Why are protagonists the worst? Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this: how come the protagonist is never anyone’s favorite character? Have you ever met a Stars Wars fan whose favorite character was Luke Skywalker? A Lord of the Rings fan whose favorite character was Frodo Baggins? A Wizard of Oz fan whose favorite character was Dorothy Gale? Or even a Harry Potter fan whose favorite character was Harry Potter? How come the character who is so often featured in the title is so rarely the one that captures our hearts? It’s because of one narrative trope that they all share: the Rudderless Boat.
Now what exactly do I mean by that? The Rudderless Boat (which is, admittedly, a term of my own creation) is a character who, instead of actively participating, observes from the sidelines. They are characters who must suddenly embrace a completely foreign world, and instead of doing so on their own, are carried through the trails they would have faced by those already inhabiting said world. They’re given such a step-by-step instructional guide in navigating their way that their companions become their stewards, stripping them of all autonomy. While the other characters figure out what the main conflict is and how to resolve it, all the Rudderless Boat has to do is tag along for the ride!
So why are protagonists so often written like this? Is this an inevitable product of the “Call to Adventure” in storytelling, or is there something else motivating screenwriters, novelists and playwrights? The reason why I believe so many protagonists are reduced to passengers in their own adventures is to serve as the audience. They know just as little about Hogwarts, the Jedi, Oz, or Middle-Earth as we do, so it’s tempting to use them as a vehicle to teach us about this new world and how it functions, rather than making them their own independent characters.
So, as a writer, how do you avoid this? It’s easy! Just have your protagonist figure thing out on their own! In other words, don’t have the ghost of Obi-Wan appear to Luke and tell him that the next step in his adventure is to find Yoda, have him formulate his own plan for defeating Darth Vader. In the Odyssey, as Odysseus sails home he encounters a whole fantasy realm of cyclopses, hydras, sirens, and witches, yet defeats each one of them not by being told how to do it by some side character who already sailed through these magical seas, but by using his own cunning and knowledge. He didn’t need a Glinda to tell him which way was home or a Hermione fix him some magical potion, but saved himself.
Featured image via Wired