Last week, Brandon wrote:
As a final word, I think it should be noted that this is really about depth of character, and depth of character starts with you, the author, knowing your character well. Don’t just slap a name and a description on a cardboard cutout and move that cutout through the story. Start by instilling depth in your protagonists – know their history, their likes and dislikes, their deeply held personal beliefs and their motivating factors. Know what they do before they go to bed and first thing when they get up in the morning, and more importantly, why they do these things. Whether you write these things into the story or not, the depth you achieve by knowing them at the outset will shine through in your story, and keep your protagonist from being a total Load.
We’re talking about protagonists vs. heroes vs. loadtagonists, a word that every English teacher should now cross stitch onto their whoopie cushions. He was responding to my previous post about the Little Mermaid getting into a death match with Bella, while Hermione mocks them with a snide British accent.
Brandon nailed it in his reply post: the problem with protagonists like the Ariel and Bella is that they don’t protag – or, rather, they aren’t the heroes. My contention in my original post was the “moral” of the story: don’t do anything, and everyone else will sacrifice for you. (As one commenter noted, Bella apparently improves by book four in the series. I’ve only read book one and my comments will be restricted to that volume.) Yet, if the protagonist isn’t the hero, how could I expect much else?
Consider Watson, for example. Does he do a whole lot? Usually it’s Holmes making snide remarks and solving the case. (Usually.) So why doesn’t Watson rankle me? Maybe writing aimed at another generation gets a free pass; I usually read anything older than the 1950’s as a different beast entirely. Maybe I’m just more sensitive when it’s a female protagonist; I want to see women and girls be taught not to let everyone fix their problems for them.
Which gets to Brandon’s final statement of last week: it really comes down to the depth of the main character. I do want to make a totally different application of what Brandon wrote, though. He said that for a protagonist to have depth, the writer needs to know everything about his character. This is true; depth isn’t made up a’ la Lost with making it up as you go, especially when it comes to short story or novel writing. It might work for a first draft, but not for anything else!
Yet, you don’t want to simply know your character. I might know everything about Bella; I might know that she eats only the cardboard pieces out of the Lucky Charms. That doesn’t mean the character has depth. It means I’ve created a character that I know everything about.
Perhaps your protagonist doesn’t begin with much depth. Perhaps your protagonist is a boring girl at the start of the story, and the action starts when something outside her control happens to her. That’s actually not a terrible start to a story. You could argue that Harry Potter really didn’t have much depth at the beginning of his saga; he’s a boy that’s mightily abused, sure, but it’s as he grows and learns lessons – often the hard way – that he gains much of his depth. One of Neal Shusterman’s strengths is taking normal teens and putting them in phenomenal circumstances and turning out a great story; his teens always change and grow through the course of the novel. (Seriously, if you want to read good teen fiction, pick up one of his books. May I suggest Unwind or Everlost?)
Again, perhaps your protagonist doesn’t begin with much depth. Maybe they really are a shallow character. If you want to make your reading interesting, though, you really need to have the character become deep by the end of their journey – or at least deeper. Think of Elle Woods in Legally Blond – someone totally clueless. By the end of the movie (or musical if you prefer it), she’s learned several lessons, including who is worthy of her love and what pursuits are worthy of her effort. She’s still not the deepest character in the cinema, but she’s grown, and we’ve cheered her on as she’s grown.
And maybe that’s why protagonists need to grow – we want to think we can grow, and this gives us hope that we really can change. As they overcome obstacles, it makes us think we can overcome obstacles, too. As they change their circumstances, we see that we’re not locked in to ours.
And if our heroes have depth, maybe we have some depth, too. Brandon made a rather damning comment: If the reader identifies with Bella in book one, what does that say about the reader? If you’re looking for imperfect people to identify with, you can look in plenty of places. If you’re looking for someone who is terrible with any kind of coordination, how about The Princess Diaries? If you identify with someone who doesn’t know how to handle boys, isn’t that most female protagonists in teen fiction? (You’ll have to correct me on that one!) If you’re looking for someone who thinks she’s not worth anything, I’m not entirely sure where to turn. If that’s what the reader is identifying with, maybe it’s time to show them who they are in Christ.
(If you like nautical adventures like Master and Commander¸ check out the Horatio Hornblower books by C. S. Forester for an amazing example of an imperfect protagonist. Here’s a gallant captain who’s smart and confident, but he gets seasick and doesn’t know how to handle women!)
Of course, if a writer is going to create a protagonist with depth of character, the writer herself must have some depth. The writer herself must have convictions and be able to swim against the current of society and even against friends. If the writer does not know how to stand on her own two feet, her characters will be unable to do the same.
Depth of character can’t be simulated. Even if a writer doesn’t know how to fence, she may be able to fake a good fencing match through a lot of research. If a writer has never flown to space, she can use her imagination to get her there. You can’t simulate depth of character, though. You can fake the outward actions, but not the core.
I’m not saying that Stephanie Meyer has no depth of character; I have no idea. I’ve never read an interview from her because I’m frankly not interested. A person with depth of character can create a protagonist that has no depth; it merely means that the writer either has no talent or isn’t using their talent to the fullest. I AM saying that a writer who has no depth in their own character cannot create someone with depth.
So… what’s the moral of this story? Writers, have some depth yourselves, and instill that depth in your characters. And while you’re at it, use that depth to give us some protagonists that actually protags instead of loadtagonists. We don’t need any more of those.