Last month, I knew I would be working on a big project this month and the next, so I decided to use my two weeks off to pre-write some blog posts. Next month was planned to be a bunch of Veggie Tales reviews, and this month was going to be a series of four posts on boring protagonists. It was all set and ready. So naturally, in the middle of this week I decided to completely redo all of the posts I had planned. Oh well.
I did a post last month that I really liked. It was inspired by a fabulous Neil Gaiman novel, Anansi Boys. After that book was done, I was still in a Gaiman mood, so I picked up an audiobook of InterWorld, a book he cowrote with Michael Reaves. That book became the inspiration for this month.
It wasn’t an entirely bad book. If you enjoy cool worldbuilding you will probably like it quite a lot, but somewhere early on I realized the protagonist, Joey, was one of those protagonists who I found boring, not in the okay sense I talked about in my introductory post, but in the really bad, reading about him is the equivalent of a mouthful of cardboard sense. I’m going to use him as an example, with no disrespect intended towards Neil Gaiman. I still love the vast majority of his work.
The book introduces Joey with a story about the time he actually got lost in his own house. He has a predilection for getting lost that is almost a superpower, and later on it is explained that it actually somewhat is. He has an ability to navigate non-physical planes, and somehow that translates to getting lost easily in more mundane navigation. However, after the first chapter, he never gets lost again. Not even when he is in an unfamiliar place, in a situation where his magical abilities can’t help him.
This same approach applies to the rest of his characterization. We are told he is a plain old struggles-to-get-a-C-student, but when he starts study of arcane magics and alien geometries and quantum physics that go beyond what our most brilliant scientists understand, he gets it. He struggles with it, but he is able to grasp the information and use it. He sometimes intuits things that nobody around him would even consider, when it’s convenient to the story, and in other scenes demonstrates no special sensitivity or predilection for insight. In the book’s ending scenes, he becomes a de facto leader of characters who never saw him as particularly leaderly until that moment, and when there was a more natural and experienced leader in the room.
Some might point out that I’m describing a Mary Sue, and I won’t argue that point, but I want to go further than that. The term Mary Sue has been used to the point that it’s meaning has eroded. It is usually derogatory in terms of intent. It assumes the character was some form of wish fulfillment, as in a way for the author to enter the narrative and do everything they want to do. I actually had a feeling that Joey’s inconsistencies might have come from another issue; not an egotistical desire for the authors to insert themselves, but a misguided desire to ensure that he was “normal” enough to get YA readers to identify with him. They stuck him with things like “gets lost easily” and “bad at school” to make him feel ordinary. They avoided traits that feel exceptional, like “extremely intuitive” and “natural leader.”
So there are two problems with this. One is that none of those things are neutral traits that every human being has. Natural leaders with a strong intuition are people. Gifted scholars are people. There’s nothing neutral about “seriously, I get lost in my own house, no exaggeration.” The other is, of course, the inconsistency. When you establish a trait as something that defines a character, those traits shouldn’t just go away without a reason. When Joey had traits appearing and disappearing at the whim of the authors, he failed to have any personality. He bored me because he didn’t strike me as an actual human being.
So, if you can’t just give a character “normal traits” to get readers to empathize with them, what do you do? Well, I don’t think we identify solely with traits. True, we often talk of a characters who we especially identify with because they happen to be like us, but that’s a coincidence the writer cannot construct. Also, that’s not the kind of relatability that protagonists need. A protagonist doesn’t need to be everyone’s favorite, but they need a vast majority of their audience to be able to understand and care about what happens to them. In that sense, I think what we really relate to aren’t traits, but experiences.
The human life is vast and complicated, and most people, if they don’t die extremely young, will experience all of its highs and lows. We will all have times of great happiness, destitute misery, cozy companionship, agonizing loneliness, eerie serenity. Someone who normally feels plain can have that one school dance where they got so dressed up and everybody admires their dress and they feel incredibly pretty. Someone who normally feels lovely can have a week when the flu has them feeling utterly hideous. Experiences that are a part of our life with a certain consistency are our traits. Someone who feels shy most of the time and confident only when there is a particular reason for it is a shy person. Someone who feels confident unless their crush is in the room is a confident person. Characters who demonstrate specific traits but still go through those universal human experiences, when the author has justified them, are relatable.
I recently read Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, another one of my favorites, and her characters do this well. One of the protagonists, Grace, is notably stoic and practical. She demonstrates this in a number of ways throughout the book; she cooks mother more often than her flighty artistic mother, when shopping she goes straight to what she wants without browsing, she doesn’t read people’s emotions as well as her boyfriend Sam does, etc. However, she isn’t rigidly like that throughout the book. There are also some wonderful scenes where Sam tries to explain his love of poetry. Grace doesn’t get it right away. He has to teach her how to listen to the sound of words, instead of puzzle out the meaning, and think about how they make her feel. Eventually, she does start to read poetry, and understand it.
This is what makes Grace interesting and relatable. Any of one of us readers might be more like Grace, or more like Sam. But we have all had experiences where someone we loved made us see something we thought we didn’t like in a new light. We have all had times when we had to pull it together and be the grown-up when we didn’t want to, and we have all had times when sadness overwhelms us and breaks us down, (and yes, that happens to Grace too). She’s a real person with traits that consistently show up, but within her is enough that we can all see something of ourselves in her. Universal human experiences shine through her specific personality.