12

What I've found in most books I've read is that the protagonist is "normal" and/or "average" (at least in the beginning). I believe this is because most readers should be able to relate to the protagonist and if (s)he was superior or simply weird it wouldn't be as relatable. I also read somewhere that your characters can be as weird/crazy/superior etc. as you want them, the only exception is the protagonist who should be more normal/average.

Imagine a work of fiction (classic fantasy/scifi) where the protagonist is the healthy good guy hero (and not an 'American Psycho' or anything like that).

  1. Would the story work if it was written from the protagonist's point of view and (s)he was:

    • very weird, like Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter
    • very intelligent, like Sherlock Holmes (In the books, Dr. Watson is the point of view)
    • very limited, some say stupid or mentally handicapped, like Hodor from A Song of Ice and Fire
  2. How different from the average can I make my protagonist (if the story is from his/her point of view) without making him/her unrelatable?

  • 4
    Note: A story from Hodors point of view would not look like this. :D – Niffler Feb 25 '15 at 13:58
  • 3
    The term you're looking for is "Everyman". No go forth and google that word, and a world of advice will open up for you. – Zano Feb 25 '15 at 22:00
  • 1
    Even if I disagree with the premise, this is a good question to answer, since it's a common enough belief. – Zibbobz Feb 26 '15 at 19:57
  • Try reading "Smilla's sense of snow" for an example of a book with a decidedly unusual protagonist, written from her point of view. – rumtscho Feb 28 '15 at 13:33

12 Answers 12

15

I don't think your protagonist has to be ordinary to be relatable.

  • While I haven't read the series, isn't the point of The Diary of a Wimpy Kid that the protagonist isn't the "healthy good guy hero" type?
  • Writer Graham Moore just won an Oscar for his screenplay adapting The Imitation Game, a biography of codebreaker Alan Turing, and said that Turing was one of his heroes precisely because he was a weird outcast (who went on to do amazingly heroic things).
  • Greg House, the main character of the TV show House, MD, is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and is the smartest guy in the room (and often the building). He's obnoxious, arrogant, and occasionally cruel, but also brilliant, funny, caring, and occasionally sensitive.
  • The narrator of Flowers for Algernon (aka Charly) starts out as mentally handicapped, becomes brilliant, and eventually devolves back to handicapped. The novel is told in the first person.

Your readers aren't all ordinary, for good or ill, so why should all protagonists be?

  • 2
    Agreed. I would also cite Ancillary Justice, where the protagonist is a ship's artificial intelligence that used to be in control of hundreds of individual bodies, and yet that doesn't impede the reader's ability to sympathize with her. – Stephan Feb 26 '15 at 5:01
  • Just a note regarding your first point: I am aware that I can have a protagonist who is not a "healthy good guy hero". I guess I was not clear but what I meant was IF my protagonist IS a "healthy good guy hero" is it then possible for him/her to be like the examples I gave. Your other points in this answer are very useful in that context though. Thanks! – Niffler Feb 27 '15 at 13:20
10

I think you've gotten some bad advice. Lead characters do not need to be "ordinary", they need to be realistic. You could easily write a book from Luna Lovegood's point of view, provided you could make her actions relatable, which is to say, logical and reasonable. That's not the same as "ordinary", that just means we can understand why she's doing things. If you don't, it will be a frustrating read.

Same goes for Sherlock Holmes. In fact, he did narrate two stories himself, "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" and "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane".

This isn't just true of books, it's also true in other fiction. For example, consider the character of Joey from the sitcom FRIENDS. In that show he's VERY two dimensional: He's astonishly stupid, and fixated on the simple things in life. He's not very realistic at all... which became a big problem when they span him off into his own TV show, JOEY.

Your central characters need to be realistic in order to be relatable (and also to generate good stories). Your peripheral characters can be bizarre and two dimensional.

How much the reader enjoys spending time in their company is a completely different matter. I don't think Hodor is particularly realistic, but either way, he's also very dull. The world through his eyes probably wouldn't be very interesting.

  • "Joey" would have been a better show if they'd followed this advice. – Zibbobz Feb 26 '15 at 16:34
  • 2
    I would like to emphasize the word realistic even more. This answer made very much sense to me. +1 – Niffler Feb 27 '15 at 13:17
8

It gives the most room to expand.

As the story progresses, we observe the change of the protagonist, be it growth in strength or fall to corruption, or getting tangled with powers, or struggling to retain virtues against onslaught of temptations. By starting with someone "generic" you give yourself the most room to expand, to make the change more drastic and more meaningful.

If you start with too many quirks, you run into immediate risk of making your protagonist a mary sue. It takes skill and caution to make a "quirky" (be it powerful, or overly unfortunate, or generally "special") protagonist not become the center of the universe, with the rest of the world revolving around them.

Yes, it's one of the "rules that exist to be broken" - if you have a good plot which requires a "special snowflake" at the very beginning, do it - it may be a reversal of the "growth" story, where a tired god seeks escape into a calm life of a common mortal, or it may be a comedy with an arrogant, handsome, rich and famous hero running face first into a situation only fit for a "commoner", or you may come up with a Machiavellian mind and display its nature through the progress - these are all exceptions, violations of the rule - a rule that says "start with someone very relatable, then put them through a grinder and show what comes out".

5

You can certainly write a successful story or novel with a non-traditional POV --I'm thinking of Room, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time --it will just be a different kind of narrative. The main thing is that a neutral POV acts like a window onto the wider world of your story --which you can then populate with many strange and interesting things (think Murakami, or Pinkwater). If the POV is non-traditional, much of what the reader's attention will be drawn to will be the inside of the main character's head. That may not be what you want if you're doing sf or fantasy.

Paradoxically, it may also make it more difficult to highlight what is distinctive about your protagonist. Consider The Great Gatsby --if it was written from Gatsby's point of view, it would have been hard to give that same golden shimmer to his wealth and ambition. Nick's fascination with Gatsby is part of what makes Gatsby fascinating.

4

"Glennkill" is written from a sheep's point of view. Which is one of its main points of attraction. I remember a story from the perspective of a cup (Böll maybe?). "The Remarkable Rocket" from Wilde's "The Happy Prince and Other Stories" has fireworks as protagonists. Of course, the Happy Prince himself is a statue.

Many fairy tales have things as protagonists. "Toy Story" takes up this kind of topos as well.

  • There’s also Three Bags Full, a murder mystery in which a flock of sheep try to figure out who or what killed their beloved shepherd. – Seth Gordon Feb 27 '15 at 2:27
4

Relateable Characters

My favorite childhood character growing up was Bilbo Baggins. He was a single-living half-sized creature with a magical ring who was cowardly but clever, and had a great reluctance to try to go on any sort of adventure.

I'm nothing like Bilbo Baggins, yet I can relate to dreams of adventure and wanting to be a quick-witted hero.

Another of my favorite books was "Catherine Called Birdy", a book about everyday life growing up in mideival times, told through the diary entries of a teenage girl set in the period, but told with the voice of a more modern teenage girl. She was clever, a bit mischevious, but had a good heart and was a strong female role model, but stuck in a situation that she could not very well control (betrothed to a loathesome man)

I am not a woman, nor am I in mideival times, but I can relate to being forced into situations that are out of my control and wishing I could change them. And I can understand what it's like to be a girl because I have a sister and a mother.

Growing up, one of the books that struck me most clearly as a complex work of fiction was "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest", told from the perspective of a silent, stoic, mentally-scarred indian Chief, and prominently featuring a convicted con-man faking a mental disorder.

I'm nothing like either of those two men (somewhat thankfully) yet I can still enjoy this story and relate to their struggle, and I hope you're seeing the pattern here.

Readers do not need to be identical to the main character to relate to them. They can see things in themselves, relate to them through people that they know, or simply relate to their struggle as a fellow human being.

There is no reason you have to write your character as an "everyman", in fact I highly recommend you don't do that, as it will instantly make your main character forgettable.

Give them flaws, give them quirks, give them something that makes them who they are, and readers who have their own quirks flaws and unique characteristics will find things to relate to, if not directly to the character than to someone they know like that character, and if not that, then simply to the struggle of being human*.

*To say nothing of being able to relate to the characers of Redwall despite not being a mouse, badger, squirrel, sparrow or any other woodland creature.

3

The key thing is not that they are everyman, it's that people can relate to them. If it's Dr Who or Gandalf, no - they're totally other. But if it's someone like Einstein or Alan Turing, it can work if they're also going through normal human life struggles that your audience can relate to.

The difference with using a non-traditional narrator, is that now you have to write in their voice. Flowers for Algernon is the perfect example of this as we see his life transform through his eyes. Consider also Huckleberry Finn or numerous other stories where the writer uses the narrator's vernacular. To pull this off is trickier than it might appear (as you will probably find out if you do this). You have to understand how your narrator sees the world through his eyes. Hence, using Einstein is not suitable unless you can understand how one sees the world when one is a persecuted, egomaniacal, super-genius.

That said, if your dealing with a fantasy world, that becomes somewhat easier as you define the world's parameters. But you still have to make the narrator "human", at least in their perceptions. The Pride of Chanur comes to mind.

  • +1 for citing CJ Cherryh. Her specialty is writing humans as the alien outsider in other cultures. Brilliantly. – Lauren Ipsum Feb 26 '15 at 22:57
2

You practically answered your own question.

In these two cases, you should probably use a third party narrator.

"very intelligent, like Sherlock Holmes (In the books, Dr. Watson is the point of view)
very limited, some say stupid or mentally handicapped, like Hodor from A Song of Ice and Fire"

The first person shouldn't narrate, and the second person can't.

Most other people can narrate for themselves, even "above average" people, as long as they aren't "outliers." In the above, Holmes is an "outlier" who makes Dr. Watson look "average" by comparison (he's actually well above average).

Other than the above, you don't need to "limit" your characters, just so they can be (self) narrators.

  • "the second person can't" -- as ever when you need an exception to prove a rule, consider The Sound And The Fury. – Steve Jessop Feb 26 '15 at 19:24
2

Your protagonist must be like your readers.

At least in those aspects that are relevant for your story. People cannot relate to characters that are too much unlike them.

So you need to define your target audience, and then make your protagonist "ordinary" for those readers.

If you write for children, you protagonist must be childlike (no matter his age or species). If you write for a military magazine, your protagonist must be militant. If you write for computer geeks, adolescent prison inmates, or retired bankers, you must make your characters relateable to them.

This is why Superman has doubts (where a real Superman would be confident), because that story is not about a Superman but about that comic book's readers and how they feel, magnified through the superpowers of the protagonist.

  • 1
    I normally think your advice is excellent, but I'm not convinced your bolded headline is actually true. – Chris Sunami Feb 26 '15 at 14:28
  • I would downvote if I could. People can relate to characters that are not like them because they can relate to other people that aren't them. You're cutting your expectations of your readers short. While there can be something said for writing to your expected audience and their expectations, that doesn't mean the reader cannot relate to characters that aren't entirely like them, internally or otherwise. – Zibbobz Feb 26 '15 at 16:31
  • 1
    I did not say "entirely". You may note my example: most people do not have superpowers, and yet they can relate to Superman -- because he is like them in the most relevant aspects. People can relate to Superman because he is like them when it comes to his doubt about his actions, to the way he has difficulty relating to women or making friends, and so on. Basically, Superman is an awkward teenager. And that is why he "works" as a projection surface for the dreams and worries of his teen readers. He carries the label of superiority, but apart from his physique he is quite average. – user5645 Feb 26 '15 at 21:43
  • 1
    I would not downvote this because I think I get what you mean. I can basically have a crazy nutjob with an IQ of 160 as my protagonist, but it will only work if his/her actions or feelings are something that my audience can relate to. – Niffler Feb 27 '15 at 13:31
1

If you haven't done so already, get and read "One flew over the cuckoo's nest" from Ken Kesey. Don't bother with the movie. It misses the perspective of the book, sacrificing most of its power. The book is written from the perspective of Chief Bromden, a hallucinating shadow of a giant reduced into submission by drugs and psychological warfare.

Reading the book is very, very worthwhile not just because it should answer your question.

1

The less ordinary the better is what I think.

Why would Joe Bloggs want to read a story about Joe Bloggs?

Joe Bloggs would most probably enjoy the experience more if he/she were reading about Joe Awesomepants. Or, conversely, Joe Awfulpants.

It is often the very high-achieving characters (richer than rich, powerful, slightly crazy) or the downright weirdos (people who spend days alone without interacting with other human beings in any way; people who find pleasure in watching news stories involving car crashes, etc.) that grab my attention more than the stereotypical "young-kid-who-works-at-his-grandmother's-bookshop".

0

The character doesn't have to be "normal" to be relatable. I have read books where the character is the leader of the rebellion and is still more relatable than a character I read that was middle school fiction. The character just has to have feelings that are appropriate for the situation, and have a well rounded personality. No one will relate to a Mary Sue that is always happy even if their best friend just died. Hope this helped!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.