io9’s Ten Qualities for a Protagonist

Here’s another one from the Argh Vault. No idea why I didn’t post this; it links to a really good post that we should talk about.

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Charlie Jane Ander’s list is really for an “escapist hero,” but I think she’s nailed it for hero protagonists in general (not anti-heroes, they take a different bus), male and female. I’m thinking numbers 1 and 9 are pretty much the same thing, but I would argue that if you’re writing popular fiction (that would be the stuff that’s fun to read and actually sells), Anders’ list is a good place to start. (Actually, pretty much everything Anders says about writing is a good place start; I’m a big Anders fan.) Pull out the super-hero context, and it all still applies.

So what are your requirements for a great protagonist (non-anti-hero)? Does this list work for you? If not, what’s missing? What should be ignored? Let’s talk about the-person-the-whole-story-hinges-on, Our Girl or Guy.

34 thoughts on “io9’s Ten Qualities for a Protagonist

  1. One of the things I adore about your protagonists is that they are always really capable/ good at what they do – and I think that’s a vital characteristic (not ‘good at everything’ but really talented/smart/capable in at least one area). I really like the list, though, and agree with it all.

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    1. I think “skilled” is a crucial element in any character the reader is supposed to like or fear.
      As you said, NOT good at everything, just good at what she or he focuses on as important. My two go-to requirements for characters (but not implying that should be true for everybody) are “skilled” and “flawed.”

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  2. Absent a singular hero, the community should add up to the hero in aggregate. Sometimes the fun is in having each member of the ensemble represent one particular aspect, and then exploring how those bounce off of each other in an external fashion, than internal conflict in one protagonist. That way, you also have to build teams that need to work together to be the best they can be. (The excellent Justice League cartoons are now up on Netflix, and especially the latter Justice League Unlimited seasons really perfected how to throw hero ensembles together)

    1. They have to be (eventually) good at the thing that resolves the conflict. Not just good at “something,” as that’s how you get Smart Girls, but a truly relevant skill, even if it’s about their ability to inspire their team.
    Sub-point: either the protagonist has to be the one to resolve the final conflict, or their failure to do so is the primary theme of the work.

    2. For escapism, I generally prefer optimism. Either our sour knight learns to appreciate life again as their arc, or our hero’s optimism (paired with unflagging determination) was one of their primary strengths in the first place. Let there be joy and exhilaration and wonder in the work.

    3. Conversely, someone should be also snarking as a foil. Optimism and practicality aren’t mutually exclusive, don’t sacrifice the latter for the former, or the positivity will feel un-grounded and false.

    Related: You get only one internal-rule-breaking gimme, and generally that should be only empowered by thematic reasons. (Usually saved for the climax)

    4. Consistency, consistency, consistency. Their decisions should be supported by their personality. If they’re going outside of what they stand for, that better be primary thematic point of the work, and that tends to be not nearly as satisfying as the hero finding a way to make what they stand for work in a creative solution. Certain forms of optimism and idealism don’t need to be deconstructed to be interesting.
    Similarly, I like if a hero is able to positively stabilize, preferably via community. They may never be able to stop fighting crime, but they’ll have a family/team to do it with.

    For very personal preference, I prefer that instead of going outside the box, the creativity is “juuuuuuust coloring right up to the lines” style of innovation. Beauty in precision, in engineering. Solutions that take a third option, but are cheeky in how they still don’t break the rules.
    I mean, I do enjoy a good curb-stomp, but usually only in fanfic, or as a one-off gag.

    Definitely agree with Ander’s number one. The everyman is meh. I need to be able to admire/respect the hero for one reason or another.

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  3. Interesting list. The comparisons of hero vs anti-hero were interesting too. Got me thinking about Don Draper from Mad Men who’s talked about as an anti-hero but based on this list seems more like he’d fall in the hero camp.

    But also poked around some and found another good post she did about writing and how to make it stronger by finding our own blind spots in stories, as writers, etc.

    Thanks for posting link. Hadn’t heard of her before but definitely has some good stuff to say re storytelling.

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    1. Oh, she always has interesting things to say. I don’t always agree, but she always makes me think.

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  4. A lot of these have to do with why I like the Flash (at least the first season) better than the Arrow. Which brings me to my next question – is Oliver Queen an anti-hero? I never really thought of him that way since he’s a beautiful blonde man whose general motivation is Save All The Good People from All The Bad People. But if he’s a hero, he breaks a couple of these rules – lies to friends/ fake-out betrays them, readjusts his moral line at several points throughout the show, etc.

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    1. Oliver is really problematic because he’s basically Batman (he was designed to be the next Batman way back when), so he has that Dark Knight stuff weighing him down. When they don’t give him any light notes to play, he’s insufferable (see last season). I don’t think he’s an anti-hero, but some of the things they’ve had his character do skirt the lines, mainly because they keep violating his basic premise: he’s adamant about saving people but he kills right and left.

      They did something interesting on Grimm last year (year before?); the bad guys made Nick a zombie (you had to be there) and in his nutzo zombie state, he kills a guy who attacks him with a knife. When he un-zombie-fies, he’s ridden with guilt and wants to turn himself in, and his police captain points out that he’s been killing Wesen for years and never had a moment’s guilt about it, in spite of the fact that Wesen are human, too. So one of TV’s most vanilla heroes (in the beginning, anyway, he’s practically a rosy-cheeked choir boy ) is a mass murderer. I don’t think that makes him an anti-hero, he’s clearly written as heroic and self-sacrificing, but it does show that he’s a flawed hero with blind spots, which is so much more interesting.

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  5. I love that “a fascinating sidekick or posse” is depicted by Buffy The Vampire Slayer and her first team.

    The fascinating side kick can be quite extreme or outrageous. Maybe even a mirror to our protagonist. Often we forgive them many faults that we wouldn’t forgive in Hero Protagonist.

    My fave example of the is Amanda the thief and sometime love of Duncan McLeod in Highlander. When they tried to spin her off into Highlander: The Raven, it didn’t work. Her lack of dimension made her a character we couldn’t empathise with.

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    1. Considering the Scoobies’ namesake gang within escapist media vs. cartoon comedy is also interesting. There’s no one hero in the original Scooby gang. Fred might have the posturing, and often the hero moment, but the show doesn’t celebrate that, since the focus is on the shenanigans. The solving of the mystery is secondary to Scooby and Shaggy faffing around and mucking things up.

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    2. The great thing about sidekicks is that they don’t have to hold down the protagonist role; they’re not carrying the story, so they can be damn near anything including Spike. That same freedom often makes them problematical protagonists; Han Solo is much more palatable when he’s standing next to Luke Skywalker,; when they renamed him Mal and gave him a crew of his own, they had to make significant changes so he could do the heavy lifting.

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  6. I would add vulnerability. I think even the strongest, most capable hero needs to be vulnerable in some way. Whether it’s because of someone or something they love, or something they fear, or a failure or guilt that haunts them. Something.

    I’ve never been a fan of flaws (though this may be a matter of semantics). I prefer weaknesses. I need the hero to be likable if I’m going to care what happens, and too often the flaws make it difficult to like that character. I can’t remember where I read this, but whoever it was suggested taking the character’s greatest strength and flipping it to make his weakness. Like a character who is meticulous, and thoughtful, and plans ahead for everything would flounder if he had to make a decision quickly, without adequate data or time to plan.

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    1. I agree. Vulnerability is important. But, Jenny your heroes are always vulnerable. I am jonsing for one of your books. Stuck in Michigan and its snowing out. Thank god for the internet. I will check one out of the library.
      Wonderful list. Thank you,

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    2. As I remember (and my memory is foggy), the idea behind that is that every strength is a weakness, which is an excellent approach.
      Vulnerability is absolutely essential to keep a character human, I think. It’s the reason superheroes are so damn hard to write (and the reason so many super-girlfriends ended up in refrigerators).

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  7. Great list. I agree with everything but the #10. But then, I’m kind-a a loner, and so are many of my heroes. Perhaps there is something to learn there.

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  8. I don’t know. I can see this as a set of qualities for a comic book hero, or a swashbuckler, but I don’t really want to read about protagonists who are fighting powerful foes or up against incredible odds. I’m big on the quality of compassion, though. A protagonist with a sense of humor, who’s compassionate, honest, and has some area of vulnerability is enough for me. I liked Sam Vimes just as much if not more when he was lying in the gutter or trying to keep a stoic silence in the face of Lord Vetinari than I did when he was fighting dragons. And I quite preferred Georgette Heyer’s quiet, self-effacing heroes to her suave, muscled Corinthians. And the same goes for female protagonists. I want nice, likeable people more than I want show-offs.

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    1. I think it depends on how you define “incredible odds.” The odds were incredibly long that Sam would drag himself out of that gutter, sober up, rebuild the police force, save the duchess, and defeat the dragon in what? two weeks? And his foe was powerful (and completely nuts which is even more powerful because, hey, no boundaries). But the most overwhelming thing he might have done is get engaged at the end.

      You can have powerful foes and incredible odds without dragons, even in very small stories. Those things aren’t in the details of the story, they’re in the perception of the characters and the readers. I think it can be helpful to think of the conflict in those terms even if the circumstances don’t involve super villains and global stakes.

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  9. It is probably a mark of what kind of day I’m having (I had to put my beloved cat Minerva to sleep)…but when this showed up in my inbox, I read it as “10 Qualities of a Proctologist.” Sadly, I thought that would be very interesting. I’m sure that the protagonist thing is good too 🙂

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      1. Thank you, Sarah. It was a hella tough day. And today her two children (the “kittens” are 14) are wandering around looking lost, which breaks my heart even more.

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    1. Oh, Deb, I’m so sorry. You fought for her a long time, which makes it even harder. She was so lucky to have had you, and you her.
      I still miss Lyle.

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      1. They do get under our skin, don’t they? I’m still missing Samhain, who I lost 14 months ago. Minerva’s battle was shorter, but brutal. I’m grateful she’s at peace now, and no longer afraid. She was my little “bonus kitty” (when I adopted the kittens from the shelter, the folks there pleaded with me to take Minerva too, because she was sickly and terrified and completely unadoptable…they offered to throw her in for free as a “bonus” and I have been forever grateful that I took them up on it).

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    2. Gentle hugs to you. Hopefully you and the other kitties will adjust to her being gone. 🙁 It’s so hard to lose a pet, no matter their age.

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    1. The item on the list that struck a chord with me was the “must believe in something”. I’m suspect of faithless people in real life. I don’t want them in my fantasy world. I can’t believe in someone who has faith in nothing at all. It’s boring, too.

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      1. That is a good one, especially for the antagonist, I think. The “she does that because she’s a selfish, evil person” never works for me. She has to believe in something, too, and fight for it, or she’s just cardboard.

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        1. Absolutely. I can’t get wrapped into a story when the villain is less than complex and thoughtful – for his/hers believed righteous motivation- if they read more like Dastardly of the old cartoons.

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    2. Thanks Raquel. At least she is no longer afraid or uncomfortable. That’s something. Hell, that’s everything.

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  10. Deborah- I’m so very sad for your loss. I hope you and her children are able to comfort each other and that they adjust quickly to the loss.

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    1. For the moment, Magic (daughter) doesn’t like to be in a different room from me when I’m home (although she seemed to have no problem with me going to work, which is good, because someone has to pay those vet bills).

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