May 24, 2019, 10:17:23 AM

Author Topic: The Uninteresting Protagonist Problem  (Read 648 times)

Offline Neveesandeh

The Uninteresting Protagonist Problem
« on: May 25, 2018, 03:07:50 PM »
I remember reading in John Truby's 'The Anatomy of Story' that the protagonist of a great story should be the most interesting character in that story. Ever since, I've been thinking about potentially great stories that could perhaps have done with a more interesting character as the protagonist.

The two I can think of off the top of my head are Stephen King's 'The Stand' and Neil Gaiman's 'Neverwhere'. You can throw 'American Gods' in there as well. All these books are filled with complex and likable characters, but the protagonist is never one of them, and maybe having another character as the protagonist could have improved the story.

I would be interested to see if anyone else has found this with some stories, or if anyone disagrees with me.

Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: The Uninteresting Protagonist Problem
« Reply #1 on: May 25, 2018, 06:19:35 PM »
Do not forget to distinguish between Protagonist and POV/Main character. There's a reason Watson is vanilla and Holmes is interesting; the former is the MC; the latter is the protagonist.
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Offline Neveesandeh

Re: The Uninteresting Protagonist Problem
« Reply #2 on: May 25, 2018, 06:32:55 PM »
That's a good point. Thanks for bringing it up.

Offline Skip

Re: The Uninteresting Protagonist Problem
« Reply #3 on: May 26, 2018, 01:00:55 AM »
Also, there's a lot of territory between less interesting and uninteresting. I don't think anyone sets out to write a protagonist who is of no interest whatsoever. Now, a character can be uninteresting *to me* -- but that's a separate topic.
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: The Uninteresting Protagonist Problem
« Reply #4 on: May 26, 2018, 03:48:06 AM »
The nature of the character's interestingness is key to a lot of things around it. If it's based in something we cannot really experience, like Holmes' inhuman perception and intelligence, or Spock's dispassion, or Gandalf's great age and wisdom, best to view them through a more boring but way more identifiable character's eyes, like a hobbit - as many as four if you need them. I think this, more than anything else, must drive who is POV and who is MC (and when they should be the same). This is not only because of "identifiableness", but also the nature of the interestingness of the story. It is boring to have a character mull what he knows. Shifting to a POV character beside him lets us wonder, as she does, what's going on and what will come of it.

All this said, I think "Interesting", or rather, dullness of characters is often misapplied. Interest or boredom with a character is a result of something - and I don't think it has that much to do with the construction of the character - their flair or distinctiveness. It has to do with empathy, which is more sophisticated than often thought. Sometimes, it is pure empathy; other times that empathy is more vicarious in nature (me wanting to be them or in their shoes) than it is just caring about them or their success. I cannot identify with Edmond Dantes, because if I had unimaginable wealth, I would not pursue vengeance. I cannot sympathize fully. But I can enjoy his spending as he proceeds toward that goal with ease :)

« Last Edit: May 27, 2018, 11:47:52 AM by The Gem Cutter »
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"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline cupiscent

Re: The Uninteresting Protagonist Problem
« Reply #5 on: May 27, 2018, 08:39:26 AM »
Every time I read one of Django Wexler's flintlock fantasy books, I think about how Janus is undeniably the most amazing character in the cast, but never the POV, because he's just too amazing. Part of what's great is watching through the ordinary human characters as he pulls off stuff that no one else could think of or put into effect. Plus, it keeps his genius just a little bit sinister, because we can never really know his motivations.

So: there are reasons to not have the most interesting character as the viewpoint/protag.

There's a great episode of the Writing Excuses podcast that deals with the main character / hero / protagonist distinction. I can't remember their precise delineations, but it had to do with goodness and agency and pushing the plot. And, of course, it all depends on what sort of story you want to tell.

Online Peat

Re: The Uninteresting Protagonist Problem
« Reply #6 on: May 27, 2018, 01:40:45 PM »
To expound on above posts -

Richard in Neverwhere can't be the most exciting and interesting character, because he is an ordinary man in a fantasy world. Of course the fantasy world is going to be more interesting. I think that's true - and accepted - or pretty much every fantasy in which someone goes from a mundane to a magical world.

That said - Gaiman does seem to take the blankness and passiveness of his MCs to extremes.
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Offline Ryan Mueller

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Re: The Uninteresting Protagonist Problem
« Reply #7 on: May 27, 2018, 05:36:34 PM »
I'm not sure I agree with this. I've read very few books in which the protagonist is the most interesting character. The protagonist is more often someone the reader can relate to, and a lot of times, other characters are more interesting because there's mystery surrounding them. You can seem them only through the eyes of your point-of-view characters, so they're interesting because you're only seeing the surface.

Offline Yora

Re: The Uninteresting Protagonist Problem
« Reply #8 on: May 27, 2018, 06:51:12 PM »
But you do get a problem when the story keeps saying "This is the story of A", while what is actually happening is A being a sidekick to character B who does all the most interesting and entertaining things. There is nothing wrong with making it "This is A who experienced first hand how B did lots of interesting things". But then you can't make it seem like everyone is looking towards A to do the important things and make the important decisions.

I remember one time where a story played with this, which was the videogame Final Fantasy 10. It even opens with a flash forward to part of a monolog at the lowpoint right before the big showdown, which starts with the words "Listen to my story..." And he is incedibly arrogant, ignorant, and straight up obnoxious, so many people don't like him as a protagonist. But the joke is that he is the only one who thinks he's the hero of the story. The way everyone else acts around him (or just completely ignores him), they seem him only as some annoying tagalong that their leader allows to travel with them because of her endless compassion and there's a good reason they let her have her idle fancy without objecting to it. And in the end his ignorance and complete lack of respect for customs leads to an important revelation that no sane person had ever considered. It's his arogance that saves the world.
When seen like that it's actually quite clever, but to a lot of people he was still just very annoying and stealing all the thunder from the actual hero of the story whose journey is much more interesting.

Offline Neveesandeh

Re: The Uninteresting Protagonist Problem
« Reply #9 on: May 27, 2018, 10:34:25 PM »
To expound on above posts -

Richard in Neverwhere can't be the most exciting and interesting character, because he is an ordinary man in a fantasy world. Of course the fantasy world is going to be more interesting. I think that's true - and accepted - or pretty much every fantasy in which someone goes from a mundane to a magical world.

That said - Gaiman does seem to take the blankness and passiveness of his MCs to extremes.

Maybe the most important thing isn't necessarily that the protagonist is the most interesting character, but simply not the most boring. I remember hearing about the short story 'Monarch of the Glen' and it's main selling point was that Shadow was in it. I just thought: 'Shadow? That guy? Who cares?'

Online Peat

Re: The Uninteresting Protagonist Problem
« Reply #10 on: May 30, 2018, 10:38:38 AM »
To expound on above posts -

Richard in Neverwhere can't be the most exciting and interesting character, because he is an ordinary man in a fantasy world. Of course the fantasy world is going to be more interesting. I think that's true - and accepted - or pretty much every fantasy in which someone goes from a mundane to a magical world.

That said - Gaiman does seem to take the blankness and passiveness of his MCs to extremes.

Maybe the most important thing isn't necessarily that the protagonist is the most interesting character, but simply not the most boring. I remember hearing about the short story 'Monarch of the Glen' and it's main selling point was that Shadow was in it. I just thought: 'Shadow? That guy? Who cares?'

I think I'd simply express it as "the MC can't be boring".
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