Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My bone to pick: the "worthless" protag

I've noticed a trend in YA of the "never good at anything" protagonist. And when I say trend, I mean it's in like every book I've ever read in YA. Well, maybe not EVERY book, but it's pretty damn prevalent. To the point that I roll my eyes when I read book descriptions that say something like "Swiggy Figglebottom wasn't very good at math/sports/ladies/basketweaving, but when a mysterious blue haired stranger showed up on his door and informed him he was the lost prince of Swiggy's Swag Palace, he found an awesome power that made him superly awesome and awesomely super."

And look, I get it. Kids want to be empowered, and most kids think of themselves as ordinary or no good at sports or whatever, and this is their escapism to be something great and amazing. It's inspirational and uplifting, and for some kids (like little JEM back in the day) it is a way to cope with the less than satisfying world around them. I'm definitely guilty of the same tropes in my own writing, and have crafted more than one story where some weird little forlorn girl in a seaside town is discovered as princess of the universe. So I realize the hypocrisy.

But what annoys me about this trend and the concept behind it is that it reinforces that someone really can be "worthless." That because you're not the star basketball player or head cheerleader or editor of the newspaper, you're nobody. That what you do, or what you're good at, is what defines your worth. Not who you are or how interesting you can be or how awesome your knowledge of trains is, but what you can demonstrate. And that's just not true. In fact, the most fascinating people in my life are not the ones who can jump the highest or fly planes (fine, ONE GIRL flies planes), but the ones who can keep me engaged in an interesting conversation. And it was the same in high school. I didn't collect my friends based on what they could do, I collected them based on how interesting I found them to be. Sometimes that translates into awesome skill sets, but sometimes it translates into perfectly ordinary skill sets. Luck of the draw.

My point here is that I'd like to see the genre move away from the Swiggy Figglebottoms into more complex characters. It's an easy out to write the characters who were terrible at everything until they drank the magic potion. I want characters who come from all walks of life, and who are interesting even if they can't shoot hoops or don't live in the rich neighborhoods. And sure, they can have a chip on their shoulder about it, but I don't want their lack to be what defines them.

I read a great piece of advice once (maybe Maggie Stiefvater?) about your characters: they shouldn't necessarily be who we are, they should be who we want to be. A kid who doesn't live on the right side of the tracks but can still hold his own with the rich kids without being a douche about it? I like him way more than Swiggy Figglebottom, and that's a character I would want to watch over 400 pages.

How do you feel about the "no good at anything" protag? Do you like this concept or are you fed up with it like me? What kinds of characters do you like to follow in the books you read?


mshatch said...

I think there's a difference between "no good at anything" and ordinary. Usually, there's a couple of in kids in every class who are spectacular at something, the basketball star, the math wiz, etc. And there's a couple of kids who are pretty much losers and everyone knows it. Then there's everyone else who may be better at some stuff than others but don't really stand out in anything. As I recall most of the kids were like that so the "no good at anything" kid really should be quite rare and would probably have a lot of baggage that made him/her that way.

Fortunately, I haven't read too many stories like that recently but if I did I think I'd get pretty tired of that type of character pretty quick.

Laurel Garver said...

Thoughtful post! I agree that reversals that big (worthless loser becomes savior of the world) feel very inauthentic and escapist. The best stories have mixed-bag characters with both weaknesses and strengths--and being interesting and intelligent sure ought to be considered an important strength.

I too, like stories in which the protagonist grasps his or her strength in kindness, compassion, humility, service, loyalty, perseverance, wisdom, and the like rather than simply kicking goblin butt or winning the soccer/ cheerleading/ debate/ dance/ music/ competition.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

You are right. Every protag should have some depth BEFORE the inciting incident that changes his or her life.

You've given me something to think about regarding my current WIP. Hmm. Not that I was trying to portray my guy as "worthless," but I wonder how I could tweak him in the opening chapter to make him a little more unique BEFORE the event in the second chapter. Thanks, JEM!

Christina Lee said...

You're right, it gets old to read all the time and I see it a lot too! I agree with Dianne, have some depth before jumping into the story!

KatieO said...

I think there's a place for Swiggy in fiction, but I also agree with the comment by mshatch, that the majority of teens are ordinary and somewhere in the middle, not the best or the worst.

There's also a place for protags who are already good at what they do, but may still be trying to find out who they are inside - look at The Hunger Games. Maybe girls respond so well to Katniss because she's a kickass character even before she wins the Games. She's an ordinary girl with fears and dreams, but she's also got survival skills.

Fiction is a big world, and there are places for all these "types" -and readers who want to read them.

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I can see this. I also know that I have enjoyed books that had protagonists who didn't realize their worth and then discover it.

Great post - glad I found your blog.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

YA paranormals are really bad at this. No wonder they don't appeal to me anymore.

Love Katie's comment. Everyone is special. Our protagonists should be at the beginning of the book. That is their normal.

Shannon Lawrence said...

I'm not a big fan of the not good at anything bunch, either. I think a normal, regular, every day person, who is maybe good at some things, not good at others, is more interesting. Compelling post.