Storytelling

18 Ways for Protagonists to Contribute

Lucy, Susan, Edmund, and Peter from the Narnia books

CS Lewis could have used this list when he wrote the Narnia books.

Every member of Team Good should help save the day. But the larger your ensemble cast is, the trickier it can be to make sure everyone is contributing. When a protagonist doesn’t pull their weight, they end up feeling superfluous at best and annoying at worst. If you’re having trouble keeping each member of Team Good involved, look over this list for ideas.

These skills are grouped into five different categories depending on their basic function. You might give a character one skill from the entire list, all the skills in a single category, or a few skills from different categories. For help deciding, evaluate the following:

  • What kind of conflicts your story will feature: The more often your characters have to solve mysteries, fight baddies, or charm their way past guards, the more valuable those skills will become. You’ll want more of those skills and more characters with them.
  • The relative importance of each character: Your main character should have really valuable skills that get them engaged in the highest-stakes conflicts. A minor character might have one skill that is only used occasionally.
  • Whether you’d like the character to stay safe or be in the fray: Many skills either lean toward danger or keep characters away from it. The main character should head into the lion’s den, but if you have a child character, for instance, you may want them to use their skills while staying safe at Team Good headquarters.

Let’s have a look at our categories.

Information Gathering

Buffy and Willow site in the school library with books In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow does research and Buffy scouts.

These skills are useful for stories with a lot of sleuthing, like mysteries or monster of the week. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has about three information-gathering characters in every season, and it never feels like too much.

  1. Research: Your character uses books or computers to find obscure information. They might be uniquely qualified for research because they know many languages or engage in social hacking to log in to other people’s online accounts. Research characters usually stay away from danger, but occasionally they may need access to a specific book or computer terminal on enemy turf.
  2. Asking Around: Your character is well connected to a community that has valuable information. Maybe they’re a smuggler with black-market associates or an occultist who can find every magic worker in town. This character will come in handy when you’d like to introduce assorted side characters. Because asking around usually means visiting contacts and possibly attracting the attention of a villain, well-connected protagonists are easy to put in harm’s way.
  3. Psychic Insight: Your character receives visions or some other type of cryptic message from a supernatural source. To keep the protagonists from getting too much information, when and how much insight the character gains should be beyond their control. While it’s easy to let these characters stay where it’s safe, they can also be brought to places they saw in a vision to help them decipher cryptic information. Their visions could also be dangerous in themselves.
  4. Scouting: Your character goes out and looks for trouble firsthand. Since scouts are always in harm’s way, these characters often have fighting skills. However, the character may also be out on dangerous streets because they work as a courier or something similar. Once spotted, a villain may attack the scout to keep them from alerting Team Good.

Socializing

Cersei and Margaery from Game of Thrones walk arm in arm In Game of Thrones, Margaery uses charm to get the endorsement of powerful people while Cersei uses her knowledge as leverage.

Depending on your story, you might have one social character or social butterflies might be the team’s heavy hitters. Social skills are particularly handy for heists and political intrigue. Game of Thrones has plenty of warriors, but social ability is as crucial, if not more, to a character’s survival. Social skills can be divided up in many ways, but try these on for size.

  1. Charm: Your character is a friendly person who easily works their way into someone’s good graces and confidence. They’re great at getting their target to do them small favors or divulge secrets, and if they’re lucky, they’ll fade out of view without their target getting suspicious. Acting as a sort of spy, they might plant surveillance devices. A charmer typically heads alone into the lion’s den, hoping they won’t be seen for what they are.
  2. Negotiation: Your character knows how to broker deals based on detailed knowledge of what people want and how they operate. Their objective is to get someone to do something specific, and they might even blackmail or bribe their target to achieve that. Aside from the occasional tense in-person meeting, a negotiator has little reason to walk into danger. However, if they engage in blackmail, enemies may seek them out.
  3. Disguise: Your character is a master at being the right person at the right moment. They might act like an FBI agent to get people to leave a building or masquerade as a weapons dealer to sneak into the villain’s hideout. A master of disguise can easily trick and manipulate the unwary, but they have to clear a scene fast, or they’ll get caught. 
  4. Diplomacy: Your character has studied many different cultures. When Team Good is traveling to a new planet or trying to help refugees who speak a different language, the diplomat translates and helps both sides understand one another. To do their work, they have to be wherever Team Good is, and some villains may take their anger out on the messenger.

Support

Deaton and Scott from Teen Wolf doing chemistry In Teen Wolf, Deaton is a veterinarian with magical knowledge, making him a great resource for the werewolf characters. With his help, Scott learns to relieve others of their pain, gaining his own support skill.

Whenever Team Good takes a beating, be it physical or psychological, they’ll probably need some assistance. That makes support characters particularly useful for dark, intense, and action-packed stories. A good support character helps the heavy hitters get back on their feet and ensures they’re ready for the next encounter.

  1. Medical Care: Your character patches people up after they get injured or sick. This can be particularly useful if Team Good can’t just go to a hospital because they’re on the run or they have magical maladies a normal doctor couldn’t deal with. In these cases, a medic character could be someone involved in the underground or with special expertise in the supernatural. Medics usually stay out of danger, though their valuable skills can cause others to seek them out.
  2. Emotional Support: Your character helps Team Good get through drama or recover from trauma. This can be any patient character who listens without judgment, validates others’ feelings, offers comforting thoughts, and helps characters come to their own conclusions by asking the right questions. Emotional support doesn’t put characters in danger, but it’s an easy skill to give any established member of Team Good who feels a little useless.
  3. Repair: Your character helps Team Good with their tools and equipment. They can design them from the start, repair them when necessary, and change them as needed. In a science fiction story, they might be a mechanic or inventor. In a fantasy story, they might be a weaponsmith, armorer, tailor, or alchemist. They usually stay at headquarters.
  4. Survival: Your character sees to basic needs like food and shelter. This character could be a seasoned survivalist if Team Good is traveling or a rich benefactor if Team Good needs funding and facilities. Survivalists can easily end up in the thick of the action, while benefactors usually keep out of harm’s reach.

Fighting

The Avengers in dramatic poses Since the MCU is all about epic battles, every Avenger needs fighting skills.

As long as Team Good usually fights more than one opponent, fighting skills don’t need to be subdivided into specialties. Pair off the strongest hero with the strongest villain, the weakest hero with the weakest villain, and let them battle separately or in small groups. However, heroes can also have different roles in a team fight. Let’s look at a few possibilities.

  1. Delayed Knockout: Your character can do tons of damage, but only after a prolonged setup during the fight. They might have to do an elaborate ritual or assemble a big rocket launcher. While they’re busy doing this, they’ll need another character to protect them and keep enemies out of their way.
  2. Distraction: Your character can’t usually deal a death blow, but they’re great at not dying while they occupy the enemy. They might have a big shield for monsters to throw themselves against, taunt the enemy while dodging blows, or use a sticky net or other device to slow attackers down.
  3. Maneuvering: Your character is good at getting to the right place in the middle of a pitched battle, but they have to be fast and clever to stay alive. They deliver a critical spell ingredient, carry an endangered child to safety, or sneak up from behind to slash a throat.

Logistics

Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender looks intently at a scroll In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Sokka doesn’t have any powers, but he makes up for it by doing all the planning.

If you have a large team that goes on missions together, they’ll need someone who sees to the details and ensures that everyone is following the same playbook. This is particularly useful for stories about government agents, con artists, or any other group that proactively fights evil together.

  1. Planning: Your character is the strategist who comes up with the mission plan. If they aren’t the leader or boss of Team Good, they’ll have to stay in everyone’s good graces to ensure their plans are actually followed. This can easily create conflicts between protagonists. A planner is generally involved in missions, but they might only be on the radio from a safe location.
  2. Guidance: Your character is responsible for helping Team Good enter and navigate places they’ve never been before. They might identify traps in a dungeon, pick locks in a well-guarded building, or help them find the treasure chamber. Guides can be people who happen to know the area from living or working there, or they can be infiltration experts who study floor plans and know how to break in. Guides usually head into danger with Team Good.
  3. Transport: Your character drives the getaway vehicle or even pilots random planes and helicopters that Team Good finds during their mission. They’re usually waiting in the vehicle during missions, but if the enemy makes chase, they’ll show off how daring they can be.

Sometimes a skill ends up being more or less useful than it seems before the story is plotted. Keep an eye on your characters, and don’t be afraid to make changes. Even if you’ve already published a novel in the series, characters can gain new skills and leave others behind.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Thanks for this wonderfully long list, Chris. I’m already sure it’ll be very helpful to me when plotting new characters!

  2. Kenneth Mackay

    This looks like it could be useful for rolling up a party for RPGs as well.

  3. SunlessNick

    Zowzers this is a good list!

  4. The Rambo

    Yaaaasss this is so useful! Great write up!!

  5. xMe

    Can the emotional support also be an animal like a horse?

  6. Tannera Kane

    Great article. I have seven protagonists in my sci-fi series. I’ll review my work to make sure all contribute.

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