Puppet Protagonists

Protagonists without character can become bland audience surrogates. To prevent writing a puppet you need to be able to spot them.

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A couple of months ago I was fighting off story ideas with a bat, eager to push through with a story I had been working on for years. Then, one day, a voice appeared. A character’s voice. It was so strong, so visceral in my mind, that I couldn’t put it away or ignore it. So, in order to appease this sudden burst of energy, I wrote the first line of my current project.

Unfortunately for my previous project, it never stayed that way. Within a month I’d written roughly 10,000 words, and now, six months later, I don’t even want to know.

That sheer amount of passion came from the voice (and my love of the plot). I never would have written so much and stuck to the project if it wasn’t for the main character’s distinctive voice. It is colloquial, sarcastic, rebellious and immediately recognizable, to the point where my beta readers at Thanet Writers are capable of telling me if she does and/or says something out of character.

So, where am I going with this?

Well, I’ve been hearing a lot about main characters in popular franchises being bland. Lacking distinct personalities seems to be a common annoyance amongst readers. For example, very few people cite Harry Potter, the titular character of JK Rowling’s popular wizarding series, as their favourite character. I know his sidekicks Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger fare better than him in popularity polls. Hermione Granger has become a cultural icon in her own right due to her strong principles, studious nature and honest personality.

What I hear about Harry Potter, more often than not, is that he is a bland character. Defence of this includes that he is an audience surrogate, or what I call a ‘puppet protagonist’.

A puppet protagonist is a main character with dull, limited personality, enabling the audience to step inside the role and use their imagination to fill in the rest.

The prevalence of first-person narration within Young Adult (YA) simply adds to the tide of puppet protagonists; introducing hundreds of bland, forgetful leads into interesting and complex stories to allow the reader to feel part of the tale. It’s like we’re going back to the second-person horrors of choose-your-own-adventure books.

There’s a rise in claims of puppet protagonists, especially within YA fiction, and it is a concept that I admit that I do not thoroughly understand. With a rising popularity of YA fiction, puppet protagonists are increasingly in my peripheral as a writer.

The most common stories credited as having bland and/or puppet protagonists are those within the YA fiction, and those that are in the first person narrative; for example, Bella Swan from Twilight fame. My first real experience with puppet protagonist was with video games, most notably the Halo series. The main character, Master Chief, never reveals his face to the audience, and this is a design so that the audience can decide how he appears and put themselves in Master Chief’s shoes.

Some video game protagonists don’t have any dialogue at all, though what they say within the game is often reiterated to the audience via another character. For example, a character might say they intend to go travelling without anything planned, there’s a pause, and then they shout, “Of course I know what I’m doing!” The pause is when the protagonist speaks, but the audience is not told what they say to allow them to imagine how protagonist talks, and what they say.

While this works for the video game format, it is considerably extreme for books.

For many years, as a young aspiring writer, the last thing I wanted to create was an underdeveloped, bland main character. The idea of setting out to write a protagonist in such a way is still entirely foreign to me.

With so many puppet protagonists in popular books, it can be difficult for writers, old and new, to avoid writing certain tropes into their own protagonists. Whatever’s popular sells, right? Though, I’d like to state now that those bland, underdeveloped protagonists aren’t necessarily what made those books great.

An intriguing premise and believable secondary characters can be enough to bolster up popularity. A main character so forgettable they aren’t pivotal to the plot is not something I recommend anyone striving for. It doesn’t exercise one’s imagination or skill as a writer for a start.

So how does one know they’ve accidentally started writing a puppet protagonist? Well, the biggest tell-tale for me is whether or not the protagonist actually engages with the plot, whether they are genuinely active in their own story, or whether everything just happens to them.

Protagonists need to be a little less passive and a lot more active in their own stories. This passivity goes hand in hand with lack of opinion, and therefore a lack in nuance and voice when exploring the world, and thus no believable development. This can ultimately lead to a character who is solely there for one thing, such as to win the love/approval of a perfect lover, or gain magical powers to defeat the ultimate villain.

Now, some protagonists start off with this kind of character flaw, and if done correctly, readers will stay faithful to the end and find they’ve been rewarded with a fully-fledged protagonist, filled with character development and who doesn’t love reading about people progressing out of their flaws? It is something we as humans strive for.

My advice is to stick to the voice of the protagonist rather than the voice of the audience. This way a writer can avoid a cookie-cutter story and a puppet protagonist. Sure, certain books are popular at the moment, but for all we know, someone who manages to break that mould could be creating the next big trend.

The voice will enable a character to tell the writer whether what is happening fits with the way they are designed. It will naturally ooze personality and, hopefully, create a more progressive and active character within the story one is trying to tell.

One may find it is all that is necessary to add a little extra flavour to their brewing story.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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