Limyaael (limyaael) wrote,
Limyaael
limyaael

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Making your protagonists active instead of reactive

And now, active protagonists!



1) Make the protagonist use the white pieces, to grab onto the tired chess metaphor. White always plays first. And, thinking about it, I can’t recall a single fantasy novel where the protagonist is the one playing white. The villain always does, and often the game’s been afoot for a long time before the protagonist notices that it’s going on, and he has to work himself up from a pawn, and I’m stopping right there because, good gods, I hate that metaphor.

The hero is always swept up in some larger events, even if he’s somebody you’d expect to be relatively close to the center, like the Crown Prince, or the most powerful mage in the world, or the general of all the armies. There’s a conspiracy that wants to use him, and which he has to blow apart. There’s a prophecy and a destiny that he doesn’t know about, but which he must discover, usually by people blathering on to him about it (and this is the point at which I would take Fate out behind the barn and shoot it, but, alas, I’m not in charge of the story). There’s a god who needs him, rather than the hero having chosen to need the god. He goes somewhere he’s never been before and finds enemies behind every tree. Etc. I’ve been racking my brains, and I can’t think of. One. Single. Fantasy. Story. Where the protagonist is a true protagonist, defined as the one who gets the action going.

I was about to say that rogue stories, the ones with a thief hero who steals something and gets the owner chasing after him, are stories where the protagonist plays white, but that’s not the case, either, since he’s usually hired by some shadowy figure to undertake the theft in the first place. And of course the owner wants the object back so badly because it’s the Noun of Impressive-Sounding Noun/Place, which indicates that the rogue has stepped unknowing into some larger conspiracy or contest.

Why do this? I think it’s because fantasy authors are awfully fond of the innocent, the ‘protagonist’ who cannot possibly have done anything wrong because he hasn’t kick-started the action. It’s a way to distance the hero from the evil consequences that tend to follow the motions of powerful people. A secondary motive is probably because authors tend to favor heroes who are marginal in some way, like thieves or street children or peasants or princesses whom no one listens to, rather than politicians who know that the best thing to do is be one step ahead of your enemies. This goes back to the good ruler rant. Most fantasy authors want kings, heroes, and rulers, not politicians, even when a politician would actually fit their story better.

Consider having the hero play white, be the lamp from which all else depends, or whatever other metaphor you wish to use. If nothing else, it might set up someone who actually does things.

2) Cut out the sitting in silent bewilderment. Some fantasy novels have great plots. Some have good plots. Some have okay plots, as long as you don’t pick at every nit. And some have idiot plots—the ones that function only because every character in the book is an idiot, or acting enough like one to fool this average reader.

A major, major culprit in the idiot plot is the wizard/witch/wise old mentor who knows everything, but refuses to tell the hero anything about it for no reason that an author has ever persuaded me to accept. I’ve ranted about that before, so I won’t get into it now. It occurs to me I might have found an even bigger culprit, and certainly one fatal to having a protagonist who does things: the character who has every reason to ask questions about what’s happening to her, but instead sits around gaping and staring.

*Limyaael beats authors about the head with a dragon*

Come on, here. You’ve set up this world that you want the reader to be curious about, since if she’s not curious she’ll put down the book and go away. You’ve set up a heroine whom you hope eventually will secure the reader’s love and loyalty, and until then at least has to keep her interested. That heroine is not a moron. In fact, a good portion of the time she’s presented as the cleverest or most inquisitive person in her small circle. And then someone comes along and hauls her off on a journey through places she’s never experienced before, for a purpose she knows nothing about

And she doesn’t ask questions?

If you have a very, very compliant or polite heroine, or one who’s been raised in a cultural tradition to be that way, this might work. Maybe. But it doesn’t work when you’ve presented a heroine who’s “rebellious” and “independent” and “fiery,” which, again, a good portion of them are. And with a polite, clever heroine, I would expect her to at least try putting her own conclusions together in her head, and, once she has those conclusions, acting on them, if no one will tell her anything.

Yet some heroines don’t. They gape like frogs, and wait for destiny or wise old mentors to toss everything they need in their laps.

I’ll be over here with people doing stuff, thanks.

3) These characters have to want. Characters who want well enough for it to serve as their primary motivator will get full treatment in the rant on selfish characters. (That rant will be in praise of selfish characters, by the way). But a desire, no matter how small or altruistic, is necessary to make your protagonist active.

I’ve had enough of plaster saints,
I’ve had enough of “can’t”s and “ain’t”s,
I’ve had enough of “shant” and “don’t,”
“I’m not worthy,” “I’m not of note,”
And the authors who make these people so—
Turn around and let them go!

Excuse me. Every so often I break out in spontaneous doggerel.

That still expresses my feelings quite well. Fantasy protagonists who don’t really want to save the world, who get herded along mostly because the wise old mentor happened by and picked them up one day, can’t help being dull, passive, reactive creatures. They may have grand powers and a grand destiny, but they don’t have a personal stake in the quest. They’re the plaster saints. The authors set them up as perfect creations because they’re saving the whole world instead of their family or village or themselves.

They forget that there are two meanings to “selfless.” One does mean compassionate. The other means without self, without soul. And, in trying to turn out the first kind, many authors inadvertently produce the second.

I read The Sword of Shannara when I was 14, mainly because I was in the phase where I would read anything that was fantasy. I liked the minor characters, but never really warmed up to the “hero,” Shea Ohmsford. He gets herded from one encounter to the next, with other people making the decisions for him. The minor characters at least want things, even if those wants are represented as selfish—the desire to journey with a brother, to save a small country, to save the women they’re in love with. Shea kind of wants to save the world, I guess, but mostly because someone else told him to.

If you want an active protagonist, give her a heart as big as all get out or three sizes too small, I don’t care. Both will work. But give her a heart that wants.

4) Stop with the wishy-washiness. So sometimes you end up with a character who does want things, who does ask questions, who has enough spark to accept that she’ll have to do things on her own. Or she has to do things on her own because no one else is doing them right.

But then she can’t make the decision about what she should do.

This is, I think, the most crippling of traps for authors who may have avoided the idiot plot by having the wise old mentor explain everything and the plaster saint plot by giving the character a personal stake in what’s happening. They have a character they really like, and whom the reader is at least moderately interested in (I think). But they are afraid that if she makes a mistake, the reader will stop liking her.

So on they go, and on they go, and on they go, and eventually the heroine has to act because outside circumstances compel her to. The man she was fussing about deciding was a traitor or not does something undoubtedly dastardly, so she goes after him. The boy she wasn’t sure she cared about gets kidnapped, and then she knows she loves him by how much she grieves. The final battle arrives, and she discovers that, yes, she can kill people, after wondering all novel if she could.

I’m certainly not excusing myself here. I’ve written novels with this kind of plot. However, I’m trying, lately, to make the heroine or hero play at least an active part in the end. If they know a kidnapping is likely to happen, they try to prevent it instead of sitting around and waiting for it to happen. If they are ordered into a situation that they consider untenable, they hold out for what concessions their superiors will give them. And so on.

Your heroine doesn’t have to be the key decision-maker in every scene. Try to make her at least equal in those scenes that concern her, though. Instead of fretting and wondering, have her make a choice and take action from there. She might stumble and fall, but bleeding knees are a sign of a character’s reality. And if you’ve done your job, the reader will want to kiss her and make it better.

5) Give the character some internal emotional revelations. Besides forcing her to act, the situations I described above usually reveal her emotions to the character. She can act comfortably after that because she knows if she’s feeling love or hatred or fear.

The problem? They always come from outside. For all the introspection that many protagonists do, few of them come to any self-knowledge. It’s the wise old mentor who has to tell them, “Follow your heart” (another phrase I wish to hunt down and kill with a rusty chainsaw to the sound of its agonized screams), or the goddess who has to tell them they’re in love with the hero/ine, or the prophecy that has to confirm the sense of doom they’ve had all story. It’s annoying.

An active protagonist will not sit there with her brain shut off, at any point in the story. She will niggle and pick and search. She’ll try to put together the answers that the wise old mentor won’t give her. She’ll want things that may not be appropriate. She’ll make decisions and act on them when it isn’t a matter of life and death that she do so. And she’ll come to know herself at least partially through her own intense self-scrutiny.

Yes, she may be mistaken. She may honestly believe that she cares nothing for That Boy at all, and proceed to ignore him, and then be surprised by her hurt when he gets maimed. But having a character make a mistake is not the end of the world. See above, in point 4, about bleeding knees.

6) Active characters will sooner or later force the villain to come to them. It’s rather sad, that it’s the antagonists—well, the author calls them that—in fantasy who have to do all the work. They set up the conspiracy, they create the crisis that the hero has to learn about, they take things away that the hero will want back, they force him to act, and they reveal his emotions for him. Is it too much to ask that they not have to pick the final battlefield and arrange their armies in neat lines for the hero to slaughter and reveal their fatal weakness in a moment of gloating?

Well, apparently it would be too much to ask, despite the stupidity of fighting on ground that your enemy’s picked if you can help it.

These heroes are clever and active and know all about themselves and want to save the world by book’s/trilogy’s/saga’s end, right? Show it to me! Have them come up with a plan that is a plan, not just a reaction, again, to a situation that the villain forces upon them. Show them gaining control of their own lives, and with it, throwing off the subtler shackles the villains use. Show them standing independent of the wise old mentors and gruff but gold-hearted warriors and the love interests who’ve followed them around up until now.

Want a leader, which many fantasy authors do? Have them lead. Front or back, it doesn’t matter, but they should start playing white, claim the lead in the dance, do things--at the end of the book if not before.



Why shouldn’t fantasy heroes be dynamos? Why shouldn’t they be the ones who force other characters to react, who come up with plans, who spin the whole world around them?

Oh, yes. Because then they might make a mistake. I forgot. Well, fantasy worlds could use more mistake-making heroes.
Tags: characterization rants: protagonists, fantasy rants: winter 2005
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