Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
The main protagonist of a lot of this sort of pulp fiction can be somewhat bland. There’s a common conception that there are only so many ways to make a character heroic, that standing up for Truth, Justice and the American Way is somehow, well, dull. Variation from this path takes one into the realm of the anti-hero.
Well, there’s some truth to that. What makes a character interesting, to some degree, is his unpredictability, and one of the defining characteristics of a classic hero is his steadfastness. So, if you want to have an interesting hero, somehow, you have to be able to add some degree of unpredictability to his steadfastness.
A problem one could get into, though, is the so-called “dark hero.” Although somewhat popular, in my view, the “dark hero” is just a villain who happens to be main character of the story, the lesser of two evils.
Take, for example, the character Jack Bauer from the television series 24. Jack Bauer is an anti-terrorism agent who will do anything he believes needs to be done to achieve his goals, which are generally stopping the bad guys from doing really bad things. Over the course of five and a quarter days so far, he has killed hundreds of people, sometimes in self-defense or the defense of others, sometimes just out and out murder. He has engaged in torturing suspects for information, including his own brother. So far, the character has never been presented with an action that was too debased for him to commit if it was the only way for him to accomplish his mission — I imagine the writers, or at least the network standards and practices office, are too squeamish to make Jack face the choice of raping and murdering young children, but you have to wonder what he’d do. The show never gives you the impression that Jack does any of these things because he wants to — he does them because they’re the best, sometimes the only, options available in order to stop people who have significantly worse planned. And, especially this season, we’re getting a lot about the cost that Jack has paid personally for his actions.
Can Jack really be viewed as a hero? In real world terms, maybe. The real world is messy and gray and the choices people need to make are never clear cut. In fictional terms, I’m not so sure. Yes, Jack does the hard things that need to be done, and one can make an argument that that is heroic.
However, I’m not buying it. A hero should stand for something positive. Doing bad things because the option of inaction is worse is not standing for something positive. Necessary, maybe, but not positive. At some point, the hero of a story needs to rise above the conflict. His struggle needs to be in support of whatever his principles happen to be, and those principles need to be goals that are worth striving toward. Just because a character is the last man standing doesn’t make him a hero.
Take Shakespeare’s Henry V, as another example. He fights the French, he gives his rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech and ultimately, the English win. What is he fighting for, though? The conflict in the play concerns English and French claims to the same territory. Henry comes to the throne, says to France, “Hey, I want our land back,” and France responds with a box of tennis balls — in essence, “Go play with yourself, Hal.” So, part of the conflict is about Henry’s wounded pride, as well. Stirring speeches aside, is that a real reason to fight a war, to kill other people and have your own people killed, as well? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say no, which means that Henry is certainly not a hero.
So, all this consideration gets us back around to the main protagonist of my pulpy adventure novel. How can he be a hero while at the same time also being interesting?
I think the story’s main protagonist needs to be an outsider, of the family but not in it, which sets up a nice contrast to the prime antagonist minion. In this way, the protagonist can be the point of view character for the reader — the character doesn’t know any more than the reader knows about what’s going on, so the other characters have to explain it to him, or he has to figure it out on his own or whatever. Basically, making the protagonist an outsider to the situation is a fairly well-worn plot device to allow the writer (me) the opportunity to explain what’s going on to the reader. It also feeds into the protagonist-minion conflict that is at the crux of the story plan so far.
I also think that the protagonist should be relatively young and inexperienced. Again, this is a plot device to allow the protagonist to grow and develop as a character. Stories that start off with their heroes fully formed and completely competent are, usually, pretty dull. Also, I have a bad habit of creating my characters with so much back story that it’s difficult to actually tell the story at hand. Why not just start out at the beginning of a character’s adventuresome career, more or less, and let the readers in on the events that form his emotional baggage?
I’ve been referring to the main protagonist as a male, but that’s not necessary. The protagonist could certainly be a female. That would certainly be something I’ve never done before. While I’ve had female characters in my works, I’ve never had the main character in one of my stories be a female. Being a man, my first impulse is to make the central character of my work a man, as well, because it’s what I know, and it’s the direction I’m leaning for this project. However, I may consider making it a woman if I think I could pull it off. I’m not interested in just writing a “man with tits,” as I’ve heard some male-written female protagonists described. If I go this way, I will want to create a distinctly feminine character, which, being a man, is not something I know a whole lot about on a personal level.
Cultural and ethnic considerations are also issues for the protagonist. If he’s a member of the fictional family I’m thinking about, then of course he has to at least have the same ethnicity as the family, at least in part. By default, I’ve been thinking about the family as being white and American, because those are the culture and ethnicity I’m familiar with first hand. Certainly, neither of these have to be the case. However, I’m pretty unfamiliar with a lot of the concepts of being part of a large, extended family. It might be more of a task than I could easily take on to also need to do all the research necessary if I made the family ethnic Chinese from Singapore, for example. I’m pretty comfortable making the family predominantly Northern European-American.
That doesn’t mean that the protagonist needs to be entirely from that ethnic group. One way of making the protagonist an outsider to the family is to have a member of the family who left the family fold, looking for something else, getting away from what seems to be shaping up as a family history of conflict of some sort. This family member could have become involved with a person of a different ethnic group, and it’s not a stretch to consider that at least some of the family members may not have approved, further adding the the reason why the protagonist’s parents did not have much of a relationship with the family. Like the idea of making the character female, however, this is an area I don’t have any personal experience with. I’m a pretty straight-forward, Scots-Irish white guy, so that’s what I know. And I’m hesitant to introduce racial and ethnic issues into the story because they’re not what the story is about. Even so, there’s potential character development there.
While I’m thinking about sex and race, I suppose it’s relevant to consider sexual orientation. Again, being straight, I’ve never had a main character who was gay. It’s another aspect of character development that I’m unfamiliar with in the real world. If I did make the character gay, I would also feel obligated, I think, to make the character male, if only because I often run across lesbian (or, more likely, bisexual) characters in fiction who seem gratuitous and in the story more for the titillation factor rather than from any sincere character development. Not that I have anything against hot girl-on-girl action (I am a guy, after all), but I don’t believe the story or the character would be best served by making her a lesbian. There are a lot of real world social and political issues surrounding sexual orientation that I don’t have any personal familiarity with and that have the potential of overwhelming the story. So, I imagine that the protagonist, male or female, is likely going to be straight.
Of course, a half white, quarter black, quarter Hispanic, bisexual woman living in Singapore certainly has the potential of being a very different sort of protagonist than I’ve ever written about before. I’m not sure she’s entirely right for this particular story, though.