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Why Protagonists Get Thinner

As you can read much more about in How Stories Really Work, and as has been written about earlier on this blog, protagonists are meant to be interesting. In fact, being interesting is both their strength and their weakness. It’s because we find these characters so fascinating that writers create the Protagonist Paradox -the hero or heroine of a series of tales as in television shows or comics has to continue to have meaningful adventures while all the time remaining essentially the same for the next story. The result is ‘protagonist fatigue’. Writers, more and more desperate to maintain our interest, having to come up with story after story featuring the same character, invent wildly implausible events (as in superhero Cyclops case, for example) and often ‘reboot’ the same character or set of characters time and time again in order to try to keep things fresh while also keeping things the same. It’s an increasingly impossible task.

Some protagonists strike it lucky: the Doctor in the BBC’s long-running science fiction series Doctor Who, for example, solves this problem uniquely by having periodic ‘regenerations’. As new actors take over the role, their individual interpretations of the same character lead to new insights, new quirks, new attributes, while we know that the character who they are portraying is basically the same person. In the comics medium, the Protagonist Paradox is partially solved by having periodic ‘reboots’ in which the character and the entire world in which they live are completely re-invented. We end up with someone called the same name, possessing essentially the same characteristics, but sufficiently newly interpreted for us to feel intrigued -to some degree, and for a little while. Too many ‘re-boots’ and the stories within each alternate reality tend to be invalidated and undermined. What’s the point of reading the latest ‘new universe’ stories when we know as long-time fans that within a few years there’ll be another?

What’s behind this? Why is there such a thing as the Protagonist Paradox? Why, indeed, is there such a thing as a protagonist at all?

You can get a much better overview of this in the book How Stories Really Work, but it’s possible to summarise things briefly here. What we call a ‘protagonist’ isn’t, as we have all been taught, a ‘life-like, endearing replica person, carefully described so that we feel attracted to him or her’. A protagonist is usually a thinly-sketched collection of gaps and holes -missing things, parents, friends, parts of life, which, placed in front of us as readers, automatically attracts our attention like a kind of sponge. It is his or her needs, desires and losses that draw us towards him or her, not a desribed attribute as such. This, coupled with a similarly constructed plot, forms the basis of the thing we call a ‘story’. Once this carefully-crafted and rather fragile entity known as a ‘protagonist’ reaches the end of the story, the great emptiness which has grown inside him or her is spectacularly filled or spectacularly left empty, according to the intentions of the author. The construction has served its purpose; the story is done.

And that should be the end of that.

The trouble is that we as readers or viewers are ‘hooked’ so deeply that we become addicted to that particular construction: we are fascinated by Batman’s life-long quest to fill the void in his soul by fighting crime in Gotham City; we are riveted by the ongoing journeys of Captain Kirk; we are enthralled by the mysterious workings of the mind of Sherlock Holmes. We want more and then even more. Eventually, writers have nowhere to turn but the bizarre: Batman dies and is resurrected, or is rebooted in several versions; Captain Kirk’s life is extended and then he too is ‘regenerated’ after a fashion; Sherlock Holmes is reinvented for every generation. But after a while, each one of these protagonists starts to feel a little like Tolkien’s Bilbo after he has used the Ring too often -life gets a little ‘thin’. The meaning that powered the original stories or set of stories featuring each of these protagonists is spread into a transparent membrane that we as an audience start to see through. We can adjust our vision and refuse to acknowledge that these characters are now tired and repetitive; we can admire the creativity and ingenuity of writers who manage to find new angles and new aspects of each. But in the end, the ‘continuous loop’ of the successful protagonist becomes strained.

The purpose of a protagonist is to attract sufficient attention from readers or audiences that they make an emotional commitment to the larger story. Protagonists, along with several other universally used devices, are part of a writer’s tool-kit: they have a function, and when that function is done, so are they, on a fundamental level. A writer’s goal isn’t the creation of a fully-fledged protagonist, just as a carpenter’s goal isn’t the maintaining of a sharp enough saw: both writer and carpenter need their tools in tip-top condition if they are to achieve their product, but if each were to stop working once those tools reached that state, we would have no stories, or houses.

Readers who want more and more stories about particular heroes and heroines can have all the stories they like -provided that they recognise that each one will be a little bit diluted, and that the tales in which those characters are involved will need to become a little bit wilder to produce a similar thrill.


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