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I'm writing my debut fantasy novel. So far, I've largely based the Ordinary World off of the hierarchies and politics of medieval Scotland. However, I'm having some trouble brainstorming a compelling inciting incident for my female MC. I want her to be strong but also feminine, and I feel like the "powerful, self-willed woman goes on a quest for adventure" trope is somewhat cliche and masculine. I would ideally like this to be a story about exploration and accidentally happening upon the prophecy, rather than a saving-the-world-because-destiny deal, but I don't really know how to go about an exploration narrative with an accident-based inciting incident or something more feminine than quest-for-adventure/grand goal.

I'm just wondering if y'all have any tips on creating a creative and compelling, yet also believable, inciting incident!

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    Is your MC human (since this is a fantasy novel)? Is she noble, peasant, something else? Anything else important about her social background? Aug 8, 2023 at 9:28
  • Also, I understand you want her to stumble on a prophecy while exploring. Is this exploration something she does ordinarily in her life, or does something unusual happen to prompt her to start exploring? Aug 8, 2023 at 9:31

7 Answers 7

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Before I get into the practical advice, I want to address something I noticed in the way you asked this question. To wit,

I feel like the "powerful, self-willed woman goes on a quest for adventure" trope is somewhat cliche and masculine.

It really isn't. It's not masculine, it's narratively flat. And masculine protagonists tend to get more widespread leeway on this, at least by my anecdotal understanding, because more of the people who greenlight and advertise their books are masculine and enjoying projecting themselves onto the character as a power fantasy. (c.f. the action movie genre.)

That said, I spotted a frame that I think needs far more challenging, even in the same quote:

I feel like the "powerful, self-willed woman goes on a quest for adventure" trope is somewhat cliche and masculine.

What even is a "quest for adventure", K. G. Writes?

Understand who your protagonist is, and what your protagonist wants. Then figure out how they're going to get it - and what should be in their way.

You seem to misunderstand what you're doing, when you frame "an exploration-focused narrative with an accident inciting incident" as disjoint, as unable to coexist with, from "a powerful, self-willed woman goes on a quest". Neither structure precludes the other, and indeed I'd argue that you can and should expect the former to quite often lead to the latter in most 'first fantasy novel' writing! Narratives that read like naturalists' logbooks are a specific niche; what little I have to go on does not suggest you're writing one.

Instead of framing this as a narrative design question, I think you need to approach it from a character design one. You, yourself, noted that the problem is the character's traits being clichéd. So pick some new ones. You want a protagonist that isn't 'self-willed'? A nursing mother has to cope with the sudden death of her children's father in some sort of unexpected event. She values her children above herself; she will make sacrifices for them if they bring the children good opportunities and chances to survive. What can she do? What will she do? What must she do? And what obstacles does she face as she does it?

Answer that, for whatever combination of character traits scan to you as sufficiently 'feminine', and you have a narrative.

As written, the question is asking "how do I combine a doormat and a travelogue to make a plot". The answer is that (especially if you want an adventure story) you do not.

A more formulaic look at the process.

I've given an example of a character with more depth than a sheet of A4, but I think it behooves me to lay out how I got her.

Firstly, I do want to direct people to Onyz's excellent notes on reactive protagonists. It's useful in understanding the "figure out the obstacles" phase, especially. I won't retread that ground. You know what you want from your protagonist, and it is reactivity. So how do you get it?

1. Anchors:

What holds your protagonist to her normative path? What can she cling to? What's her source of emotional fortitude and commitment? This can be property, this can be position, this can be people - it can be simple self-conception, for that matter.

2. Perturbing Forces:

Just like an anchor holds a boat down against the waves, so too do a reactive character's anchors hold them back from pursuing adventure - but there's still things that rock the boat. Maybe she's always wanted to travel, or she punched some fucker in the goolies and enjoyed the experience. Maybe she's deeply involved in the accounting, and she's seen how thin her margins really are. These should probably be traits that will help her either physically or psychologically handle the plot.

3. Do you raise anchor, or does the chain break?

I'm going to have to resort to examples to lay this out, I think - but this is the inciting incident. You have to determine whether it's going to separate your character from her normalcy, such as a "whoops I missed the boat back home now I have to survive in the big city for a $TIME" story, or shatter the normalcy irrevocably such that it must be forged anew. ("Kidnapped by cultists who burn down my village and slaughter my family" is a particularly idiomatic example, if not, I think, a good one to use in practice.)

4. Where does the story settle down, in the end?

This is sort of the logical inverse of the above - is your character going to return to her roots, or find a new normal, over the course of her adventure? What that looks like, in practice, might vary extensively, especially in the latter case - but I've seen stories that make quite a lot of hay out of the process of the former, just from exploring what, say, an isekaied chemistry major establishing an alchemy shop in the new world, looks like.

5. What do you put in the way of getting there?

This ties back to step 3, the inciting incident - but it's not only the inciting incident that should be in your protagonist's way, Throw cultural mores, authorities benevolent or malevolent, natural and unnatural disasters, prophecies of doom, and internal misunderstandings of their own values at your character, to taste; in the same way you generated perturbations in step 2, these forces should jostle the course your character takes to her destination, but not change the ultimate goal. (Changing what your protagonist wants would be more in the shape of "another inciting incident".)

6. What helps your protagonist stay their course?

This is rather a lot like the original process of generating anchors - but it's not only anchors that do it; it can be any number of things that - care more about the protagonist, than the protagonist cares about them. Looking at the list of things in step 5, you can reuse a lot of the same cues, if you just aim them differently. The authority speeds passage along, for their own ends; a plague kills the rival tavern owner such that there's no good solution for the town other than transferring its title to the woman who recently suffered a fire - benevolent serendipity can be pleasant, when it doesn't feel contrived. (A rule of thumb I'd use is "the more it had to be specifically crafted for the protagonist, and the less it has, will, or could happen for anyone else, the more contrived it will feel"; the king intervening in this one town's trades is more contrived than the mayor doing the exact same meddling, and missing a boat is usually less contrived than the boat spontaneously catching fire.)

7. You're done!

And you have your reactive protagonist going on her very own adventure back to where she feels like her home is.

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It seems like you have a protagonist and a setting -- but you don't appear to have any kind of story at all.

To my mind that's the wrong way to go about writing.

You'll have a much easier time if you begin with some event: something that happens and that brings about some kind of change. And then develop everything else from that seed: the setting, the characters, the backstory and the consequences.

The first thing you need is what your story is going to be about. If you have that, the rest just falls in place.

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I always think "quest for adventure" stories are weak.

In the 3 Act structure, the inciting incident (1/8 in) is a problem for the MC. The MC tries to address it. They fail, and the problem gets worse. By the end of Act 1, the MC is forced to leave their Normal World (introduced in the first 1/8 before the Inciting Incident), and embark on a search for the solution to the problem.

The Inciting Incident can be from any protagonist (Nature, in the form of a sickness for a loved one; or in the form of a natural disaster). Or a villain, a conqueror perhaps, a new magician of some sort. Perhaps they steal something of value to your MC.

This works for Male or Female protagonists.

If you want a quest, the reason for the quest is she must find something or suffer a great loss (maybe even the life of a loved one); and all she has to go on is a vague clue. The name of a town. She has to travel to that town to follow the clue. She does, and finds another clue, and has to travel again.

She's not just wandering around seeing the sights, she is focused, and determined, and she fights, both offense and defense, she seduces, she lies, she steals, she cons people as she goes, all in pursuit of what is ultimately a worthy goal.

Near the third act, she is still failing, and things look hopeless. But she'd rather die than fail, so she bets everything on one last long shot strategy, and that succeeds. She heads home with her McGuffin to fix the problem, and resume her life in her Normal World. That happens in the final pages of Act III. Or perhaps, she finds a New Normal, and that is described in the final pages of Act III.

A New Normal may or may not include a love interest gained along the way; but do not think a romance is necessary in the story. The girl may just be happy she saved the life of her daughter, or her father, or her village, whatever.

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Generally speaking, I'd say that even more than this being about 'masculine' or 'feminine' inciting incidents, this is about whether a character is an active or a reactive one. If you have an active character, it's generally pretty easy to brainstorm inciting incidents. Simply put, they decide to do something, and then they do it because they're active. Active characters tend to make the plot happen around them, because they are agents of change.

On the other hand, what you have sounds like a reactive character. There's nothing wrong with reactive characters, but they can be more difficult to brainstorm inciting incidents for.

One thing I'd suggest is focusing on what it is that allows them to be reactive. Perhaps they're content with the status quo, or perhaps they're especially demure, or perhaps they're sensibly risk averse.

Whatever the cause of their reactivity, the best way to incite them is to subvert that cause. For example, a main character content with the status quo could easily need to take action reactively if the status quo is overturned.

Perhaps your main character is kidnapped as part of the prophecy by cultists, and she must fight to try and restore her desired sense of normalcy?

Perhaps she is undergoing a suitably mundane activity when she, by chance, stumbles upon something that changes her life forever?

Who knows? The story is up to you, but I hope this brainstorming mechanism can help.

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I would recommend taking a look at Mulan. Consider that Mulan's central conflict is her vs. her society. She wants to bring honor to her family, but she is not good at what Chinese society deems a Woman can do to bring honor to their family (By being a home maker) and when conscription is handed out, she realizes that her father is confined by the expectation. As the only man of the family, he is expected to go to war despite being clearly unfit to physically march to the front lines, let alone stand on them. Her goal immediately shifts. If she brings shame to her family because she cannot be the perfect daughter, then she can at least save her father by using the shame of her imperfection to keep him out of the war. From this point on, nothing in her adventure is done by her seeking it out, but rather her cunning in a situation.

While she is "prophesized" she never even hears it and the conversation is way above her in the military chain of command ("A single grain of rice can tip the scale. One man may be the difference between victory and defeat."). And she only gets to be a hero because Mushu forged a letter calling for re-enforcements to the front.

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I would suggest figuring out the core of your story and find something that ties into why this character wants to go on this adventure.

For example, if you want your female MC to be the center of a family secret that threatens the family's reputation (supporting a rebellion), maybe have her stumble upon a secret that threatens her mother (whose sibling is involved in said rebellion, and she's hiding it to protect her) and determine to save the family the only way possible in that time: marriage or alliances with a powerful ally. A simple matter of finding a letter while fetching something for her mother detailing plans might incite her into action, or a possible suitor approaching her and asking if she knows so-and-so, and her mother overreacts.

Otherwise, something needs to break up her "normal" and she has to act.

I don't know if it will help, but the movie Brave by Disney might help, as it takes place in that time period, and the main conflict is the mother and daughter are fighting and need to resolve things, and the inciting incident is the prospect of suitors coming to compete for Merida's hand in marriage. This interrupts Merida's normal, and she's faced with a decision she doesn't want. This kicks off the rivalry that turns to understanding in the end.

I hope this helps!

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Boys Go on Adventures, Girls Persevere

3 'feminine' counterparts to the boy going on a worldly adventure, are

  1. the girl who perseveres (Cinderella)
  2. the girl who self-sacrifices (Belle)
  3. the girl who is kind and polite (Snow White, all of them really...)

The 1st archetype is a diamond in the rough. She starts at the bottom and is under-estimated.

The 2nd is a dreamer who has intelligence and ambition, but sets aside her desires (her value) for the betterment of others (family).

The 3rd is not too rich and not too smart, but at least she learned to keep her manners, like that time there was an enormous pea under 7 mattresses – could you just die.

You can easily imagine the economic class in which each girl belongs.

The common thread is they persevere through some ordeal (without complaining – that's the catch).

They keep their heads – they suppress the urge to fight or flee. They endure.

The Ur story of Girls persevering

So this 'girls persevere' archetype goes all the way back to Inanna's Decent, where a young goddess has to endure a series of humiliations (losing her jewels, then her clothes...) to pass through the gates into the Underworld. Because she never breaks composure she is able to reclaim the items one-by-one as she emerges (and send her husband instead).

Jane Eyre endures her sexy boss's temper tantrums. Dorothy Gayle endures her friends being tortured (but keeps her shoes on). Even Katness throws herself on that deathsport arena.

Suffer suffer suffer. Stiff upper lip.

I actually enjoy the not-too-bright girl who is always polite, and is accidentally nice to a (magic fish) because that's just how she treats everyone, no ulterior motives.

There is a core-strength where she remains herself and maintains her own values, even when everything around her is unreasonable.

The Everygirl™

The Everygirl is barely a woman who is about to go on her life adventure –– when inciting incident brings a sudden hardship on her family. She must put her plans on hold – possibly forever – and sacrifice herself to a situation where she will be under-estimated and endure unimaginable humiliations.... And she never once complains.

Unfortunately, I agree with you that the trope of a young woman going out into the world to have her adventure is broken. That character needs to be taken down a peg. The world is bigger than she is, and her dreams were false or the cost too high.

I think there is probably a way to allow your heroine to have her cake and eat it. She has big dreams but sacrifices them – another adventure is revealed because the situation she's sacrificing herself into is vastly more complicated and the stakes are much higher. Still we experience her persevere through this early setback, and we see her character-building in action when the story mistreats her right at the start.

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