Limyaael's Rants

Characterization of Protagonists, Part 3

Written on 2004-01-25; Read the original post on LiveJournal

These are even more highly personal than the others, I think. But then, I tend to look on the viewpoint characters as the most important people in the book, and I get bored and impatient when the author turns them into characters I find too perfect.

  1. Try introducing your protagonist through negative characteristics at first, while you introduce the villain through positive ones. This gets your audience interested, while letting them know that you're not writing about caricatures. If the first time we see your hero he's saving someone from assassins while the first time we see your villain he's disemboweling someone (I am talking to you, Terry Goodkind), there's no doubt whatsoever who we're supposed to cheer for. And from there on, it's all too easy for the author to continue showing the hero as Mr. Flawless, while the villain comes off as a homicidal maniac even if he's not supposed to be one.

    I've lost count of the number of books I've read where the opening sequence shows the heroine getting bullied, taunted, or otherwise put down, or doing something heroic. Before I even know who this person is, the author is acting as her cheerleading squad. Or the villain is raping someone, torturing someone, or contemplating his evil deeds. The author tries to shove me into sympathy. I plant my feet and say, "No."

    It's much more interesting, I think, for your audience to realize that your hero has flaws, while the villain's sideslipping from "good" into "evil" can cause a shock of surprise.

  2. Don't excuse every regret your protagonist has. Regret is the bane of fantasy characters. Only the evil guys are supposed to feel it, apparently. I have read about fantasy heroes who make mistakes, but at least half the time those mistakes turn out to have been right at the end of the book. He really was right to have killed that person, or she did the best thing she possibly could, not made a choice for the lesser of two evils.

    This is cheating, and can restore the paper-thin feeling of a fantasy world just when you've spend hundreds of pages convincing your readers that those trees are not cardboard and there is no little man behind the curtain.

    Your protagonist can overcome guilt and regret by seeing the good consequences that come out of a bad decision, but they shouldn't be excused them by deus ex machina. No little guy turning up at the end of the story to say that the "innocent" who died by the hero's sword was really a bloodthirsty villain, or the patient whose limb was amputated thanking the healer for it and saying how much more wonderful her life is now. I think heroes are people who know what has to be done and make the decision because no one else can, not someone who instinctively does the right thing.

  3. Take risks with the hero's morals. Even if everyone else in the fantasy world thinks that a particular practice- say, sacrificing virgins- is all right, the hero will be the one person flinching and screaming, and trying to rescue the tied-down virgin, never mind they need her to make the crops grow.

    Yes, it truly makes a lot of sense that a teenager growing up in the midst of a particular culture would suddenly decide that everything they've always accepted is wrong, and they should live by the standards of the world their authors come from.

    (If you took the preceding sentence seriously, please go back and read it again).

    You don't always have to corrupt the heroes, but try making them gray at times. Perhaps they learn moral lessons from outsiders, but at least they should have to learn them, not just know what a twenty-first century audience would approve off the top of their heads. I've discussed this before with heroes and racism. Either the racism turns out to be totally justified, as against an evil race like orcs, or the hero never feels the same way. What are the odds that someone growing up in a society dedicated to battling those evil elves every moment of the day and night, someone who's probably seen injuries inflicted and people dead by elven arrows, someone who's heard all the old stories of battle over and over again, would not hate elves?

  4. Don't move the hero automatically to the top of any hierarchy. Say your teenage heroine just suddenly discovered she's able to wield the Power of Nine. She should not be accounted more powerful and important than any other mage in the world. For one thing, she doesn't have any training. For another, she doesn't know as much about politics, history, the limitations of the Power of Nine, and any legal restrictions on magery as other people do. She's a disaster waiting to happen, not an instinctive queen. She may think she's the most powerful and important mage in the world, but it should not be true.

    The same thing happens when a hero finds out he's the royal heir, or when someone becomes the center of a prophecy, or, in the worst cases, when the author starts talking about a character on the first page of a fantasy book. Everyone else is reduced to the sidelines; everything else can go hang. This hero or heroine has importance not only to the story plot, but to every political hierarchy, to every magical tradition, to every prophecy. Exceptions get made for him or her that wouldn't be made for any other character.

    There are many fantasy books that manage to avoid this, largely because they make it clear just how many things in the fantasy world exist outside the character. Kay and Martin are the masters at this, but Carol Berg also does it very well. Despite what her main character, Seyonne, has to go through- and despite the fact that he tells the story in first-person- there are wars and deaths and important things happening outside his immediate awareness. He's continually having nasty surprises.

    Much better to do this than to make your character the automatic pinnacle. Show her struggling to get there.

    And that's another thing.

  5. Heroes are supposed to be able to perform heroic deeds. The instinctive competence is not only a problem because it makes the character boring; it makes the character less of a hero. I don't count Princess Krystalynne blasting every evil guy away at the end of the book as a heroic deed, not if she knew how to wield her fire from the beginning and her teachers all flapped helplessly behind her when they tried to teach her things. Not if she has a destined, flawless love wrapped up from the first time she meets handsome Prince Whackadoodle. Not if the only characters who could have challenged her, such as equals in school or bullies, are portrayed as non-existent or childishly shallow and simple.

    She's an impostor who doesn't deserve her success. And the author is an incompetent trying to convince me that not knowing what to wear to a dinner party, or sitting behind the lines and wringing her hands while other people take the risks, is a legitimate source of suffering and struggle.

    Show me heroes doing things, and not only at the grand climax. Show me heroines who can think, and not only about their clothes or how their parents want them to act like ladies and how awful that is. Show me people who don't like war and so try to stop it, instead of standing in the path of soldiers and getting themselves mowed down. Heroes suffer and struggle, both. One without the other makes your character into a helpless martyr or an author-pampered pet who will get through every "struggle" unscathed.

  6. Rehashing what the character's already done does not move the story forward. Every page the heroine spends sitting at the table and thinking about her dead friends, her hateful parents, and her incredibly hard life is another page that she's not out there fighting the evil guys, proving she's worth the blood her people spill for her, or rescuing her prince in the locked-up tower. The audience knows what the character has gone through, most of the time; fantasy books usually happen as the most traumatic events in the protagonist's life occur, not after. They don't need to be reminded that the heroine watched her family die in chapter 1, nursed a cat who wound up dying in chapter 2, and nearly drowned in chapter 3. Besides, too much weeping and wailing and your characters look like wet blankets, not heroes.

    Even letting the grief sink in shouldn't happen the same way for every character. It sometimes seems to me that the only way fantasy heroes mourn is to gorge themselves on angst, with perhaps a slight side-dish of guilt. They don't throw themselves into work, try to avoid thinking about it, or try to move past it, all normal reactions among real people. They just wallow.

    Boring. It's especially boring if your character so far has shown no taste for such wallowing or self-flagellation, but goes into it the moment you decide to remind the audience what a hard life he's had. For me, most of the yawns in a fantasy book are contained in these parts, with the character going over everything I already know in tiniest detail, wondering if there was some way he could avoided it, and concluding there was no way and, boy, he really is a soggy pathetic pitiable bastard. Yes, yes, we know every note and step of this song and dance. Can we move past it, please?

    Pity isn't the best emotion for a fantasy author to invoke, anyway. I thought we were going for heroes you sympathize with and admire here, not heroes you want to pick up and wrap in cotton wool.

It seems I've read far too many fantasy books with these kinds of heroes lately, notably Lynn Flewelling's latest series and some godawful Mercedes Lackey clones. I need to go reread Kay, Martin, and Berg again.

Return to the top

Return to the index