Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Three Varieties of Protagonists

As I travel the vast distances of Tvtropes, and examine various stories across the mediums, I find some archetypes that are meant to relate to the audience; be relatable to them and form a connection to them.  It relates to the power of the protagonist to inspire or comfort.

I don't buy into this "relatable/identifiable protagonist"; I can enjoy Big O's Roger Smith, Evangelion Shinji Ikari, Ranma 1/2's Ranma Saotome and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann's Kamina all the same.  However, I see that sort of thing on TvTropes and in reviews. One review in particular, one for my own A Mage's Power is the inspiration for this post and another one.

I've written about two of these types before, the Loser and the Champion, but that one was more my personal feelings on the matter. I hope to make this one more objective and informative.

The first type is The Champion. I see this type as a larger than life presence. Someone that is bursting with confidence and drive to achieve their goals, and their goals will be just as ambitious and lofty as their personality. They're likely to be loud but just as likely to more of a tranquil focus. The point is to create a dynamic personality that can both carry and drive a plot, who is also fun to cheer for.

Example: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagan: Kamina  is technically not the protagonist (a matter of heated debate in the fandom) but he is pretty close nonetheless. He is so popular that he has become a meme for badass masculinity; his sunglasses are photoshopped onto unrelated characters to make them more badass because in doing so they become more like him.

Th second type is The Loser. The protagonist has flaws upon flaws that make them fail at everything. I don't understand why anyone would do this. I see a few possibilities such as a Seinfeld style comedy or some philosophical drama about a guy whose life gets progressively worse, but these are limiting and would get old and confining quickly. Generally it's better to have a flawed protagonist than an outright loser.

Example: Shinji Ikai from Neon Genesis Evangelion. He's a whinny and weak willed and overall he's depressing to watch.  He would have died in the first episode if his mom didn't go berserk and tear the Third Angel apart on his behalf. A lot of his fanfiction involves him growing a spine in one way or another and some of the more popular (as I've seen on TvTropes and Fanfiction.net)  make him into an outright champion.

These two are a contrast of  "Wishing you were" vs "Glad you're not". Oddly enough, both shows have enjoyed tremendous popularity. In the middle of these two is the third kind.

The Everyman:
A nice person without distinguishing traits; no eccentrics, no major virtues, nor any outstanding vices. Their personal history is different and their story but they themselves are more cookie cuter. They exist to be "relatable" and this is supposed to work by appealing to the lowest common denominator and giving them traits that the target audience as a whole supposedly has.

I can't think of any use for this kind of character other than Audience Surrogate and so they will likely be a Supporting Protagonist or a Pinball Protagonist because they're too bland to carry the story on their own.

Naturally, there are more than just these three kinds of protagonists but I pointed them out to sketch a way stories geared toward a particular audience are viewed and made. The Protagonist is designed to appeal to and/or relate to this audience because the writer/publisher/etc believe that will increase sales/viewership/etc. This is not the case with me.

When I wrote A Mage's Power, I was more interested in the world that Eric would inhabit than Eric himself.  I put great thought into how the magic system worked, the gods and their purpose in this world,  justifying the existence of monsters and respawning like in RPGs, and the social/political culture of kingdom that Eric lives in. Eric himself received little attention in the pre-writing stage because he was less important. As a result, he became generic, and because my self-imposed "Zero to Hero" challenge, he was spineless and incompetent.

In other words, he became a hybrid of the Loser and Everyman. This lead to other reviews that said the plot lacked direction. Indeed, because Eric has no goal beyond getting by in the first book, he does not drive the plot and so indeed he gets involved in a number of different activities and not one of them commands the spotlight.

I came to this conclusion after receiving a certain review. It praised the supporting case but was critical of the protagonist. These supporting characters all had more thorough backstories than Eric starting off and developed more quickly during the drafts. It is only while rewriting the second book, Looming Shadow, that I feel I have truly gotten to know my protagonist.

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