Writing is Bullshit: Protagonists

Coming up with story concepts isn’t difficult for me. It’s not hard to sit down and rattle off 15 concepts really quick, just a sentence. A concept will usually suggest a genre to me. Genres have conventions and obligatory scenes, so the bones of the story are there in less than ten seconds, easily.

Here’s where it gets hard: I’ve read so many stories I know exactly how that story is supposed to go. So does everyone else. So why write it?

For me, the answer is anger. Something about how I’m supposed to write that story not only doesn’t match my lived experience, it is such unbelievable bullshit that I’m willing to hammer out a 90,000-word subtweet.

Right now, I’m mad at the protagonist. Protagonists are bullshit.

Fuck Protagonists

Bear with me a minute while I back up to Freshman English.

By default in Western literature, a story is driven by a protagonist. The protagonist is a central figure in a narrative. They are a person with wants, with agency, whose choices drive the plot. At the end of the plot, the protagonist triumphs and is changed.

All western fiction is a variation on this ur-melody, and genre is codified variation. In a tragedy, the protagonist does not triumph. In a black comedy, he does not change. In horror and thrillers, the protagonist spends more time than usual without agency (and may never have any in a horror). Mad Men’s central figure, Don Draper, neither triumphs nor changes. That’s given to Peggy, Don’s foil. Vonnegut and Phillip K. Dick managed to build entire careers out of characters who lacked real agency.

These variations aren’t exceptions that prove the rule, they are necessary innovations. Stray too far from the formula, the plot falls apart. Hew too closely to it, it’s stale. Innovating within constraints is the job. That’s how you end up with something people want to read.

Here’s a fuckin’ problem: The central experience of being poor is a lack of agency. A story needs character agency to make the plot go. So how do you faithfully portray poverty and keep a plot going?

Historically, writers have gotten around this in two ways. One, our poor orphan hero is somehow special. S/he is The Chosen One. Rey from Star Wars is raised by sand but knows half a dozen languages, can fly, and has the force. Aside from a quick scene in the beginning, her poverty has no impact on her in any way whatsoever because she is special (and we wouldn’t have a plot otherwise). Will Hunting is really good at math because while deprivation has made him really sad about himself, it hasn’t made him one of those icky people who deserves to be a janitor with intimacy problems.

I hate this. I don’t mind reading it. It’s effective. I just can’t bring myself to write it. It’s, at best, decorative poverty as inspiration porn. At worst, you get hundreds of stories of poor people whose literal superpowers are rewarded by a well-deserved ascent to the middle class.



The second way it’s dealt with is divine intercession. A powerless protagonist receives a boon from a divine power which makes protagonist choice possible. Cinderella’s fairy godmother gives her a dress and shoes so she can go to the ball. Charlie in Flowers for Algernon gets a magic operation that raises his IQ. Greek theater has so many intercessory Gods it’d be hard to list them all.

I do like this one a little better. As Bryan Doerries touches on in Theater of War, the intercession of a God in Greek tragedy is not a copout, and it is not a mere nod to the prevailing beliefs at the time. Greek tragedy outlines societal problems, and that’s hard to do when the narrative hinges on a single protagonist’s agency. For instance, Ajax ditches all agency in scene one when Athena intercedes and drives Ajax insane. Ajax, our hero, is dead by the midpoint and the rest of the play is everyone else dealing with his death.

This is not a mistake. That is not the product of an immature form. That is the best solution anyone has come up with so far to portray the topic of suicide while still telling a coherent narrative. In 3,000 years, nobody’s done better. Part of the reason why nobody’s done better is that when Aristotle sat down to codify how we tell stories, he panned Ajax. He was wrong. That wrong has been compounded. Ever since we’ve restricted the kinds of stories we tell by treating protagonist agency as an essential mark of narrative quality.

That’s a shame. Real talk, Will Hunting’s math skills and Rey’s everything skills aren’t more realistic than the intercession of a literal fucking god. You are not sophisticated for believing Will Hunting taught himself doctorate-level math skills but scoffing at Athena.

That’s, I think, what bothers me. We know there’s no magic operation for people like Charlie. We know there’s no fairy Godmother. But when we leave the theater, we believe people like Will Hunting exist and punish every janitor for not being him. The intercessory format at least can be a critique of the kind of world that requires but does not provide an intercessor. It lets us tell stories about people we otherwise might never hear about. But Chosen One narratives tell us what we want to hear. They tell us one person can overcome anything if they’re just special enough to deserve it.

Fuck that.

Unfortunately, reader expectation is a constraint I’ll have to work within, and I’m going to have to sacrifice some realism to give people what they want. Someday, I hope we figure out how to tell stories about poor folk without resorting to magic.

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