This one, again, is thanks to @__Deb, who gave me my blog topics for the month of May. That girl’s just chock full of good ideas. (All wrapped up in hand-knitted sweaters.) I know you hear a lot of advice about making your protagonist heroic. Internally-conflicted. Easy for the reader to identify with. Bigger than life. At the same time, you’re always being exhorted to ‘write what you know!’
And you’re sitting there scratching your head thinking, “Yeah, but I’m kind of a weenie.”
So you wind up with a certain number of protagonists who all share the same dreadful qualities:
“Perky, good-natured, well-loved Pollyanna Pritchard stepped off her porch steps in sunny Boringsdale on a lovely spring day. She turned her head appreciatively toward the sound of birds singing cheerfully among the flowers. Wasn’t she glad to be alive!”
Don’t be a Pollyanna. Nobody wants to spend a whole novel being surreptitiously exhorted to Keep on the Sunny Side of Life. We all know how to be happy. We don’t need instructions.
“Gus stared out the window, dragging slowly on his cigarette. He probably had lung cancer. No one would cry at his funeral, and he was glad. What losers everyone else was.”
On the other hand, don’t mistake ‘powerful writing’ for ‘nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms.’ We all also know how to be depressed. That’s why we need fiction.
“Mandy skipped into the gutter, narrowly missed by the Baby Grand that Ed dropped from the crane overhead, and back onto the sidewalk again. He’d have to try again when he got a brain or something.”
It’s good to have a proactive protagonist, someone willing to pit their smarts and skills against pianos falling out of the sky. But if your protagonist is smarter than your plot, then you have no story. You’ve got to let them screw up, or you’ll be back in two-dimensional Boringsdale with Pollyanna.
“Ed peered down short-sightedly, his finger up his nose. He couldn’t believe Mandy hadn’t slipped on that banana peel like he’d planned. ”
Then again, if they can’t tie their own shoelaces, how are they going to figure out who keeps dropping all those pianos? If your protagonist is stupider than your reader, you might have all kinds of story, but nobody’s going to care. They’ll be off reading some other novel that actually challenges them.
“When Pollyanna arrived at the office, Ed rushed to place the reports on her desk like she’d ordered. She snapped her fingers, and Mandy lunged across the office with a cup of steaming coffee, two tubs of creemer and one and a half sugarcubes, just how she liked it. ‘Ed! Reports! My office! Stat!’ Mandy scurried away again.”
Sure, this might be a nice person to have handling your blog and kicking the butts of everyone who lifts your blog posts without permission, particularly your competitors. But they’re not all that interesting to follow through a story. Who can identify? When I snap my fingers, nobody lunges across the room with coffee for me.
“Gus stubbed out his twelfth cigarette in the graveyard of all the others glued to his windowsill. Far below on the mean city streets, he heard the wail of sirens and screams of abused children. Life was so hard on him.”
So Gus is as big a loser as everyone else in his ugly little world. How sad.
“‘I’m tired of being walked all over! You people don’t understand me!’ Mandy snatched back the plate of cookies she’d just removed from the oven. ‘Take, take, take. Why don’t you ever think about me for a change?'”
I know—you love this protagonist, and it irritates all blue blazes out of you how they’re forced to suffer for the sake of your plot, which you had to design that way to intrigue that selfish, pesky reader. But your reader doesn’t feel that love. They look at the character you worship with all your heart and soul and still ask themself, “What’s it matter to me?”
Any time you force your reader to choose between sympathizing with your protagonist and sympathizing with themself. . .guess what.
“Gus frowned, annoyed. Where the hell had all the cookies gone? It didn’t matter. What a loser she was—making cookies.”
And if your protagonist won’t interact with your other characters, well, your reader won’t interact with you. They’re reading to learn something, to experience something, to become a part of the grand adventure. Deny them that, and they will deny you their well-fleeced little eyeballs.
Remember way up at the top, when I mentioned ‘internal conflict‘? Well, I’m going to mention something else here:
What would happen if you condensed all those protagonists down into one—just squashed their different characteristics together inside one head?
Suddenly. . .you’ve got story!
Andi’s added Too Ugly, Too Beautiful, and Undefeatable Superhero. I’ll also add Too Hip (just stood in line yesterday behind a Designer Rastafarian). Any more?
Stacy’s added Too Beautiful/Too Perfect.
Simon’s added Too Drunk. And I’m going to suggest a protagonist can also be Too Sober.