How To Get Your Main Character Out Of A Sticky Situation (Part I)

Invariably, at some point in a fiction or fantasy story, you (as the writer) will have to contemplate how to get your main character out of a sticky situation. A ‘sticky situation’ is defined as one of the following:

  • In some kind of prison;
  • On the defensive (badly) in a skirmish or battle;
  • When the authorities are closing in on the main character; and/or
  • In need of proving himself/herself worthy.

Naturally, though, once in a ‘sticky situation,’ the main character will need to get out of it to drive the plot forward. Thus, over the next few blog posts, we will look at many different ways to get your central protagonist out of difficult situations.

(Take note, though, that as a rule it must be the POV Character that comes up with the idea to get himself/herself out of the predicament. This is because the POV Character is the one with agency.)

In Prison

One of the most common ways for a main character to come up stuck is when he/she is slammed behind bars (rightly or wrongly). Therefore, when contemplating how to get your main character out of a sticky situation, you will need to come up innovative ideas.

A – Dig or Carve Out A Tunnel

Any prisoner with a half a brain cell will test the strength of the strength of the walls once locked up. In some jails, the walls are flimsy. When the hero realises this, he will gain a glimmer of hope for liberty.

Example – Andy From The Shawshank Redemption

After wrongly being found guilty of murdering his wife, Andy (Tim Robbins) is sentenced to life imprisonment in The Shawshank Redemption (1992). But Andy does not cry about his situation, and his terrific mentality keeps his spirits up from the moment his cell door slams shut on his first night in Shawshank State Penitentiary.

One night, Andy realises that his cell walls are made of plaster, and that his cell leads out to the sewage pipe. By using his intelligence to conceal what he was doing, he spends years carving a tunnel, so that in the end he tastes freedom again.

Andy (Tim Robbins) crawling to freedom after carving a hole from his cell wall to the sewage system of Shawshank State Penitentiary,

B – Talk Your Way Out

Charm and cunning can go a long way; especially, when you consider how to get your main character out of a sticky situation. Sometimes, the central protagonist can use his/her wits to get some sort of release from imprisonment.

Example – Tyrion In The Eyrie

how to get out of a sticky situation - talk your way out
Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) using his quick wits to convince his gaoler to do some things that will get him before Lady Lysa Arryn.

In A Game of Thrones, Catelyn Stark absurdly accuses Tyrion Lannister of crippling her son, Bran, and for poisoning the Hand of the King, Lord Jon Arryn. She takes him to the Eyrie, the ancestral stronghold of House Arryn, where her sister, Lady Lysa, locks him up in a Sky Cell.

Jailed and isolated, Tyrion uses all his (considerable) wits to think up a plan to get himself out of his predicament. Eventually, Tyrion bribes his guard to tell Lady Lysa that he is ready to confess his crimes. The foolish, greedy goaler tells his liege lady at once and Tyrion is led before the court.

There, Lady Lysa expects Tyrion to confess to the crimes that Lady Catelyn accuses him. But Tyrion does no such thing. Instead, he makes a mockery of the trial. Then, he demands a trial by combat and a champion to fight for him (as are his rights by law). A sellsword named Bronn fights for him and wins, enabling Tyrion to go free.

C – Pretend To Be Someone Else

This is a hard one to pull off. Without magic and/or sharing a cell with a face-lift surgeon, it is near impossible to get away with being somebody else. The goaler will almost certainly recognise the main character by his/her face.

Nevertheless, there is a way for your main character to pretend to be another person; one, that will deceive the guards and enable your main character to continue with his/her journey.

Example – Edmund Takes The Place Of A Dead Person in The Count of Monte Cristo

In Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel, the central protagonist, Edmund Dantes is falsely accused of treason and imprisoned. In prison, he befriends the old Abbé Faria, who dies shortly afterwards.

As the guards wrap up the Abbé’s body in sheets, Edmund overhears them talking about how they will dispose of the body. When the guards go, Edmund changes places with the Abbé, pretending to be the dead one. Thus, when the guards throw the ‘Abbé’s body’ into the Mediterranean, Edmund has successfully (and cleverly) won his freedom again.

D – Climb Out

How to get your main character out of a sticky situation when in prison? If the prison is a hole in the ground, prisoners will look up and see the sky. Indeed, such prisons are shaped like this to psychologically break the prisoners. They do this by making them believe that there is hope when really there isn’t.

However, when in such a prison, the the central protagonist must climb out of it, despite its design.

Example – Bruce Wayne Climbs Out Of The Pit

In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne gets beaten in a fistfight with Bane and wakes up to find himself in the Pit – a hell-hole in the ground, where men are left to rot.

However, Bruce feels a deep responsibility to save his city, Gotham, and cannot just stay in the Pit. So, he rebuilds himself (and his broken spirit), climbs and makes the leap in order to return to Gotham and save it from Bane.

how to get out of a sticky situation - climb out
After being thrown in the Pit, Bruce Wayne climbs (and jumps) to his freedom to save Gotham.

E – Work With An Inmate

Prisoners do not tend to be the most reliable of witnesses. Consequently, main characters should be wary of making friends and trusting anyone in the prison, lest their ‘friend’ rats on them.

However, sometimes, if the main character can find another prisoner that he/she trusts, a partnership can work to enable them to escape.

Example – Arnie and Stallone Work Together In Escape Plan (2013)

how to get out of a sticky situation - work with an inmate
Stallone talking with Arnie in Escape Plan. The film’s tagline was ‘No-One Breaks Alone,’ so ones wonders if they will work together to get out? Hmm…

In the (cheesy) action movie, Escape Plan, Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) is a co-founder for a security firm. Ray poses as an inmate and tests out whether or not a prisoner can escape from maximum security prisons.

Although (predictably), one of his operations go wrong and he is actually put into a jail as a prisoner. This means he must use all of his considerable experience and nous to get out of it. In prison, he befriends another prisoner, Emil (who just so happens to be played by Arnold Schwarzenegger), and they work together to find a way out of the prison.

F – Acquire A Magical Item Or Being

This we shall look at, along with some of the other ways as listed in the introduction on how to get your main character out of sticky situation, in the next blog post. I hope you have enjoyed this article.

Let me know what you think in the comments below,


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