Sorry, Gilgamesh, but Not Sorry

So…here’s the thing: stories need protagonists, right? (You better say “right”, and not be one of those quirky, I’m gonna be original and write a story with no protag, in the same exact way everyone else is original, experimental sort of scribblers way! [Another blog rant, for another day, perhaps.])

Well, here’s the thing, I’ve always been under the assumption (delusion?) that good fiction (subjectively, fiction that I enjoy) needs to have a protagonist–whether that be a hero, an anti-hero, a mistaken hero, a reluctant hero, or just an unreliable point of view– there’s got to be one. 

However, I’ve been running across slush and stories lately with no protagonists. And, to my confusion, when I make note to the writer(s) that they are lacking a protag, I get corrected, quickly, harshly…without quarter. 

The typical responses as of late:

  • No, the protagonist is right there!  That hero guy, doing hero things.
  • Of course I have a protagonist! Haha! In fact, look, I have five of them!
  • Sure there’s a protagonist… didn’t you notice the guy I keep torturing? 

So, here’s my deal, I don’t really consider any of that qualifiers for protagging. 

Let me break it down…in my, most humble, opinion, the protagonist(s) is(are) the character(s) that end up changing by story’s end. So, my first fundamental issue, if I tell you that your story has no protagonist, is this. Simply put, the dude/dudette you are putting up front and center is basically the same person from prologue to story’s end. A lot of junk happened to them, but nothing changed them. 

This is where the rub is. I’m finding people confusing view point character with protagonist. Just because you are in a character’s head (or mostly so) doesn’t mean they are the protagonist of the tale.

 I’ve beta’ed some fairly put together stories, from some fairly put together storytellers, that have seemed to have accidentally placed a side character as the hero. They are following the wrong person, that is. (And, sometimes a side character,  who’s making choices and changing, is the only one protagging, but the writer is ignoring their story.) 
I think it comes from this concept that the protagonist has to be the coolest character, most skilled of the characters, or the blank slate, even, for the reader to project onto. But, what they seem to be losing is the discernment to see past the whole hero act to see these characters for what they are: side guys/chicks, at best (at worst they are obsolete, entirely).

I, personally,  don’t think the protagonist has to be the coolest character. I don’t even think that they have to be the most heroic, or skilled, or <insert whatever other qualifier you want>. But, I do think that they have to be the one put into the position to make choices, and the consequences of those choices have to be real for them. To me, the protagonist has to be the one changed by the decisions they are making, and not (like a few stories I’ve been reading) be changing only a side character or group of other characters, or the characters’ world/everything but them. Their choices have to change them–their outlook, their worldview, their position, etc.  Whether that change is for the better or for the worse is what will define the type of character you are playing with…but, change they must.

This brings me to another misconception (again, in my opinion) this idea that torturing a character equals them being a compelling protagonist. Albeit, torturing a character through hard knocks, hard choices, and even harder inter-character dynamics can be fantastic (and encouraged!). However, if the fallout of those adversities don’t somehow equal the character growing, or devolving, into a new person, or into a new state, you don’t really have much of a character arc. The character is left wooden–an opposable avatar the reader is watching happenings through. This is just not compelling for me. It’s not very compelling to many modern fiction readers.

The protagonists of old, like Sinbad, or, the very oldest, Gilgamesh, were more static. They were badasses, having badass adventures and were pretty much badass from the start to the end. You’d see considerably less character development in these tales…but frankly, the characters weren’t 100% the point of these stories either.  These stories are about the moral play,  the epic,  the oral tradition. The protagonist is in material. The voyage of Sinbad isn’t about Sinbad  (exactly), it’s about the voyage–the journey. 

Which brings me to ask the question, what do you want your story to be about? The characters that occupy it, or about the story, internally, itself?

There are no value judgements here. Your writing can be about anything you want. It is just probably fair to note that the modern reader tends to like to read stories about people–people they can sympathize with, making choices that are hard and being forever changed by them–rather than events.
(And, as always, there is no snark intended. I never blog about my beta reads, even when I leave the author(s) unnamed like this, without obtaining a friendly thumbs up from my beta authors first. 

Love and kisses, and consent! ❤ )


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