(First, a short preface.  This is not meant to be some sort of self-aggrandizing, self-reassuring text to allow me to get out of having to write.  The one thing I cannot stand is writing about writing, but not actually writing.  This is as much for me, to help organize my own thoughts, as it is for anyone who cares to read it.  I’m not condemning or overly praising any of the authors I mention.  It’s just me sounding off on things I’ve read and seen.  You might agree, you might disagree, either way, I hope it’s entertaining.)

Every story needs a hero.  Or a protagonist if you think the term ‘hero’ carries too many connotations with bravery and the slaying of monsters.  Either way, it’s storytelling 101 to have a strong, active main character with a compelling desire influencing their actions.  Frodo wants to dump that ring into Mt. Doom, Luke wants to become a Jedi, etc.

I’d like to talk about two books, and their respective protagonists.  As far as books go, they couldn’t be more different, one being a work of weird fiction, the other being a more conventional fantasy novel in a faux-medieval european setting.  Their respective protagonists are opposites in just about every way, and I feel they both illustrate important points in creating a memorable protagonist.

(Cautions: Spoilers ahead for The Scar and The Name of the Wind/The Wise Man’s Fear)

The Scar was one of the first books I read this summer, and possibly one of the best books I’ve read all year.  It was a brutally weird book, with a dynamic, colorful setting, brilliant prose and characters who were real if not for their faults, then for their triumphs over their faults.  Bellis Coldwine, arguably the heroine of the novel, is, for lack of a better term, a huge bitch.  She’s constantly, and accurately, described as cold, stuck up, superior, and largely unsympathetic to the plights of others.  She’s running from the secret police of her home city, New Crobuzon, when her ship is captured by pirates and she’s press ganged into serving the floating city of Armada as a librarian.  The world of The Scar is decidely adult and the people who dwell in it are largely selfish, doing things out of a combination of baser instincts and long wrought, overarching plans.

Bellis, despite her fear, desperately loves New Crobuzon, but she understands all too well the frailty of life and the fact that death is a very real presence in the world.  It seems so simple, and yet it works so well.  There’s a constant visceral sense that the world is hostile and open and huge.  There are armed guards, sea monsters, mosquito-people, vampires (not sexy ones either), and a civilization of man-eating fish wizards.  In this world, shit’s out to get you, yo’.

Despite all this, Bellis still tries to save her city (there is a plot against it by the aforementioned fish-wizards) even when she discovers she’s just a pawn in a series of much larger games.  There are moments of tremendous weakness, where she looks at the task ahead and simply says ‘I can’t do this.’.  It’s painful to read because this is not what we expect from heroes, it’s what we expect ourselves to do. If you were to tell me that I have to walk a mile through a jungle infested with giant mosquitos that well literally suck all the fluids out of me with a proboscis as thick as a garden hose, I would pee myself and then curl up on the floor, which isn’t too far off from what she does.

All the characters are like this, as the novel arguably has multiple main protagonists (it has multiple POVs). For instance,  Tanner Sack is a man who was condemned for crimes against New Crobuzon, punished by having tentacles grafted onto his body, who eventually comes to accept himself and the new life Armada offers him.

It’s one of the few fantasy novels in recent years where the characters truly act like people.  If characters are meant to speak to us and engage us and make us feel like them, then this is how it’s done.  Tanner and Bellis and the Twin, and the relationship between Shekel an Angevine, show humanity at its most vulnerable.  Bellis is probably one of the best written female characters you’ll find this side of an Anne Mccaffrey novel.  Tanner Sack is lost and desperately wants a home, the Twin is driven to do something for reasons that I really don’t feel like spoiling here, Shekel and Angevine are just two people trying to make their relationship work (her lower half body is that of a mechanical spider’s, so yeah, kind of awkward).

It was nominated for a Hugo the year it was published, though it didn’t win.  It was bookended by his two other Hugo winning books though, one of which I’m in the course of reading now and it is scary good (Perdido Street Station).

Obviously, this is sometimes difficult to make work.  Even though I could identify with Bellis and Tanner and Shekel, they did represent a kind of shameful part of myself.  I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but sometimes it’s hard admitting that you are, in fact, somewhat of a cowardly chap.  It’s like watching any giant battle in a fantasy movie.  There’s always that one guy the camera cuts to who dies a particularly horrible death.  He’s always either crushed by rocks or takes an arrow to the face or gets cut in half or something.  Those are the deaths that make you cringe, or maybe even laugh at their absurdity, but there’s a place deep down where you just don’t want to die like that, ignominiously decapitated before anyone’s even made it over the wall.  That’s the fear the protagonists of the Scar tap into and it is a glorious choice to do so.

The other book (or, rather, pair of books) is Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear (the first two parts of the KingKiller trilogy, because why not, let’s make it a trilogy).  There’s only one real character to talk about, but he is a doozy.

The main character, Kvothe, is unabashedly the thinnest example of an author’s ultimate power fantasy (not that that’s a bad thing, mind you).  Kvothe is perfect in literally every way.  He’s handsome, witty, proficient music, plays and poems, and above all else, naturally proficient at whatever thing he chooses to devote his time to.  IN ADDITION, the univese he lives in is remarkably conducive to justifying his every action.  His enemies are either daemonic entities or rich asshole members of the nobility (who also tend to be racist against his particular ethnicity).  His quest to find his parents’ killers leads to the uncovering a conspiracy going back thousands of years, which will hopefully be resolved in the third book.  Oh, and he’s also sixteen and already the equivalent of a junior in the world’s College of Magic (called the Arcanum).

None of these things are bad, not inherently at least.  True, there are things his character can do that break suspension of disbelief with as much delicacy as a sledgehammer to a a faberge egg, but this still isn’t all that bad.  I actually immensely enjoyed reading the first two books, even the weird saucy bits (the book is told in first-person and being dictated to a scribe, so the scenes do quite a bit towards making me think of him as an incredibly unreliable narrator.).

No, what really worries me about the series is the fact that there will be no payoff.  The first two books alone nearly reach the 2000 page count.  That’s a week and a half of downtime spent reading.  I want to know that this character is going somewhere, that when I put down the last book in the series I’ll know that it was worth it and look back on the world fondly, as I do all books that I truly love.  I want to know that this author knows what he’s doing, and by all means he does.  There’s wonderful foreshadowing that something huge is going to happen, something that will affect that reader in the same way Anakin Skywalker’s transition to Darth Vader was supposed to make us feel.

As of the end of The Wise Man’s Fear, Kvothe is following the lateral character development of Harry Potter, growing along the same continuum instead of branching out.  In other words, as events occur, his character never really advances into new places.  He becomes smarter in terms of acquisition of skills and magical knowledge, but then again, he was always good at those things or at least showed the potential to be good at those things.  Mitch Guthrie wrote a pretty interesting article about this kind of perfect character and how it works to pull the reader out of the story and make them not care.  If everything serves only to be beaten by the character and in turn elevate him higher, then why should we (the reader) give a crap about him or his struggle.

At one point, when I was younger and foolish, I made this argument against Harry Potter’s character.  Except that Harry Potter was actually far from perfect.  As far as magical prowess went, he was kind of crap compared to, say, Hermione, or any number of other students.  He’s awesome at Quidditch, but he’s actually kind of a dumb-ass, and he makes a ton of mistakes throughout the series (his actions indirectly lead to the death of both Sirius Black AND Dumbledore). He pissed off his friends (Ron’s jealous streak in Goblet of Fire always stuck out to me as something teenagers WOULD do and felt incredibly natural), and they were petulant at times.  They basically acted like teens, which has found in me a surging re-appreciation for the early and middle HP books.

With Kvothe there are small developments, inevitable really, given the circumstances he’s given, but he never really changes in a meaningful way.  He doesn’t go from being an asshole to being a good guy.  He doesn’t fight back against alcoholism, or learn what it means to truly love someone.  His actions don’t lead to any sort of negative consequences.  He gets in two fights over the course of the entire series, both of which aren’t really his fault (the first fight is with a money-lender friend, his second is because he’s concerned that the woman he loves is being beaten by her art patron).  He also has an Anakin Skywalker moment where he kills a bunch of rapists, but it’s sort of brushed aside as everyone’s pretty cool with it and he tried to have himself tried by the laws of the country.

Don’t get me wrong, I will definitely be picking up the third book in the series, if for nothing else than to at least see how the issue with the Big Bad is resolved.  I just don’t think I can bring myself to care about Kvothe, whether or not he lives or dies.  This is not to say that there is anything wrong with a perfect, romantic hero, or that such a protagonist is somehow passe.  It is because no possible outcome I can predict will give the previous work any sort of proper, satisfying closure.

Kvothe’s story follows the Campbellian hero-cycle, complete with wise old mentor named Old Ben(shout-outs to Star Wars), the call to adventure of the Magic University, an early tragedy in the murder of his parents driving to adventure and so on.  He finds himself infatuated with a travelling girl with abandonment issues named Denna, who serves as his muse/wandering true love for the books.  Kvothe goes on his adventure, his quest for knowledge and vengeance, while Denna forever flits in and out of his life. In the end, their relationship is no more complex than that of a hero like Gilgamesh and Siduri the alewife, perhaps even less so, as their relationship barely moves over the course of the series.  I would argue it’s the weakest point of the series, as their relationship reminds of the kind of cloying, melodramatic telenovelas my grandma watches, and even those are at least enjoyable as a kind of guilty pleasure.

Kvothe hits a lot of low points in his story, but these moments are always beyond his control.  The one thing I want is to see something that is truly and unequivocally his fault.  Anakin’s moment where he decides to join the emperor and kill the younglings,  The Doctor’s moment in The Waters of Mars where he decides to use his powers to alter the course of history and for the briefest moment succumbs to the temptation of his own titanic power.  That is the one thing that could make it all worth it.  All the stupid half-flirting with Denna, Kvothe’s improbably high proficiency with everything.  Basically, I just want to see what he did that thrust him into the depression we see him in in the present.

(Side Note: I HOPE, really hope, that it doesn’t involve either the death of Denna or the death thousands of people we don’t know about in a war caused by Kvothe.  Denna’s not a terribly interesting character and mostly comes off as being catty and kind of a bitch.  Her death would certainly hurt Kvothe, especially if he was directly responsible for it, but it probably wouldn’t leave much of an impression on the reader.  If anything, they would applaud the author for finally getting rid of her so we don’t have to listen to Kvothe’s endless descriptions of how impossibly red her lips are and how awesome her new dress looks.

The death of thousands of people thing just wouldn’t have as narrative weight.  Sure, the deaths of thousands of people is objectively bad, but we as readers would have enough cognitive dissonance to not really be affected by it.  For one, it’s faux-medieval europe, so there’s already an ingrained idea that people die all the time from stuff like plagues and wars that inevitably crop up.  And two, if Fable 2 (Peter Molyneux said this when discussing general feedback) is any indication, people would rather revive their childhood pet than the thousands of innocent people that they themselves were responsible for killing, natch.)

So like I said, 2000 pages in, Mr. Rothfuss better have the greatest fuck-up in history prepared for Kvothe.)

So then, how am I taking what I’ve learned here and incorporating it into my own writing?  Well, I know that the kind of flavor I want for my story isn’t really near that of The Name of the Wind, nor is it the kind of bleak, hyper adult story of Mieville’s work.  My novel is basically C.S. Lewis’ Lion, Witch and Wardrobe, but with revenge, violence, uncontrollable magic, theories of statecraft, mushrooms, institutionalization of knowledge, horrors from beyond time and the rise of a superpower.

I have a teenage female lead, which by itself is an extremely difficult task to write, I’ve discovered.  I remember Stephen King threw away the first draft of Carrie because he had no idea how teenage girls acted and thought it was crap.  I want there to be the kinds of fears that any sane person would have in her situation (i.e. fear and shock of basically being dragged along with this massive army), along with the sense of wonderment and innocence largely lost when you have an overly experienced character.  I also abhor preciousness in children and teens, so that was never on the table.  Skilled, or perhaps slightly above competent, yes.  Crazy good, or remarkably skilled for their age?  Not unless that shit comes with some baggage. Here’s all the notes I have for my lead character (note: there are abbreviations, as well as some notes that may not make much sense without context.)

Lucy (age 16)

– Never knew mother, father recently deceased.  Travelling by bus (train?) to attend funeral.   Initial friends: Daisy, Reagan, Connley

– Mildly artistic, though repressed skill, favors paint and cartooning.  Medium height, long hair, slightly tan, physically above average tone.  Possess pride in hair and she keeps it long so that she can braid it in different styles as a way to give herself a sense of control when she feels she’s losing it.  Quite knowledgeable in science and history, though hates foreign languages.  Amiable.  Quick and loyal to those she considers friends.  She hates mushrooms, and is easily frightened by large dogs.  She enjoys games, though this was not something she often talked about.

-Faults: difficulty telling truth from lies, somewhat easily tricked, thinks more in terms of immediacy rather than grand, overarching consequences.  Can be quick to anger with a few choice words.  Killer flaw: afraid of people leaving her/develops overly attached relationships easily.  She will often do things in order to ensure people stay with her, which makes the few things she considers undisputedly hers all the more important.  She also began to pick up a cig. habit a few weeks before her father died.

Note: HUGE possibility for failure here in terms of not giving her enough agency as a character.  It’s kind of a difficult line to walk, trying to make the character enough of a pushover that would be realistic, but not boring the audience to tears with her vacillating and then freezing up like a deer in the headlights.  I remember realizing this while watching the Scott Pilgrim Movie (and that scene where the announcer says “Scott earned the power of SELF-RESPECT).  Of course it didn’t make any sense in the SP movie, but that kind of moment is what I want Lucy to get to.

TL;DR: Her character change is to develop a sense of self-respect.  I’m scared shitless that her scenes will be boring/annoying.

– Sees E. as mother figure, Ty as mentor, Roah as asshole, Super as interesting but mysterious, Wolf as crazy, Morvang as plain scary.

-Forward desire=get back to earth, hidden desire=find someone she can look up to.  This presents a compulsion to stay despite the obvious madness of it.  Possibly interesting internal conflict(?)

-She begins somewhat meek, displays mild sycophantic/subservient tendencies born from a deep seated fear of abandonment, little confidence in her own abilities.  By the end, she has fought not only for others, but more importantly for herself (RTDBS moment).  She has at last found the person to look up to (E.), but not

-Worst thing that could happen- At first, nothing.  Later, E. taken away from her, which does happen.

Relationship changes:

-Roah: antagonistic to a loose idea of friendship.  At the very least, it’s the closest capacity for a friendship Roah has.  The shift is when Roah presses her about why E. isn’t a hero, and anyone who believes so is a fool.  Though it angers her, it plants a seed of doubt in her mind that will come into play during the climax.

-Daisy: friend to hated enemy

-Ty: student to ambivalent ex-student/ begrudging enemy (they really don’t want to fight each other, but they just can’t reconcile)

-Super: sometimes friend she talks to enemy.

-Wolf: Scared of to respected friend

-Morvang: feared enemy to awed respect

-Andoman: attraction to cold rejection.

That’s sort of the gist of her, her relationships (which all link to detailed descriptions in my notational velocity catalog along with arc timing and all that jazz).  I want a character people can relate to, full of insecurities, but at her core she’s the kind of character who can shine in the right situation.  I feel she still lacks a strong defining quality that could be ascribed to her, but I figure I’ll get to that as I write her more and flesh out the small details.  She’s no Kvothe or Paul Muad’Dib (although it turns out the amount of influence Frank Herbert has had on my world creation is frightening.) and there will be times where she will confront her weaknesses. Of course, she doesn’t have too many faults starting because then I would basically have girl Eustace Scrubb and nobody wants that (although he turned out alright in the end.).

And of course, there will be shining moments of unmitigated ‘FUCK YEAH!’, moments of awesome if you will, sprinkled around in just the right amount.  You can’t really put too many of them in, otherwise you end up reducing the individual effect of the set pieces as a whole.  Rule of thumb, when the protagonist pulls out the magic sword, it better damn well be important.  You shouldn’t be using a lightsaber to cut open coconuts, after all.

I want her to be her own character, as natural as possible.  I want agency, but without resorting to using physical/martial force as a means to grant agency.  You’d think that would be hard, given that she’s in the middle of a war horde, but it’s actually not that difficult.  There are only three battles planned for the entire book, and there’s a small jab at The Hunger Games and how in a wartime setting it’s basically impossible to become an archer unless you’ve been practicing for several years and have developed the muscle structure.

Well, that’s it for now.  This is just the barest fragment of the stuff I thought about and how I’m going to wrestle it in.  It’s a problem though because for the first time in a long time, I’m extremely interested by both the plot and the story.  Usually I lean heavily towards one, but I feel I’ve struck a balance with this one.  The heart of a character is in their driving desire and their struggle against the forces pitted against them, both internal and external.  There’s so much more I wish I could say about Lucy, and about all the characters I’ve made to populate the world I’ve made, things I wish I could ask about things I hope are working and things that I fear aren’t.

Who knows, this could have just been four thousand words of me spouting incoherent bullshit.


Post: Other protagonists I found particularly interesting, along with links

Anders: one of two main characters of a really awesome web comic.  I read this back when it was first being posted.  At the time it was bar none the best thing I was reading, across all mediums.  Anders is such a dick, literally and figuratively.  He makes Scott Pilgrim look like the perfect gentleman by comparison.  There are some genuinely sad moments in the comic and yet there’s a sense of pathos in him that keeps it readable.

Katia Managan: Don’t let the Homestruck style comic fool you, it’s actually one of the better webcomics in recent memory.  Really slick, emotional stuff that’s recently hit a really important moment in the character’s growth.  I think the series is winding down, so now’s a perfect time to get into it.

Lessa: from Dragonflight of Pern.  I wanted to include her in a section of a thing I wrote on what is traditionally considered bad-ass in fiction to what actually is bad-ass in fiction, but I figure I could drop her in here too.  I read this book awhile ago, but I remember her being pretty awesome.

Kaiji: from the anime.  If there was ever a character who you could root for, it’s this guy.  The underdog taken to the max, his whole character is rooted in self-imposed failure.  Half of Kaiji is seeing him fall prey to his own addictions and his insane, quixotic dream to become the god of gambling.  He’s funny and loyal, but also kind of an asshole at times and not afraid to call someone out for their bullshit.