On the protagonist as avatar and true heroism.

Superman and I have long discussed how we lament (or, at least, are tired of) the tendency toward “chosen one” protagonists in fantasy and sci-fi stories on screen or page. In my own reading and writing I have, since primary school, very deliberately chosen to write protagonists who were not ‘chosen’ but themselves choose to undertake a hero’s journey during/because of which they develop in themselves the power/s required to succeed. Reasons?
1) Inclusivity – protagonists like this demonstrate that anyone can be a hero – even if I’m not mysteriously endowed with superpowers or my true lineage suddenly discovered, the protagonist can be a role model for me or, indeed, anyone. It also makes for the possibility of more interesting secondary characters – no built-in excuse not to pitch in or just stand adoringly on the sidelines.

2) Worthiness: To me, the person who chooses the journey despite having no sense whatsoever of having any special powers which will make the journey easier for them takes a greater leap into the darkness and will always be a greater hero than any person (no matter how reluctant or humble) who is aware that they were born with special powers or the right ancestry or chosen by the right mentor whose very faith is an assurance in their probable success. Note: any protagonist who seizes the sword as yet unaware of such powers and with no mentor who has hinted at them has this same “worthiness”.

However, as Jane Espenson observes (not uniquely but recently in The New Republic, the greater audience seems to be won by those stories in which the protagonists are ‘chosen ones’. And this has been a source of virtul paralysis for my current project – which character should I make my protagonist? Sure, a novel can have more than one protagonist (unlike most films) but there will still be essentially one main character. The obvious question is: which character is the prime mover in the story? Well, this is the thing: I’m God in this scenario – so not only do I have the freedom to choose either, I am also bound to make that choice before I can move on. Of course I’m leaning toward my old preference of the non-chosen (albeit she comes from a very special community of those more in-the-know than wider society) because I think it would be a more interesting story but that’s the issue: I am increasingly aware that I am rather an odd character and, though of course I am not unique and there are probably plenty of people like me out there with similar taste, there are more who are unlike me and prefer the chosen one stories.

So what is it about these stories? There are many theories about story etc… but I think one of the more interesting reasons (which really isn’t about story) is that the majority of people aren’t simply interested in a protagonist as the prime mover of a story, as an interesting character whose journeys they can follow but they are looking for an avatar – a character they would want to be AND THEREFORE (here’s where it gets controversial – tee hee) I wonder if the majority of people these days wouldn’t take the hero’s sword (or at least don’t think they would) without at the very least an Obi Wan or mysterious scar from a totally unconscious act of superior power to reassure them that they will succeed. If this were the case then they would find characters who do throw themselves intot the fray unarmed either totally unbelievable or too confronting because it sets a standard the reader knows they would not meet (and we all know that to hold someone to standards is to commit the terrible crime of the post-modernist world: being judgemental) Cynical? Yeah, a little, but what else really expalins it? Now, sure, people yearn not just to discover power within themselves but for someone else to validate that power, recognising that it was in them all along, preferably publicly and preferably in front of a childhood bully or celebrity we secretly believe would easily become a BFF if only we could get their attention lol! But that can still happen to the self-made hero and, surely, would be even more of an achievement because it has been earned and so it belongs to the protagonist much more than something they happened to be born with… but there, again, is my own take on the issue.

I’m reminded of a story I was working on several years ago. We had a housemate who was widely read (a librarian in fact) to whom I showed a piece I was working which involved a woman overhearing her boyfriend in a room with another woman and realising he was raping her (yes, it was a detective novel) and going to her rescue. This housemate said she thought it was well written but no woman would go to the rescue of a woman who was with her boyfriend – no matter how clear it was that the rape was occurring the woman shouldn’t have been in a bedroom with someone else’s boyfriend (the shocking moral inference being that she somehow deserved it, the story-craft inference being that noone would believe the character or want to read the book). I was shocked and frankly appalled at this but after asking several other women found she was not alone in her belief – I lost a lot of respect for those women that day but also dropped the novel idea – see, the scene I showed her was my opening ‘hook’ into the character so I lost faith in my ability to understand what would make a strong female protagonist attractive to a reader. And here I am again.

The thing is, there are plenty of people who throw themselves in when they are needed, they are the “I just did what anyone would have done” people we see interviewed after a fire or some such emergency. We surely laud these people because we hope we would act in this way ourselves, no? Or is it actually the opposite? Do we make such a big deal about it because we really believe we wouldn’t do it ourselves – or, taking it further, do we make it something very special – insisting on the word hero, insisting they are very special despite their protestations to the contrary – so that we have an excuse not to be heroic when the time comes – afterall there’s nothing ‘special’ about us. I hope not, but maybe the success ratio of chosen one stories to self-made hero stories might be pointing to just that. IF I were Harry and had his special powers I would save the world but I’m not, so I don’t have to. Whew!

Of course Lord of the Rings is one of the big successful self-made ones – Frodo is no chosen one (despite Gandalf’s protection) but, let’s face it, it’s always been a niche novel – only the films have had wide appeal and how many people do you see dressed as Frodo at openings or parties? (of course that’s probably more to do with that particular avatar not even being handsome lol so there’s two strikes against it in the mainstream.)

So, my decision is made (YAY! Just as uni begins lol) – I will stick with my gut and make the ‘everywoman’ my heroine (or just ‘hero’ as the SEVEN pages on non-gender-specific language in my UniSA unit information pack informs me I should use LOL.) She will develop and discover various abilities, perhaps even be given them by people/beings who believe she is worthy but she will BE worthy because she will have made the choice to do whatever she can with or without any extra powers or assurance that she will succeed – because that’s what REAL heroes do. Maybe it means I’m gimping my chances of being published but … shrug.


One comment on “On the protagonist as avatar and true heroism.”
  1. kax@orac.net.au says:

    Read The Lucifer Effect, for what makes a person be a hero or a villain. Rather scary, overall.


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