I had a great dream last night: A boy (in a khaki jumpsuit) was driving an RV around with his siblings in the back, because they were on their own. Someone started shooting at the back of the RV and, panicked, he threw the RV into reverse, ran over the would-be hijackers, and drove off. He was incredibly relieved to find out that his sisters and brothers had not been killed by the shots.*
I woke thinking it would be nice to base a character in my current project on that young man. Except it’s an eighth grade girl, she’s a minor character, she has parents that she is hiding from, and she doesn’t have an RV, a jumpsuit, or siblings. In other words, the only thing I’m keeping is the fictional trope of a child who must make it without parents. YA fiction uses that setup all the time. Heck, my main character’s mother is recently dead, even though my main character is a sixtyish middle school teacher. **
If you don’t have parents (or other god-like beings) around, they can’t rescue you.***
Don’t rescue your protagonist.
There are, as everybody likes to say, a limited number of plots in fiction (three? six? thirty six? who knows). And the ones that work get used over and over again.
But the essential aspect is that the character must be faced with insurmountable obstacles and try like crazy to surmount them.
In fiction, chance plays a much smaller part than it does in real life. You get one coincidence per story, the one that sets things going (I think Steven James said that). After that, most of it should play out as if your actions actually determine the outcome. Sometimes in real life, we are rescued through no efforts of our own. Sometimes we are destroyed by implacable forces without having a chance. But in fiction, that young man has to back his truck up over the hijackers (or leap out of the driver’s seat and run away, leaving his sisters and brothers to die); he can’t know, not right then, if his siblings are still alive; he can’t call his mom or dad to come get him. Yes, after the end of the story, they might still turn up, but only after he took care of things on his own (or was utterly defeated by them, if the story is a tragedy).
*My dreams generally make terrible stories. The emotions I feel when I’m dreaming have nothing to do with the events in them, and they tend to be plotless to the extreme.
**My main character is nothing like me at all, but the general outline has some strong similarities. I will have to deal with that at some point, but in my experience no matter how divergent your main character is from you, your readers will all be convinced it is all you, from head to toe.
***My daughter and I had an agreement. If she was at a party where she was not comfortable with what was going on, she could call me and ask if she could stay longer. I would tell her I was on my way and she could protest loudly and thus save face. As a teacher, I knew all too well what middle school parties could be like. If you have a middle school child, do not think (a) your child would never do anything like that or (b) other people’s children would never do anything like that. Kids are utter idiots, and you have forgotten your own childhood if you think they aren’t.†
†I met my NaNoWriMo word count today. I didn’t yesterday and I didn’t November 1. I’ll catch up. I swear.