done properly.

Allow your villain to be fallible. Perhaps she’s distracted by the complexities of running a multi-planet cartel, and forgets to search your character for hidden weapons. Perhaps he suffers from bipolar disorder, and is plagued by pathological overconfidence during the manic phase. Whatever method you employ, be sure to lay the groundwork for it early in your story. It will make your villain feel grounded and complex, and it will set the stage for your protagonist’s eventual escape from a no-win situation.


Nancy Fulda is a past Hugo and Nebula Nominee, a Phobos Award winner, and a Jim Baen Memorial Award recipient. Get a free ebook by joining her mailing list.