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10:28 pm: Ten ways of making all-powerful, unique protagonists tolerable
I don’t think it’s easy, mind. But it can be done.

1) Give them a sense of humor. One of the great faults of many fantasy protagonists is that they are entirely oriented towards doom-gloom-oh-my-god-we-are-all-going-to-DIE-angst. Their passions are always melodramatic. Everything that happens to them is always over-the-top, extraordinary, and often beyond the conception of mere mortals. They are the ones who not only have a tragic love, or a child they’ve been forced to abandon, or a family who’s mistreated them, but had all three happen at once. Plus other sorrows and dangers. (For a way to treat this that works better, see point 3). And their lives are taken up with brooding on those sorrows and dangers whenever they aren’t actually suffering them. I think many fantasy authors have read a bit too much Byron and Emily Brontë.

And the only “humor” they have is sarcastic wit, which often isn’t all that funny, and sometimes isn’t all that witty, either.

Would it hurt to give them a sense of humor apart from sarcasm? I think a sense of humor about themselves would be best, because that would prevent them from becoming too self-important. But at least they should be able to laugh at jokes, unwitting funny statements, and the foibles of others. It would lighten the sometimes oppressive atmospheres of the books, too.

2) Let time change them. Frozen Psychology is also a big problem with broody, angsty fantasy hero/ines. One event happens to them, and that ends all change for them. They’re always frozen, fixed in time over that one death or that one torture or that one year. They’re exactly the same at thirty-five as they were at fifteen.

Bullshit, says I. If they’re that unchanged, they have no business recovering so rapidly when the action of the novel starts; they should have severe psychological problems instead. (I think it was Philip K. Dick who said the people for whom time really stops are psychotics).

Yes, you could argue that magic has kept them frozen like that. But consider why you want them frozen like that in the first place. Does it make them less unique, less heroic, to have changed with time, to have acquired joys and new relationships and, here’s a good point, other griefs? (See point 3). I don’t see why. They’ll probably be more heroic, in that they’ve struggled and fought towards their own healing instead of flopping down in one place and waiting for outside circumstances to rescue them. (See point 9).

3) Try having more than one bad event in their lives. The Frozen Psychology—and the refusal to tell anyone what’s wrong, and the refusal to sympathize with others’ suffering unless it makes themselves look good, that are also common traits of Unique fantasy protagonists, because God knows they have to be the most tormented people in the story—happens most often in relation to a single event. Nothing will ever compare to seeing their village slaughtered by orcs, sob sob! No, nothing bad’s happened to them since that time twenty years ago when they lost their lover, but that doesn’t matter, because nothing can ever be good again!

Again, bullshit. Emotional responses to tragedy beyond grief are possible, including:

-glacial indifference
-stoic determination to resist grief
-secret gladness
-sorrow for other people, instead of oneself
-hard work, taking the necessary duties on one’s own shoulders
-walking away and leaving it behind

Let the events have different effects on the character, instead of blending together into one undifferentiated mass of Dark Past. Let the character feel some more keenly than others; most people do. Let some seem minor, either because they really are or because of where they fall in time. I might grieve if a favorite pet dies, but I’m unlikely to grieve as much if it happens right after my grandmother dies, or if I’ve expected it because it happens at the end of a long illness.

Not everything about the character needs to be extreme. The suffering can be unique without being the Greatest Tormenting Passion ever.

4) Set the unbreakable limits of your magic in place before you start writing. The major problem with protagonists who have unsurpassed magic is that they can literally do anything. It might not seem like it, because, after all, the plot has problems their magic can’t solve—except that, many times, their magic does end up solving them in the end, even though the reader has been told that isn’t possible. Suddenly the character has the ability to drain a distant power source he never reached before, or finds out that she’s actually the reincarnation of the ancient queen who alone can fight the Dark Lord, or starts wielding a piece of magic that, before, only members of another species or another gender could wield.

You can hint at this early on, sure. But the problem is that, up until the point the magic actually emerges, you’ve lied to the readers, on two levels. First, their magic can solve problems you claimed it couldn’t solve; all it takes is the right combination of circumstances. Second, you’ve said there were limits in place, deeds they couldn’t do or levels of magic they couldn’t access, and that’s not true, either.

Have rules of the world in place that you won’t break even for your darlings, please, or you have no excuse for why they don’t solve all the problems of the plot in the first ten pages.

5) Limit the number of offices and roles they hold. This will seem a strange one, I’m certain. But something I think moves the character rather sharply towards Author’s Darling status is having them be the answer to every single prophecy, the rightful heir of every powerful magical artifact, the child or grandchild or cousin of every important character, and the prophet or leader or mythical Steward of every people who has an office like that in their culture.


For one thing, the character usually can’t do the roles justice; she’s too busy dashing around doing other things. That seems to me a rather poor bargain for the people who’ve been patiently awaiting their queen or savior, and imagining that she’ll, well, help them.

For another, the offices and titles rarely involve any actual responsibility. She receives the bows, the associated magical artifacts, and the obedience of the people involved. She doesn’t get tied up in duties, sacrifices, or negotiations. And her roles never, never conflict with one another, even when the people involved are enemies, which is just dumb.

And, finally, for a personal reaction, I’m simply over the revelation that every single important character in the story is related to all the other important characters. The secret family relationships are usually hard to entangle, and kept secret for no reason. You can tell them now, why couldn’t you tell them before?

If your major reason for having your character assume multiple roles in the story is to lavish her with long titles, you might want to start thinking how she’d actually do all those jobs.

6) Limit the number of encomiums they receive. An encomium is a formal expression of praise. It may be as blatant as a character dwelling rapturously on the protagonist’s beauty for four pages (why, hello yet again, Elizabeth Haydon’s Rhapsody), or as “subtle” as the protagonist overhearing a conversation in which the people involved talk about how good and brave and darling she is. This is exactly what it sounds like, a chance to exalt the protagonist to the heavens without fearing that she will sound conceited for thinking about her own good qualities.

How many do you get?

One allowed a book. Two if the other characters are thinking to themselves out of the protagonist’s direct hearing, and never actually tell her how wonderful they think she is.

Yes, that’s an arbitrary number. I’m feeling arbitrary today.

I understand that, sometimes, there really is no other way to get the information about this character across to the audience, and if you’ve got a really self-depreciating or depressed narrator, their own self-esteem is skewed. But the best way to get around this is—ready for it?--show the reader your narrator’s good qualities, and flaws, in action, rather than having other characters whisper about how much they wish they were as beautiful as she is, or as smart, or as brave. At least, if you show us this hero acting like a hero, then we’ll be readier to believe in the encomiums than we will if you just have someone start babbling out of the blue.

7) Put life and interest in other characters. Despite your best efforts, your unsurpassable, unique protagonist may end up boring the reader.

Yes, I know that’s depressing. If you need time to think and get over it, take a few minutes before you read the next sentences.

Got over it? Good.

Now, can you predict this? No. Can you control this? Not completely. I’m all for doing what you can to improve your relationship, as writer, with the reader; what I think is stupid and foolish is to dream of controlling that relationship so perfectly that the reader has no option but to think and believe about the narrative as you would have them think and believe. There will always be someone out there who notices your grammar mistakes more than your beautiful prose, someone who misinterprets your wonderfully clear sentences, and someone who happens to hit, by a mixture of luck and bloody-mindedness, on your marvelously concealed plot twists. (I’ve done that two times, once with Simon R. Green and once with George R. R. Martin. Both times, I don’t know what prompted the thought. Both times, I was right, and luckily it didn’t mar my enjoyment of the stories).

So. Give up the idea that everyone who reads the story is going to love your protagonist, or even finds them tolerable. And then you can get on with giving some other characters personality traits and quirks and inner lives, so if you have an Author’s Darling on your hands, at least you can show that this writer loves his or her other children, too.

(I think this is good advice for every novel, by the way, but more imperative when you have a protagonist who threatens to warp every situation in the story their way).

8) Make them genuinely endearing. “Endearing,” as I mean it here, is a different combination of traits than “loveable.” Too often, the dedication to making the protagonist loveable at any cost means sacrificing what makes her human. Thus, she’s incredibly beautiful, incredibly talented at six or seven things, never makes a mistake, has the worst past of anyone in the story, has a family who’s completely wronged her and whom she’s never wronged but whom she will, in the end, forgive, has passions and emotions lesser characters can’t answer, and is tormented by the malice of the universe. She’s boring, so tormented that I just roll my eyes when another bad thing happens to her—as I’ve said before about abused characters, if you scream at your readers that they can’t comprehend what she’s suffered, it becomes literally true—and, if her perceptions match objective reality, she matches my definition of a canon Mary Sue.

Endearing is a different thing. Let your character have spots on her soul to which affection can attach. Yes, affection, and sympathy, and compassion, and pity, not mindless love and adoration. I can feel affection even for a character who’s the strongest mage in the world, as long as I see that she still makes mistakes and has flaws and has some ordinary, human qualities. I’ve liked characters that other people thought were Mary Sues—for example, Brust’s Vlad Taltos, Zelazny’s Prince Corwin of Amber, and Martin’s Daenerys Targaryen—because I could recognize something I sympathized with in them. Vlad and Corwin both make horrid mistakes, and change their conduct along the way, itself a silent sign that not everything they did at first was perfect. Daenerys also makes mistakes, and she gets married and pregnant at an incredibly young age; just imagining what I would suffer if I had to do that put me firmly on her side. In all three cases, my primary reaction when I think of them is to smile, with an undertone of, “Oh, honestly, and oh, honestly,” rather than to fling myself at their feet and worship.

Once again, this is individual, and what makes a character endearing to one reader will not make her endearing to another. But the author can start out with a different ambition than to make the character simply beloved, and I think it’ll help. Hell, starting out with the ambition of having the character liked, instead of loved, is, I think, the superior desire.

9) Give a sign of progress. This is related, sort of, to number 2. One besetting sin of the usual fantasy maturation narrative is repetition. The character makes a promise not to do a certain thing, or learns a lesson from a mistake, or makes a decision that should allow them to gain a certain insight, and then the next time the same situation arises, here comes the exact same lack of action or stupid impulse or mindless fretting as before.

Yes; in real life, people backslide. But it happens across years, and we’re not wearied by seeing it happen in front of our eyes for hundreds of pages. And people who get wearied often have the satisfaction of walking away from the behavior or yelling at the repetitive person about it. Neither is true with a fantasy novel, at least if we want to read to the end of it. And if the character is supposed to be growing up and leaving a dark past and old mistakes behind, it’s doubly frustrating to be told he’s improving when it’s so clear he’s not, until it all happens in a ridiculous silly rush at the end of the book.

So, balance between realistic circling back and the necessity for fictional progress. Abused characters or people struggling with the burden of saving the world and taming their untamable magic at the same time ought to be sympathetic characters. That I don’t find them so, much of the time, has to do with the amount of time the author spends dwelling on the suffering instead of the steps taken to overcome it. The strength to endure and do physical or magical battle is relatively common to fantasy hero/ines; the strength to heal is very rare, because healing is harder.

10) Always remember that uniqueness, in and of itself, is no guarantee of a good story. A bunch of cool ideas are not a story. They need flesh and bone, heart and sinew. Thus, deciding that you want to write about a character who can sense the moods of the earth and call up or prevent earthquakes is not a story. Even if you develop a personality for him and add a few other people and a detailed world, that still doesn’t mean it’ll be interesting.

The character can call up or prevent earthquakes!

And, beyond a few exciting scenes that will only be exciting the first time around, why should we care? What makes you want to write about him beyond that?

In conversations with people writing all-powerful protagonists, usually on this journal, I keep encountering the idea that the protagonist must be all-powerful or there’s no interest. Ask yourself: Is there interest with that, either?

The character’s power cannot be the whole of the story, any more than any other single plot device can. And yes, I think it’s a plot device. It may be a necessary one, but it needs company, particularly in a novel. An idea like this may sustain a short story. It’s much less likely to carry you across hundreds of pages.

For the record, I still think stories without all-powerful, unsurpassable characters are much more interesting, and I prefer protagonists who have qualities that every character could have, only magnified by the events of the story or their pasts.

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Date:November 2nd, 2010 09:15 am (UTC)

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