Protagonists should always be interesting. In fact, they are designed to be the most interesting character in any story, something you can read much more about in How Stories Really Work. But they also serve a function in a story, and once that function is done, the story is over.
The problem for writers of ongoing series, whether they be TV shows, comics, or any kind of serial, is that the same protagonists have to continue on from episode to episode, somehow accomplishing the functions of a protagonist while also remaining essentially the same for the next episode. This could be called the Protagonist Paradox. Eventually it produces certain phenomena, including ‘protagonist fatigue’. Writers, over a prolonged period of time, become more and more desperate to somehow solve the Protagonist Paradox and stories progressively go off the rails, in effect undermining themselves and their own original precepts.
By way of example, let’s look at the history of Marvel’s X-Man, Cyclops, Scott Summers. When we first meet Scott, he is crafted along standard protagonist lines: he is someone who bears a loss or carries a burden. In Scott’s case, this is his mutant ‘defect’, an inability to control powerful optic blasts, which he masters to some degree by wearing special ‘ruby quartz’ glasses, but which makes him introverted and cut off from social interactions. In the first era of X-Men stories, this works perfectly: he is an ideal protagonist, someone with whom the often-bespectacled comic book reader can identify, his troublesome ‘super power’ being both a blessing and a curse.
That was over fifty years ago. It is the nature of the comics world -and an underlying cause of its malaise- that superheroes must continue in time and have more and more ‘adventures’. Thus, decades from this ideal beginning, Cyclops as a character has gone through convolutions which go beyond the realistic and even the ridiculous, including (by no means exclusively) the following:
early on, he becomes romantically attracted to Jean Grey and becomes the X-Men’s field leader.
he discovers that his brother (Havok) also has mutant powers.
he also finds out that his parents, whom he believed had died in a plane accident, were, in fact, captured and sold into slavery by intergalactic aliens. As an adult member of the X-Men, Cyclops meets his father, now known as Corsair, leader of the Starjammers, a group of aliens opposing what they see as tyranny in outer space.
Scott’s girlfriend Jean then dies, but just before she does Scott psychically proposes, and she accepts. However, Scott ends up marrying Madelyne Pryor, a woman who bears a strong resemblance to Jean.
Madelyne bears him a son, Nathan. But Scott leaves his wife and son and returns to Jean (who turns out not to be dead -this is something that happens a lot in comics, but seems to happen to a disproportionate degree to Jean Grey in particular).
Madelyne sacrifices her life in battle and Scott, no longer married, moves on. However, Madelyne isn’t really dead but is transformed by demons into the Goblin Queen, and she seeks revenge on Scott for leaving her.
then it is revealed that Madelyne is a clone created by geneticist Mister Sinister. She can't take it any more and kills herself.
Scott seemingly kills Sinister with an optic blast, and pursues a romance with Jean, reclaiming his son.
however, Scott soon learns that Mister Sinister ran the orphanage in which Scott was raised, and battles Sinister over this.
meanwhile, super-villain Apocalypse infects Scott’s son Nathan with a techno-organic virus, and although Scott initially saves his son from the bad guys, he is eventually unable to save him from the fatal infection.
distraught, Scott sends his son into the future where he can be cured. Nathan turns up later as a time-lost mutant called Stryfe. But then it’s revealed that fellow hero Cable is actually Nathan.
Scott Summers and Jean Grey finally marry. During their honeymoon, they are brought into the future where they raise Cable for the first 12 years of his life before being sent back to the past.
later, Cyclops willingly merges with the villain Apocalypse and is believed dead until Jean and Cable track him down to Egypt and separate him from Apocalypse, killing Apocalypse's spirit in the process (allegedly). However, upon Cyclops' return to the X-Men following his possession, there is a rather drastic change in his personality as a result of this bonding.
Scott has a telepathic affair, runs away from the Xavier Institute, is devastated by Jean's death (again), is telepathically nudged by resurrected future Jean into a real relationship with psychic Emma Frost, reaching out to him from this alternate future, and so on.
There are many more years of this, with further even more complex convolutions. Retroactive reconstructions in comics are common -for the same reasons as we are outlining here- and Scott’s history continues to be revised: he finds, for example, that his lack of control over his optic blasts actually stems not from physical brain damage as he suspected, but from a sort of mental block that his younger self imposed upon himself after the combined traumas of the loss of his parents, separation from his brother, and sudden manifestation of his powers. Confronting this enables him to gain full control over his optical blasts.
But things continue to grow more complex in the effort to maintain Cyclops as a protagonist: he later breaks all ties with his former mentor Professor X, has the entity called the Void possess him, and in one storyline solves all the world’s problems, using mutant powers to make the planet into a better place, eliminating wars and giving the people of the world free energy, food, water and medicine. This cannot last, obviously, and Cyclops eventually loses control, kills Xavier (another character with several ‘deaths’, and for reasons which are explained by the principles outlined in How Stories Really Work) goes on a rampage across the world before being arrested by the Avengers and put in jail.
Again, that’s not the end. Cyclops must continue as a protagonist and so can never fully resolve anything: after further battles, for example, he establishes a new school for mutants but is blamed by his brother Havok for Xavier's death, which has unleashed further miseries on the world. And so it goes.
Yes, most of what is described above is typical fare for comic book stories. But there are reasons why this sort of storytelling becomes ‘typical fare’. It’s because writers are trying to create inventive new ways of keeping us interested in the same characters, and the primary tool for doing that is the protagonist. The effect over time, though, is to unmock and undermine the character so that in the end he or she becomes a mere cypher. The strong protagonist background created for Scott in the beginning -an orphan, burdened with and isolated from society as a whole (and from girls in particular) by a power beyond his control which also helped teenage comic book readers to identify with him- has been tampered with so that, over the last fifty years, he has gained parents (interstellar freedom fighter parents, to boot), married several times, lost his wives in various crises several times, had a child, lost a child, sent a child to the future and raised him there, gained and then lost and then gained control over his powers, helped and then attacked and then helped society and the world as a whole, lost, gained and lost (and even killed) his mentor, had his entire past and his mind manipulated, and so on. It all gets to a point where the reader isn’t all that interested any more, largely because just about anything can happen (and often does).
The ‘pull’ of any protagonist depends on what he or she has lost or has at risk. It starts usually with the loss of at least one parent, but usually involves much more. The story is the working out of forces created by that loss or risk. To have to repeat the pattern -loss and risk magnified then resolved- over and over again wears the character thin in more ways than one.
The problem with comic book heroes in particular is that their original popularity is usually with younger readers (who want more and more) and based on strong original precepts: from Superman and Batman through to Spider-Man, Wolverine, Daredevil and so on, the character has a huge initial loss which motivates them to be who they are. Unless writers can tap into that motivation in new but authentic ways, story after story, then they will become more and more inventive about trying to make the character attractive to readers, and that usually results in ‘reboots’, revised histories’ , ’parallel world versions’ and so on. Eventually, the gaps or holes in the character which were part of the genius of his or her creation get filled, intentionally or unintentionally, and the unravelling begins. Comic book characters become ‘unreal’, not simply because they are part of the comic book genre ‘and that is the way it is’ but because the comic book genre demands more and more stories featuring the same people, which inevitably leads to protagonist fatigue.
What is the answer? Honesty about all of this would be a start. Characters who resolve their initial motivations actually end their tale, though, and usually transcend the story altogether, as we see in novels, theatre and cinema all over the world. If readers want more and more stories about Cyclops or any other particular protagonist, they will have to learn to accept that they will end up over time with a watered-down and threadbare version, no matter now brightly their exterior might be coloured.
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-Grant P. Hudson is the founder of Clarendon House Publications. Download a free catalogue here.