What Do Readers Want in A Protagonist?
As I contemplate the future of my own fictional characters, I ponder this question. What does the ‘typical’ reader prefer? A well-known protagonist who follows a formulaic pattern toward solving the latest puzzle set before them…or, an evolving character, perhaps more unpredictable in response, who may bear little resemblance to who they were two or three books earlier?
Looking back at the great historical detectives of fiction—Holmes, Poirot, Marple and others—there is deep comfort in their familiarity. Regardless of varying plot twists and turns conjured up by the author, we know that our protagonist will follow a similar, logical path toward resolving the issue at hand. We settle in next to them as we read the book, an unseen assistant, working side by side with our ‘partner’ to solve the mystery as we methodically sort through the variables, discard the irrelevant and hone in on the resolution.
Although oblivious to our advice, whether spoken out loud or merely kept in our head, we admire their clever resourcefulness. There is deep satisfaction in the process despite the fact that the ultimate outcome is somewhat known and predictable, adhering to a consistent style and formula. Logic and perseverance will triumph, evil will be vanquished and justice will be served. Our nostalgia from previous reads will be nourished and we can hardly wait for our ‘hero/partner’s’ next adventure. What reader has not been hooked at some point on a character like this, infallible though predictable, quenching our desire for a fair outcome in an unfair world, an island of escape as we turn the pages, challenging our own abilities to solve the mystery right along with our protagonist?
But what of a different type of protagonist? Is there a place for a serial protagonist who evolves so radically over time, from book to book, that his or her persona can be almost unrecognizable from who or what they were in earlier incarnations? While I admit to a deep affection for the familiar heroes of fiction, is it not scintillating to occasionally see our character take a walk on the wild side? Who among us is not flawed? Who has not changed through the years, both buoyed and battered by the vicissitudes and vagaries of living life? Why not our protagonists as well?
So many nuances affect us all, the cumulative impact often changing our perspective, our values, our priorities and even our behavior and our sense or right and wrong. Imperceptible at first, but undeniable the further in time we look back. I ask the reader, are you the same person you were a decade ago? Two decades ago? Could it be so for our protagonists? Other than keeping them perpetually ageless, suspended in time like the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, how about a protagonist that walks through life with us, aging and changing as we do.
There is a certain appeal to a protagonist who faces the kind of Faustian dilemmas or degrees of moral relativism found in our own lives. How does the protagonist change when forced through the type of experience that can change a person? How will they react? Who will they become? How will they evolve? What would the reader do if faced with similar choices? How will the author play it out? In this case, rather than relating to our favorite serial protagonist as a comfortable, trusted ‘hero/partner’, we relate to them as ourselves, our own alter-egos thrust into plausible but unlikely circumstances, free to act out because, after all, it is a fiction.
Clearly, there is a place for both. I can see myself in my mind’s eye…sometime in the distant future. I’m older, maybe alone, and I lie on the bed, wrapping myself in a cloak of nostalgia tinged with melancholy, immersed in the comfort of rereading an old classic, even more familiar because I’ve read it so many times before. Reassuring. I know the outcome, and for an hour or two all is right with my world.
Tonight, however, that vision is of a distant and hazy place, not real in this moment. Tonight, I want my protagonist to take that walk on the wild side. I want him or her to have been through it all…to be at the breaking point…and I can’t wait to see what they do next.