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  1. Eileen Kern
    July 14, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    Quoting Cassie from a comment on the Herbs post:
    A lot of writing choices are like that. It’s not, “Doing X is fraught with peril, so do Y,” but, “Doing X badly is fraught with peril, so do it well. Or do Y well, because if you do Y badly that’s also fraught with peril.” Peril all round!

    I’m glad that you mention that in certain cases a “useless protagonist” can be done well because there are many useless protagonists in published/”successful” literature–and these protagonists are useless for a variety of reasons.

    One topic to which I’ve given much thought is the protagonist who doesn’t really have any useful control over his own life/the outcome of his actions. Take Ender for example: While the entire outcome of /Ender’s Game/ is dependent on his actions, he is not permitted to make useful decisions regarding those outcomes. He is “useful” in that he makes decisions that none of the other characters would be able to, but “useless” in that he’s being forced toward a singular purpose, basically not allowed to fail in that purpose, and isn’t even told exactly what that purpose is until it’s too late for Ender to decide what he might have wanted to have done. While the entire point of /Ender’s Game/ is his relative powerlessness in his own life, I still find him rather useless at this point. Sure, he does something no one else would be able to–but the book really never even gives him the option for failure.

    I know that that’s not exactly the definition you’re presenting for “useless,” but I have to admit that Ender (whom I loved in middle school) annoys me a bit right now. He’s the main character, but his siblings are the ones who actually get to make real decisions in their own lives.

    While in most cases, beginning writers have “useless protagonists” because they’re not quite sure what the protagonists should be doing, I think that part of the problem is that they’ve probably read so many published books where a plot just happens around the main character. And to be honest, some (not, I might add, most or all) books with “useful protagonists” annoy me because sometimes writers sacrifice interesting/captivating writing style in order to show their protagonists Doing Stuff–which is another potential trap for beginning writers.

    -Eileen
    Alpha 2003 & 2004

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  2. Sarah Brand
    July 14, 2010 @ 11:21 am

    It’s been an age and a half since I read Ender’s Game, but from what I recall (correct me if I’m totally off-base here), he spends most of the book trying to beat the system, while everything he does plays into the hands of the people who control him. So, yes, he has no choice but to succeed at what they want him to do. Still, he has this other thing he wants (control over his life) and he takes action to try to get it, which is the main thing.

    I agree with you, though, it’s definitely frustrating to read in that sense.

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  3. Eileen Kern
    July 17, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    I’m not arguing that Ender is completely useless, just that he may fall into a subcategory related to uselessness. After all, there are only two options presented to him: Fail and burn out, or succeed and play the role that the adults have chosen for him. So of course he has his own control over his actions–his determination not to fail, not to burn out, and to just take on whatever new tests the adults choose for him successfully. But he has zero control over the outcome of his actions; it isn’t until after the climax that the adults bother to tell him what he actually just accomplished (and it wasn’t something he would have willingly done).

    But there’s also plenty of room in genre writing for “successful” characters who go along with or are forced to go along with others’ plans and actions. While I do think writers should take notice of how important their main characters actually are to the plot at hand, I also think that too much of an emphasis on being inside the head of the person(s) making all the decisions can be overrated–as long as the choice has been made deliberately.

    Right now I’m listening to the audiobook for /The Teahouse Fire/, a literary fiction book about Japan in the late 19th century–told through the eyes of a young American girl orphan who ends up in the story as sort of a maid, sort of a younger sister to a Japanese household. While she does make some decisions in her own life, the main purpose of choosing her, rather than the Japanese girl in this household, seems to be that she serves as a translator for a non-Japanese audience. She is a character who would notice and describe all of the intricate steps of the tea ceremony, whereas a character who has grown up around this her entire life might not be as captivated.

    Anyway, while I do agree with your warning, I would also like to caution beginning writers against throwing themselves toward the opposite extreme–creating extremely active characters at the /expense/ of, say, tone or clarity.

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  4. Sarah Brand
    July 21, 2010 @ 9:47 pm

    > But there’s also plenty of room in genre writing for “successful” characters who go along with or are forced to go along with others’ plans and actions.

    I completely agree with this. My problem is when supposedly main characters seem to have no agency at all on any level. Reduced agency can be all kinds of interesting, for a variety of reasons.

    I also agree that the opposite extreme is something to watch out for. “Peril all round!” as Cassie said. (Possible motto for the Alpha blog? :P)

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