What makes a protagonist?
At its most basic, the protagonist is the lead character of out story. They don’t need to have any innate qualities to be designated the protagonist, which might or might not be different than being labeled the story’s hero. Protagonists have a lot more wiggle room than heroes. If the story focuses on one character above all others, that character is the protagonist, usually by default. A lot of critically acclaimed stories go the protagonist route. Name a popular TV drama and odds are pretty good that it features an amoral, questionable protagonist who is defined by his ruthlessness and negative qualities. It works, and I’m not going to put that down.
But I have to admit I prefer heroes to protagonists. Heroes can’t just be the character at the center of the story. They need to be more than that. They have to be heroic obviously.
It’s perhaps a bit old fashioned, but it matters a lot to me that I admire and even aspire toward heroism. This is why, as I’ve pointed out too many times already, I don’t care for Man of Steel. It moves Superman from hero to protagonist. He’s not a bad guy in the story, but there’s not a lot to admire about him. He goes from an aspirational character to a relatable one, and that is a clear choice by the creators of that film. Just not one I can get behind.
I write heroes, but I do my best to avoid cookie cutter definitions of heroism. Some of my heroes, like Mack Megaton (indestructible superstrong buttkicker) and Emperor Mollusk (absolute mastermind), are standard issue in their heroic qualities. Mack and Emperor are Men of Action!, even if neither is strictly speaking a man. They march into the scene and win the day by being stronger, smarter, and just better than their opposition.
Other heroes, like Nessy (practical housekeeper) or Diana (a roll with the weirdness kind of lady), are more unusual in their heroism. They aren’t among the most powerful characters in their universe, nor the most clever. They are the right people in the right situation at the right time to make all the difference in the world, but it can be easy to underestimate them.
The problem seems to be that we have very specific definitions of what a sophisticated protagonist MUST be. It’s not hard to figure out what these new rules are. One only need compare the classic Superman to the Man of Steel version.
Sophisticated protagonists must be conflicted.
Sophisticated protagonists must act out of self-interest.
Sophisticated protagonists must sacrifice something in order to achieve their victory.
In most cases, it’s not hard to do any of those things, and, as a general rule, they do enable us to tell more compelling stories. But it isn’t a mold that every protagonist should be shoved into, and there’s something disappointing to me about the absence of heroic characters who are not only admirable, but become MORE admirable as their story progresses. Protagonists who walk through fire and manage to become better for it. Heroes who embody triumph. Superman used to be that guy, but of late, he’s become just another guy who saves the day only after Metropolis is in ruins, who kills reluctantly because he can’t think of a better way. But, hey, it’s reluctantly, so it’s not like he’s a bad guy, right?
I’m not calling for an end to the morally dubious, flawed protagonist. I think such characters have expanded our horizons and allowed us to tell interesting stories. Such characters are nothing new, and have existed for as long as people have been telling stories. But there should be room for many types of protagonists, many types of heroes. A world where Superman must be Batman is a poorer one for it.
(I won’t get into the many misconceptions about what makes Batman “interesting” because that’s a topic unto itself.)
I’d like more diversity in my protagonists in any case. I’m not only talking about race, gender, etc. (though that’s a great place to start). I’d love to see more sensible protagonists who succeed because they think things through. I don’t care much for Breaking Bad, but I do like that its protagonist is defined by his intelligence more than his muscle. Though I do wish intelligent protagonists weren’t often portrayed as morally or socially deficient. Then again, my most intelligent hero is (technically) an evil genius, so it’s not as if I haven’t fallen a bit into that trap myself.
It’s not always easy to write heroes in this day and age, and it will probably get worse as time goes on and a generation that grew up watching a lot of grey heroes fighting grey villains begins writing its own stories. Just like comic book superheroes have never quite recovered from the generational influences of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. It is the nature of culture to favor one set of storytelling tropes over another, and it’s also the nature of culture to eventually seek out new tropes that satisfy neglected needs. I sometimes wish the cycle would hurry itself up, but all things in their own time.
In the meantime, I’ll contribute what I can to popular culture. It isn’t going to change the world, but I’ll be here when the world is ready to change on its own.
(Oh, and because people have told me I should do more plugging, I thought I should mention that Mack Megaton is from The Automatic Detective, Emperor Mollusk is from Emperor Mollusk vs the Sinister Brain, Nessy is from Too Many Curses, and Diana is from Chasing the Moon. Each of them are really great stories, featuring very different protagonists. Also, all of them have weird slime or tentacle monsters in them, which is something I didn’t do on purpose but seems to pop up a lot in my stories.)
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,