That One Thing a Protagonist Should Never Do


So. The “Oops! I did exactly what you told me not to do!” plot device. It’s a fairly common catalyst to start a story moving: disobedience tumbles the first plot-domino in the row.

And I hate it. I’ve put down books and walked away from them forever because of this plot device.

I guess that’s pretty extreme on my part. I have wondered if those who use it were trying to invoke the Adam-and-Eve conundrum, where obedience meant stagnation but disobedience opened the path to knowledge and understanding. Maybe I see that story differently than others do, though. To me, Eve’s choice wasn’t a catalyst for the plot. It was the plot. God tells Adam, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Genesis 2: 16-17)

Essentially, “You get to choose what you’re going to do. (You may eat of every tree.) Don’t choose this, because the consequence is harsh.”

That is not the plot device that I despise. Informed decision-making, even when the decision-maker doesn’t totally understand the full scope of their choices, is something I can respect. Instead of, “Oops! I did exactly what you told me not to do!” it’s, “Hey, I did that thing even though you said not to. When I reasoned it out, I decided that it was an appealing choice to make. And I was wrong, so I’m sorry.”

(Followed by the dire consequences, of course. The consequences are why most readers come to the story in the first place.)

When a mentor gives no information other than “Don’t do the thing” and fails to teach any real consequences of the wrong choice, I sort of feel like he’s failed in his job as a mentor.

Unless, of course, he’s done it on purpose, knowing that his pupil would disobey and start a catastrophic chain reaction.

In that case, he’s a boss manipulator. And possibly the bad guy. But mostly a boss manipulator.

And, again, I loves me some character manipulation. So maybe I shouldn’t abandon those books so quickly. Maybe they all had a plot twist where the mentor was really orchestrating events with his shoddy instructions and convenient absences.

(But oh, the disappointment when no clever orchestration is involved.)