Do Your Characters Say, “Mayday! Mayday!”?

The entire topic for this month is, “Mayday, mayday! Obstacles, unseen dangers and challenges.” We’re supposed to discuss writing-specific obstacles and challenges; however, I’d like to approach this topic from a different angle and apply it to characters, as that’s what popped into my mind as soon as I saw “Mayday!” It’s a call for help, and that makes me think of characters asking for help.

Although protagonists in science fiction and fantasy may have high-tech equipment or special powers, often that’s not enough for them to overcome the challenges they face. What makes them look for assistance? My science fiction Catalyst Chronicles series illustrates some situations where characters may seek help from others. These situations apply to characters in other genres too, but for discussion purposes I’ll use the ones I’m most familiar with.

In Lyon’s Legacy, Book One of the series, my heroine, Jo, starts off as the last person who’d ask anyone for help. She feels her family has abandoned her, particularly those on her father’s side–that is, except for her uncle, who wants her to become a musician like their famous ancestor, Sean Lyon, and that’s the last thing she wants. Consequently, she projects a tough shell to protect herself from other people. However, the events of the story crack that shell. When she realizes she can’t accomplish her goal on her own, she reaches out to someone she’s neglected for a long time and asks for help. This is a sign of emotional growth for her, especially since her goal is about helping someone else.

Twinned Universes features another character, a teenager named Paul, as the hero. He’s the alpha male of his group of friends, but he has to face some powerful, ruthless antagonists. At stake isn’t just Paul’s future or one person’s life (Sean Lyon’s), but Sean’s effect on history. Paul doesn’t mind asking other people for help. He’s an actor, and he knows it takes more than one person to produce a play. However, he does underestimate how much help his friends can give him, and he doesn’t always pick the right person to ask for help.

I’m currently working on Book Three of the Catalyst Chronicles, called Catalyst in the Crucible. The costs and stakes have gone up, while the main character has undergone a reversal of fortune. He needs support more than ever before, but the one person who can help him the most has reason to dislike him. (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers.) This book is going to stretch me as a writer, but I hope it’ll be a good read when it’s done.

Asking for help isn’t just an admission that the character is facing a touch challenge; it can be a sign of emotional growth that makes the character (and the story) stronger. Plus, if a character goes it alone, then there are no interesting sidekicks or partners to add spice to the story.

Do you think characters should stand on their own or seek aid from others? Do you have examples of either situation? If so, please share them in the comments.


14 thoughts on “Do Your Characters Say, “Mayday! Mayday!”?

  1. Characters should seek help because we need to relate to them and no human is an island. My present WIP, my character will reach out to the one person he distrusts the most to help him rescue his girl. Will his actions lead to good or bad outcome, I don’t know yet.

  2. In the real world, we all need support and assistance at some point. Characters in books need that as well. The character in your first book sounds a lot like the character in my first book.

  3. Also, sometimes it only makes SENSE for a character to ask for help. If they don’t, it leaves a HUGE PLOT HOLE. They might not be heard, but the attempt was made.

  4. So often, a character’s refusal to ask anyone for help ups the ante and increases the tension. That’s half of Harry Potter, for example–in the earlier books, if he’d consulted the grown-ups involved each story would have ended on page 50!

    • That’s the flip side of getting help. However, for kids’ books or YA (not that I’m an expert), the MC being able to do something on his/her own is important for developing independence. I can do many things better than my six-year-old son, but I let him do them so he develops confidence and a work ethic. The key is to balance this need with the need to avoid plot holes where someone would obviously ask for help, as Heidi mentioned earlier.

  5. I think it can also create conflict when a character is too stubborn or pigheaded to ask for help until they have made a total mess of things. So, um, whoops! I think I just gave away the plots of all three of my books. I like those flawed MCs, you know? *waves to Jeremy Glass*

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