Limyaael (limyaael) wrote,

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Rant on writing extroverted protagonists

This is one of the character types that doesn’t often show up as the protagonist of a fantasy novel, but gets relegated to being a sidekick. I suspect the reason is not a story-bound one—like an extrovert hero being incompatible with a lot of fantasy plots—but authors not thinking things through again.

A lot of authors may be introverts, or make their protagonists introverts without thinking about it. In the latter case, well, think about it. Why should something as basic to the story as your lead character’s personality escape consideration, when far more minor things like eye and hair color don’t?

In the first, I don’t really care. If we let ourselves be restricted to writing characters exactly like ourselves, the fantasy novel world would be a sad and boring place. And how outgoing characters are should be one of those things that doesn’t depend on the author’s own personality.

So here are some tips.

1) Outward focus. An extroverted character doesn’t have to be focused on everyone around her. After all, class barriers, racial ones, gender ones, or lack of a common interest with others all things that restrict even the friendliest people in our own world. But I would not expect to see her just brooding to herself all the time without sharing her thoughts, or the author depending solely on interior monologue to characterize her.

Let’s see some heart-to-heart confessions. Let’s see an extrovert sharing all her deepest and most deadly secrets with a friend whom she trusts absolutely, or brooding because she can’t, rather than—as so many fantasy characters do—clutching them to her heart just Because. Let’s see an extrovert noticing that other people around her aren’t doing so well, and having the strength and the compassion to reach out to them and ask what’s wrong, rather than assuming they’re mad at her on zero evidence or never noticing them because she’s so wrapped up in her own misery, also depressingly common occurrences.

Extrovert sidekicks are often seen as flirtatious gossips with little real compassion; they just can’t wait to betray juicy secrets and hurt others. Oh, for FUCK’S SAKE. Get over the person you knew in high school who did that, author, and work on giving this character deeper characterization. Even if she does betray someone else’s secret, couldn’t she have done it out of ignorance (perhaps she didn’t realize it was a secret), carelessness, or honest concern for her friend instead of malice? I know that if someone else told me something which led me to believe her life was in danger, I would be more concerned about her life and her mental health than about whether she might feel betrayed. At least she’d be alive to blame me. No, telling someone else might not be the best action, but it could be.

Someone else who keeps an eye on other people is not necessarily heartless. In fact, more often I would assume the other way around. Not in fantasy novels, though! Everyone like this is either a traitor or a bland motherly or sisterly figure who provides the necessary shoulder for the protagonist to cry on.

Let me repeat it: Oh, for FUCK’S SAKE.

2) Easy friendships. This is a black mark against people in fantasies, too. The people who make friends most easily are either the shallow, heartless bitches mentioned above, or spies. True friends are rare and secret, and you are only allowed to have one or two at a time. Anyone popular is automatically shallow.

Ever think that people could be drawn to someone because they genuinely like a person who is open to them, acts energetic around them and gives energy back, is the life of parties (see point 3), and tells jokes or plays the fool or whatever else it is that makes them pleasant company?

Well, of course not. Not when authors are all invested in writing angsty loners.

I can think of at least one place that the angsty loner protagonist would crash and burn in very fierce flames: as a politician. Someone who prefers to brood on his own problems to the exclusion of noticing what his enemies are doing, who has little time for his friends even when they need it, who avoids parties and other social scenes because they bore or drain him, and who doesn’t bother making himself pleasant company would be a disaster in intricate fantasy political scenes. Maybe this is another cause of the rarity of political fantasy? The angsty loner hero saves the world instead, and becomes king, and then the author always ends the story before she has to show what a hash he would make of ruling.

Let’s see some extroverted politician heroes who enjoy the thrill of the game, who are interested in reading faces as an extension of a natural skill, who can make friends and lovers without pissing others off, who keep other people flocking around them with their dazzle. It would be such a refreshing change. (Here is where I must do the obligatory “Yay Martin!” thing again, for his Petyr Baelish and Renly Baraetheon and Loras Tyrell and Oberyn Martell).

3) Enjoying parties is not evil. This gets to a point all to itself because of the way that so many fantasies try to characterize their noble protagonists. Almost the first thing they do is point out that “Oh, well, Emerald Rainbow Crystal Pegasus is not like the other nobles because she doesn’t enjoy dancing and going to parties and drinking.”

And that means that she’s the best candidate to save the world? What’s wrong with enjoying dances and going to parties and drinking? I would imagine that at least some of the intricate politics that usually underlie the noble class would take place there. Emerald Rainbow Crystal Pegasus is doing herself a disservice by missing them, and has no real cause to complain when she finds herself in a betrothal that everyone else has known about for ages; it was her own bloody fault for not being informed. Also, Emerald Rainbow Crystal Pegasus can easily be seen as stuck-up, stuffy, or a prude, with very good justification. And finally, when Emerald Rainbow Crystal Pegasus makes her snotty little judgments about her fellow nobles who do enjoy that kind of thing, it makes me want to slap her silly. Who came back to life and made her Jesus?

You have got to do more work than that if you want a convincingly noble or pure protagonist.

4) “Good” activities like daydreaming and reading books are not the exclusive province of introverts. Some of the most outgoing people I’ve met in my life are fellow English majors. That doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy reading, nor that they somehow have to choose between books and friends. They can have both. They don’t tend to that insane extreme that proclaims there is such a choice, and that you have to make it.

So you have a protagonist who daydreams. Why would that make her an outcast? Why wouldn’t she have a whole bunch of friends who also daydream, and together they pretend that they’re warrior princesses and take over their village? Or why wouldn’t she start the local equivalent of a book club, if she reads, and get all her friends arguing over this or that philosophical point? There is no law that a passion like that has to be private. A lot of people don’t see daydreaming or reading books as interactive, but then, watching television or playing with a baseball doesn’t have to be interactive, either. It’s doing them in company that makes them so.

I always thought storyteller characters should be more extroverted than they’re usually shown as being. Why do so many of them become hermits? Wouldn’t they enjoy telling tales they love, spreading them around and getting eyes to shine and voices to clamor for “What happens next?” If the tales are ancient history or forbidden history and are dying, even better. They’re just continuing to die if the storyteller keeps them inside the privacy of her mind. Having others hear them assures their survival.

There could also be more extroverts with prophetic dreams. That way, there will not be as many idiotic scenes where the protagonist has an obviously Deep and Meaningful Dream™ and then keeps silent about it when people ask, for fear that no one will believe her. Idiocy. Give me someone who admits the Deep and Meaningful Dream™ needs and deserves an audience, and so gets some advice on how to protect herself.

5) Many personality characteristics that fantasy authors like sit better with an extroverted temperament. I have resigned myself to the fact that people are not going to stop writing “feisty” teenage heroines. Okay, then. (Although if I could find some threat that would make them stop, I’d use it. Streams of elephant urine, maybe?)

So tell me, O Wise Author, why does the “feisty” heroine really do nothing but flare up in bouts of ill temper every now and again, and make Not-So-Witty Comebacks, and the rest of the time broods or cries or stares into the distance and refuses to respond to gentle requests to talk about what she’s feeling?

I would classify a heroine like that as introverted, not feisty. Oh, and also, an irritating introvert.

Someone feisty usually has more, well, energy than that. Someone who’s supposed to be “fiery-tempered” usually has dramatic ways of getting angry, and doesn’t restrict herself to tears and wails of misery. Someone who really enjoys life and is full of the spice of it doesn’t spend so much time looking for things not to enjoy. Someone who’s really witty has to take notice of the world around her, so as to have things to be witty about, and not only her own thoughts. (Hey, I think I just found the reason why so many fantasy protagonists aren’t witty after all!)

Reconsider, please, if you want any character like this. Is what you claim really the same as what you show happening? Most of the time, they’re not. It’s one thing entirely to have other characters walk around describing this character as “spunky” (MUST you?) or “fiery” or “tempestuous,” another to show that she actually is.

6) Extroverted characters are innate world-builders and plot-movers. Someone who’s immersed in the people around her has reasons to be curious about why the new maid’s eyes are red all the time, about why such and such a sentry disappears precisely at the toll of seven bells and returns at the toll of eight, about why the new law against servants marrying is causing such consternation. She can plausibly make connections between events, because she’ll snoop and ask questions. She can easily get involved in plots that stretch beyond her and don’t involve her being the center of a mass conspiracy, because it doesn’t take a mass conspiracy to get her interested in life outside her head. She can have interesting, informative conversations that tell the reader essential things about her world, because she doesn’t have to be infodumped at; she wants to know things, and she asks questions and notices details that fit with her personality.

She can even be proactive, because she can more easily know about the danger before it reaches her and make efforts to meet it, or she can get embroiled in someone else’s plots, plans, or danger, and act to keep them safe.

Meanwhile, the passive, uninterested, reluctant heroes are over there getting pounded with historical details by their Wise Old Mentors and having contrived “epiphanies” that tell them things they should have been able to figure out for themselves fifty pages ago, if they’d just look the hell away from their own tormented angst. Excuse me for preferring the heroine who’s made herself indispensable to a group of people who would just as soon have left her behind, and saved a few of their lives, too, and now that she’s figured out she’s in love with the hero, is going to tell him.

Why, hello, point 7.

7) Honesty and boldness are great assets in relationships in fantasy, romantic or otherwise. I hate Big Misunderstandings. I hate the kind of mind games that most fantasy character play with each other and with themselves, interpreting every possible tiny expression or gesture that someone else makes as a sign that he or she hates them or is going to betray them. I hate the contrived psychological neuroses that authors tend to fashion for their characters. “Oh, she’s been betrayed once, so she will never trust a man again!” Or “He saw her frown at him, so he knows that she hates him now!” No one ever bothers to go over and fucking ask. For all the “brave” fantasy protagonists out there, it seems quite a few of them are cowards at heart, and, more than that, quite willing to believe the worst of someone else on the flimsiest of evidence. (Why people think that jealousy is more often a sign of love than insecurity is beyond me. A lover who never gets jealous is not necessarily a bad lover, nor an unfaithful one).

A character who refuses to let himself be taken advantage of is great. A character who bluntly asks someone else what they’re really feeling about her is wonderful. A protagonist who confronts an enemy when he has evidence of wrongdoing, instead of letting him go through with it as a “test,” has me behind him all the way.

I’ve heard complaints about this, along the lines of, “But what if it turns out that the character really is a traitor or an unfaithful lover?”

The answer is: Then you have a cool fight scene. Honestly, is that so hard?

I think honesty between lovers and friends leads to more complex relationships, not more shallow ones. The characters can know each other more deeply. They can grow steadily more uneasy with each other, knowing that one of them will probably do something to betray the other in the end, but valuing what they have in the moment. They can have different levels and depths of trust. They can know what’s best in the other person and honor it, and love because of faults, rather than in spite of them. They can avoid the oftentimes quite disgusting circles of manipulation and distrust that go into a typical “Hate! Sex! Hate! Sex!” relationship, or the contrived “suspense” of a “Oh, woe, for I am evil and falling in love with her and must keep my affiliation hidden!” one (you know the character is going to switch sides in the end, because that ALWAYS happens). You have a whole field of possibilities that aren’t open when you’re writing about people who would rather claw their own eyes out than have two minutes of honest conversation.

And extroversion helps in all this, of course. Extroverts do it better. *snicker*

*looks fondly at extroverted protagonists* There is no law at all that says they’re less interesting or intelligent than introverts. They just get written that way.
Tags: character type rants, characterization rants: protagonists, fantasy rants: autumn 2005

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