The Vanilla Protagonist: A Grimm Problem

The new season of Grimm has started, and I’m still hooked; in fact, I think it’s gotten better. I’m trying to figure out why because there’s so much about I shouldn’t like. The romantic relationship is too Mary Sue, the Wesen-of-the-week bit should be getting old, and sometimes the plots don’t quite work (“Quills,” I’m lookin’ at you). But the biggest flaw, the thing that should be the dealbreaker, is that the protagonist, Nick, is one of the most vanilla heroes ever written. The actor playing him does a good job, but there’s only so much Good, Truth, and Beauty I can take in a protagonist before I wander off. Yet I’ll be logging onto Hulu every week to see what happens to him next. Which brings me to the big question: Why?

The Vanilla Protagonist is The Good Guy (or Girl). He’s honest, hardworking, brave, kind, empathetic, strong, loyal, faithful, and pretty. He’s so perfect that that he has no texture–those protagonists must be hell for actors to play–so there’s nothing to grip onto. When you think of brilliant protagonists on TV, you think of House or Walt or Buffy or Angel or the Doctor or good old Dexter. These are characters who are the most interesting people in their stories because of their flaws, their weaknesses, their unpredictability. In contrast, there’s no mystery to the Vanilla Protagonist; he’s always going to do the Right Thing.

If the lack of tension regarding the Vanilla Protagonist wouldn’t be enough to sink him, writers almost always surround him with characters who are more interesting than he is because SOMEBODY has to be interesting in this story. So in Grimm you get Monroe who pretty much owns the show whenever he’s onscreen just by the sheer force of his personality. Monroe is a werewolf, but he’s handing the whole rip-people-apart-at-the-full-moon problem with a strict regimen of yoga, pilates, drugs, a vegan diet, and vulnerable snark. How can poor, good Nick compete? Every time Monroe shows up, Nick becomes a straight man, which is pretty much the curse of the Vanilla Protagonist with everybody.

And it’s not just the protagonist’s pals. An even bigger problem is his antagonists. It’s particularly difficult in Grimm because we get a string of great villains who morph into animal-face whenever they get upset (the effects are really wonderful in this show) topped off with a terrific series Big Bad, Nick’s boss, Captain Renard. I have toyed with the idea of what would happen if they’d make Renard the protagonist because this guy has texture everywhere. He’s a good cop and he’s been protecting Nick throughout the seasons, but he’s also in league with the Hexenbeasts, he sent several people to kill Aunt Marie, and he’s a prince in some strange, foreign, magical kingdom that’s trying to . . . do something. He’s a mystery, but it’s a good mystery, we get clues every week, and while the clues are piling up, Renard gets all the great, dramatic moves. When a Reaper shows up to kill Nick, Renard tells him in a matter-of-fact, steely voice that Nick is off limits and the Reaper should leave town. When the Reaper sneers back, Renard cuts off the Reaper’s ear and says, “That’s what happens when you don’t listen.” It was brutal, it was bloody, it was a damn good moment. Add to that the revelation that Renard is half-Wesen/half human, and you’ve got a strong, conflicted, merciless character who keeps order in both the human and Wesen world. Baby-faced Nick cannot match angular, brooding Renard; his antagonist blows him off the screen every time.

The Vanilla Protagonist can sometimes be saved by having an interesting relationship (just as Buffy was getting too competent at saving the world, she fell in love with Spike), but Nick’s girlfriend Juliette is a Mary Sue (she’s a vet! she saves animals! she’s endearingly clueless about the progression of monsters that stop by the house for dinner or homicide!) and by the third or fourth episode, I was really hoping something evil would take her out so I’d be relieved of her incessant goodness and Nick could have some grief to roughen him up some. Instead, the show put her in a coma, and when she woke up, she remembered everything except Nick. That has big potential, so I’ve stopped hoping for a Wesen attack on her until I see how this shapes up. Even so, Nick is still being doe-eyed understanding, abjuring frustrated screaming for empathy and patience. This guy is so smooth, you could pour super-glue over him and roll him in carpet tacks, and it would all just slide off and leave him shiny again.

Then there’s family; you’d think the Vanilla Protagonist would have perfect parents since he turned out so emotionally healthy and psychologically sound, but instead he often springs from the family from hell. In Nick’s case, family is Aunt Marie who gives him the good news that he’s the next Grimm before dying in his arms from cancer and Wesen attacks (Aunt Marie kicked ass after chemo and took names in the ICU) and Nick’s mom. Kelly, who supposedly died in a car accident when he was twelve only to turn up as the grimmest of the Grimms, so textured she could be limestone. I kept looking at Mom, who could rip off Wesen heads with her teeth, and Nick, who really wants a Group Hug, and thinking, “Maybe he was adopted.” But no, he’s a Grimm.

Another thing that kneecaps Vanilla Protagonists is that they’re always stuck doing the Right Thing. When Nick’s facing down a good Wesen who’s about to kill the Hexenbeast who tried to murder Aunt Marie, the dumbass shoots the Wesen and saves the Hexenbeast because . . . I’m not sure. Granted it was going to be tough explaining why he didn’t save the Hexenbeast since everybody else knows her as a hot lawyer and he was assigned to protect her, but it seemed like a bad move. Unfortunately, Nick hasn’t given it a second thought, so experience has not put some spice in his vanilla.

The Vanilla Protagonist, in short, is a problem for storytellers.

So after thinking about what makes Grimm work for me, here’s what I’ve decided keeps me hooked on a vanilla helmed story, the things I’d use if I ever lost my mind and decided to go Vanilla:

Make the Vanilla Hero Really Likable: Nick’s a good guy with some serious problems: monsters keep trying to kill him, his mother is a murder machine, the love of his life can’t remember who he is, and he sees Animal People. And yet you can sum up all of his speeches as “Gosh.” Why this guy doesn’t get his ass kicked weekly is beyond me, but he really is nice, so I don’t want him dead. Interesting would be better, but if I can’t have that, then so-likable-you-don’t-want-him-to-die is the next best thing.

Surround the Vanilla Hero with Strongly Flavored Supporting Characters: Monroe. Monroe’s crush, Rosalee (he’s a wolf, she’s a fox, they’re so CUTE together). Renard. Nick’s partner Hank. Nick’s mother, Kelly the Grimm. Bud, the endearing Eisbiber (beaver) who fixed Juliette’s refrigerator and brought pie. Chloe the Coyotl who’s taking five AP classes. Wu, the deadpan uniformed cop. The bench in this show is so deep, you could spin-off new shows forever which means that people will keep reading/watching just to be part of the community. That’s important in any book, I think, but it’s essential for a vanilla-based book.

Give the Vanilla Hero a Fascinating Antagonist: I’ve always thought that a great antagonist was more important than a great protagonist, and Grimm is good evidence of that. I’ve already enthused over Renard, and Kelly’s shaping up to be more problem than parent (more Kelly, please, I love that bitch), and then you add in the parade of Wesen who have shown up to play. They range from predators to victims, savage to sweet, and part of the fun is figuring out who they are, what they are, and what they want, which often is just to get away from Our Good Guy. One of the best parts of the series is Nick trying to save Wesen who run from him screaming because Grimms historically have killed every Wesen they’ve met. Fave moment: Nick explaining to Wesen-Killing-Machine Kelly that Monroe and Rosalee are his friends and that therefore she should not kill them ever while Kelly glares at Monroe and Rosalee, and they smile back, ready to run if she makes a move. When Rosalee hugs Kelly as a gesture of solidarity at the end of that scene, it’s like a poodle hugging the Angel of Death. So if your protagonist is vanilla, bring in the chocolate, the butter pecan, the raspberry ripple, and the Chunky Monkey to keep the reader’s palate happy, and keep them interacting with the protagonist so their variety and flavor rubs off on him.

Make Sure Vanilla Hero Plots Are Different from Anything Else: Any series is going to have some dud episodes but Grimm has had remarkably few, thanks to the variety of Wesen available to threaten people or be threatened by them. Add to that the ingenuity that the writers bring to the murder-of-the-week story–a lawyer is killed during a flash mob rendition of “YMCA,” a Bluebeard eats frogs that make irresistable to women, Adelaide the Hexenbeast tries to assassinate Juliette with a cat–and the continuing mysteries that intrigue without annoying–who is Renard? how’s Hank going to cope now that he knows about Wesen? where’s Kelly and how is it that there are any Wesen left in Portland with her on the loose?–and you have a premise that pretty much guarantees that there’ll be something in every episode that will make it worth watching. Even “Quills,” the episode without a climax, had Monroe finally making a move on Rosalee, over-cautious though it was.

Although I really am anti-Vanilla-Hero, there is one theory I’m still considering: Given Grimm’s offbeat plots and the cast of characters for whom “strange” is an understatement, it’s possible that stories like this need a vanilla protagonist just so there’s one plain, uncomplicated thing in the plot for viewers to hold onto. I’m not completely sold on that theory, but I am sold on Grimm so clearly the Vanilla Hero is no longer a dealbreaker for me.

How about you?

10 thoughts on “The Vanilla Protagonist: A Grimm Problem

  1. The most endearing thing about Nick is his tendency to befriend wesen and absolutely not give a shit if anybody is wesen, as long as they aren’t murdering people. He’s a reasonable authority figure. The deadpan sane man (albeit maybe he isn’t so much of one as time goes on) has his place in the midst of everything being weird.

  2. Pretty is easy, but honest, hardworking, brave, kind, empathetic, strong, loyal, and faithful are difficult character traits to both acquire and maintain. I don’t understand why people think they’re boring. Boring is selfish, angry, prejudiced and/or traumatized – those are very common traits.

    So I guess I like vanilla heroes – they’re more interesting, and if they’re not interesting then its because the writers don’t realize that those are active choices and not easy ones. And yes I like Grimm, and Nick, although I haven’t seen the current season – add it to the long list of shows to get back to 🙂

    1. Maybe they’re harder to write because we don’t really understand why people become honest, hardworking, brave, kind, empathetic, strong, loyal, and faithful? So it’s harder narrative to write interestingly because there isn’t a dramatic inciting incident? Unless the hero is a reformed character of course but Nick isn’t. We never see him as anything else other than a good guy.

  3. I watched this show when it first came out. In the first episode, Nick was given a shock because he found out he was a Grimm – and he didn’t know what that entailed. He had been raised as a normal human, given a strong moral compass, and became a cop. Apparently he was pretty good at his job because he was a detective.

    Then his Aunt Marie is attacked, and lets Nick in on his heritage. He was introduced to a larger world, or at least comes to the awareness that all are not what they seem. So, he’s a bit of a babe in the woods there. He doesn’t understand at first that all Wesen would be afraid of him because he’s a Grimm. And he’s not been raised by a Grimm to kill first, ask questions later. He relies on his skills, and starts investigating the Grimm tools that Aunt Marie left him. And as his guide, he has first Monroe and then adds Rosalie.

    Basically, Nick has his world turned upside down, and starts to make sense of it, by building a family.

  4. Huh. Why did I think this show was canceled? Like years ago?

    Oh well, now I know what I’m watching all next week!

    Also, I think you might have hit the nail on the head with someone in the cast needing to be vanilla so we all have a scintilla of normal to hold on to. I’m going to noodle on that.

    ~Chelle <3

    1. I’m confused…I thought it was canceled too. This post says it’s on Hulu, but I can’t find it there. According to the Interwebs, it’s on Amazon Prime, wth six seasons, and the last one ended in 2017. Where are the new episodes?

  5. I watched partway through season 2 when it first came out and lost interest. I wasn’t ever really hooked by it. But maybe I’ll try again.

  6. We have been watching Star Trek Discovery and I really don’t like Captain Pike. I haven’t put my finger on it, but I think that this is why.

    He is so bloody perfect and it’s really annoying. The supporting characters are fun, but they are trying so hard to make Pike a Good Guy that they have flattened him down to nothing.

    I also think that this is why I have all but given up on contemporary m/f romance. I really do not like Vanilla heroes and other genres allow for more variation.

  7. The recent reboot of Frasier reminds me that when that first spun off from Cheers they toned down his character so that he would make an easier main character and transferred the weirder stuff to Niles. Mind you, they left plenty of character for Frasier, so he was by no means vanilla but I can see the reasoning behind having a simpler main character. I often end up liking the side characters in any show more than the main ones and it’s probably because they’re allowed to be way more interesting.

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