The Protagonist Problem

“Speculative Resistance”—a term coined by Malka Older—posits that one great power speculative fiction wields is that exploring other worlds and ways societies could work encourages people to question extant systems, to imagine alternatives, to hope, to act, and to reject the old hope-ending “because that’s the way it is.” The author Ursula K. Le Guin termed “realists of a larger reality” do broaden expectations, and even galvanize (as we see in innumerable places, from A.I. rights think tanks to Star Wars-themed Women’s March signs), but we can also narrow expectations when we repeat patterns, leaving the impression that even in a thousand magic and alien worlds X is still always true. We know that stereotypes do harm, for example that the attitudes of TV-watching millions are affected by the fact that 33% of Black and 50% of Latino immigrant characters depicted on American TV are shown committing crimes. This essay aims to call attention to something similar but subtler, subtle because of its very ubiquity in speculative fiction, general fiction, even nonfiction, but which—if we step up and challenge it—could do real good: protagonist stories. We don’t mean stories with main characters, we mean something very specific.

Jo Walton coined the word protagonismos in 2010 to mean “the kind of person stories happen to,” but I’m extending that meaning here. We tell a lot of stories in which one special person has the power to save the day, make the difference, solve the problem, and change everything. They might be superhero, a long-lost royal scion, the last of their race, a child of prophecy, or they might—like Frodo—be an everyman who has that special courage or other quality which saves the day. Protagonismos is the protagonist spark, that quality some characters possess which means the plot will not advance until our hero comes to lead the action, be it to victory or defeat. It’s easier to see in clumsy examples. Think of that formula for an action team, there might be five characters: the smart one, the strong one, the kid, the love-interest, and the…protagonist, whose distinguishing feature may be described as courage, or a pure heart, or determination, but really comes down to writing, that they’re the one who always lands the final blow. The armies will not roll out, the superweapon fire, or the princess fall into the pit until James Bond, or Robin Hood, or Captain Kirk, or Aragon and Frodo (yes, there can be two in one tale) arrive and act.

Many such stories are great stories, it’s a great formula, there’s a reason we’ve been writing it since Homer had the Greeks succeed or fail based on Achilles’ presence on the battlefield. But when we use this formula too constantly, when we make it the dominant structure of our stories, we advance the claim that, even in a thousand different worlds, in utopias and dystopias, in dragon cities and on Dyson spheres, from our cave-dwelling days unto the dimming of the sun, history is decided by the actions of special people dropped into each era to be its destined shaper. And while the archetype is old, its saturation has increased acutely in the last few decades (chronology below). The stories may be wonderful (the call to action at the end of this will not be that we never write about protagonists) but the saturation of such stories, the vast majority of stories agreeing that protagonismos is what changes the world, that can be bad. When some stories center protagonists, while others center teams, movements, families, etc., that teaches us that there are many ways a world can change, but when almost every story has protagonismos, it teaches us that all worlds work this way, and leads people to see the real world and real history as resting in the hands of real-world protagonists. This is harmful. It’s harmful when people to see themselves as not protagonists, and differently harmful when people to see themselves as protagonists.

What harm does it do?

Believing that real life has protagonists, but that you yourself are not one, leads to impostor syndrome, feelings of powerlessness, inaction, cynicism, and despair. It leads to the belief that if you personally don’t resemble a protagonist (if you falter, have undramatic setbacks, mundane problems, job hunts, laundry, rent) then you can’t be one of the special few whose actions matter. It leads to the belief that grassroots organizing, even voting, cannot change things, only heroes do. And it makes people vulnerable to conspiracy theories, which are fundamentally about the desire to believe there is a plan, some hero or villain (villains can have protagonismos too) pulling the strings. If you comb through the online discourse of the participants in the January US Capitol attack, the man who literally petitioned the US government to install Steward of Gondor until Trump is restored is far from the only example of super-radicalized individuals explicitly comparing themselves to supporting characters in a book or videogame, whose only hope of improving the world lies in joining the protagonist’s army when he makes his climax speech.

As for the inverse—and it is very possible to see yourself as both protagonist in some senses and side character in others—the feeling of being the protagonist of your own life can lead to recklessness, power trips, and (visible a lot lately) the expectation that breaking rules is okay so long as it’s you. Think of how often the protagonist in an action thriller (or in a Sherlock Holmes story) breaks the rules, burgles the house, crosses the police line, breaks the curfew, resorts to violence first, but it’s okay. If a story starts with someone breaking the seal on the sample/mummy/laboratory/cursed tome, if they’re the protagonist they’re fine, if not they’re dead before scene’s end. Even in the zombie plague epicenter, if the protagonist breaks out of the quarantine zone, blasting through yellow tape and hazmat-suited doctors, it will turn out to be the right decision in the end, and definitely won’t be what makes the plague worse, that will be the actions of side characters or bad guys. We’ve all seen interviews with superspreaders who were not COVID-deniers, yet believed their wedding, their vacation, their one exception wouldn’t be a problem—that expectation didn’t come from nowhere. There are also milder forms of this line of thinking. I worked with many institutions this year to adapt teaching guidelines to make courses easier on students during the COVID crisis, and was amazed to see how consistently, when we followed up with instructors, a large majority reported that they read and liked the guidelines but had chosen not to follow them, since their particular course had special needs, and since they knew all the other courses were following the guidelines, clearly it was alright for just their class to break the rule, if they had a good reason. Remember that, at the most famous school in our culture—Hogwarts—breaking the rules always has positive outcomes, for teachers and students, so long as you have a good reason, and are protagonist-and-friends.

Another side of protagonist thinking, which COVID has brought to a head, is the proliferation in the USA of survivalist stockpilers, a very real demographic which latches onto apocalyptic stories in which the overworked and underappreciated not-yet-protagonist becomes the hero-leader when the plague/flood/meteor/monster comes. This is a genuinely large demographic, enough for apocalyptic bunker design consultancy to be an actual, full-time occupation in the USA. When COVID came, many thousands of people genuinely expected things to fall apart into Mad Max biker-gang microstates where the shotgun is king, and were ready for it, looking forward with excitement to finally becoming the powerful protagonists of their lives, as fiction showed would happen. When instead COVID triggered pop-up food banks, neighborhood initiatives, and months of tedium, the shock of a dream betrayed left such people vulnerable to radicalizing bots and extremist groups, who recruit them in massive numbers (see historian Kathleen Belew’s work on the white power movement).

Before this starts feeling like moral panic language (Blame videogames! Blame comic books! Blame Dungeons & Dragons! Blame Canada!), the protagonist problem is not specific to one medium or genre, and non-fiction is just as complicit, if not more guilty, than fiction. Looking at the genre of history for a moment, Great Man history was bad, is bad, historians try hard not do it anymore, not just because of the “man” part but also because of the “great” part. Great Man history erases the fact that most real changes result from collective action, many people doing many things, from teams, from trends, from multiple factors—this famine, and these bank loans, and this edict, and this old feud, and this printing press, and this Martin Luther dude, and thirty other men and women that you haven’t heard of—but it’s much easier to tell a story just about Luther, especially since (long story very short) for centuries, the genre of history writing was considered a moral teaching genre whose purpose was to show examples of great people and bad people, to give the reader good examples to absorb, and bad to shun. And since what we write is based on what we read, even new histories that try to innovate often find it’s easiest to still center something as protagonist, it just might be the daughter, or the sister, or the unsung Black researcher, or in bolder experiments the codfish, or the number zero, or the color red. A brilliant article by food historian Allen Grieco demonstrates how cantaloupe caused the French revolution, and he’s right, but you have to read it understanding that he intends you to see cantaloupe as one of a hundred interwoven causes, and that’s hard. When you’re a textbook writer with three pages to cover three centuries, it’s a lot easier to pick a couple awesome people—Leonardo! Galileo! Queen Elizabeth I!—than to describe dozens of separate, amorphous groups and factors. (Hi)stories with simple causes are easier to tell, so most histories get whittled down to some hero or villain in the end. We’re living this process now as COVID discourse settles more and more on Dr. Fauci, and the ways we choose to write about the vaccine rollout will determine whether COVID becomes one of these rare and precious cooperation stories—like smallpox eradication or the Hoover Dam—which gets told as a teamwork moment even in textbooks, or whether we’re picking a new Great Man.

Now for the timeline:

What is similar about the following books: Harold Robbins’s The Dream Merchants (1949), Alistair Maclean’s The Guns of Navarone (1957), Arthur Hailey’s Hotel (1965), Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure (1969), Colleen McCulloch’s The Thorn Birds (1977), James Michener’s Chesapeake (1978), James Clavell’s Noble House (1981), Shirley Conran’s Lace (1982), and Edward Rutherford’s Sarum (1987)? First, they were all bestsellers in their days, books everyone was reading, selling in vast quantities, piled up enticingly in every grocery store and airport bookstall. They had huge readerships. Many became blockbuster movies, reaching millions. And they’re all stories of multiple agency, often described on their back covers as “tapestries,” to tell us they have lots of threads, that we’ll be following lots of characters, whether it’s a few days in a luxury hotel, a week in Hong Kong, or millennia in an English village. In these decades—from the second world war to the late 1980s—tapestry books with multiple agency, many characters all shaping the outcome, was a major mode of bestselling books, and the blockbuster movies based on them. In these books there’s not a protagonist in sight, nobody the plot waits for, they’re all written in Dickensian multiple third: the point of view switches to whoever is most convenient.

These tapestry books were not the kind of multiple third-person point-of-view found today in epic fantasies like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (1993-present) and Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars (1997-2006), which have clearly marked chapter boundaries, and where each point-of-view character is recurring, with an arc, and the expectation that, by taking up a POV, the author has committed to seeing that character forward to a personal climax of one sort or another. We might call such books a braid structure, with individual strong strands, each thick and significant. Frequently in braid books, one or two characters/strands still have protagonismos (the plot waits for them) while others support, but all of them have arcs, and conventions. In contrast, in tapestry books the points-of-view can truly be as tiny as threads, and may not have arcs in themselves. In Hotel (1965), we take the desk clerk’s POV as a couple checks in, he gives them a particular kind of room because of his perceptions, we then switch to the man’s POV, then the woman’s. There is no expectation of returning to the desk clerk, but he has agency in that one moment, his choice of room affecting the survival of the other characters when disaster strikes. He is a tiny thread but has power, agency, even though he personally has no arc. The readers of these tapestry bestsellers are comfortable hopping from head to head without the promise that anyone with a POV must be special, and are invested in a true ensemble cast. In these tiny hops into a minor character, agency can be in anyone, not just in characters whose lives have arcs and climaxes, i.e. whose lives don’t feel like our lives.

Zooming out further in the history of fiction writing, the novel as we understand it evolved in English in the eighteenth century, with other exciting things happening in French, Russian, and other languages, but by the nineteenth century novels written in English and Russian tended to have omniscient viewpoints, where the author either explicitly (Austen, Tolstoy, Eliot) or implicitly (Dostoyevsky, Trollope) had the viewpoint of God, who could stop the story to discourse to the reader, and go into the head of any character. Stories like that seldom had protagonismos—it wasn’t absent, but it was rare. Dickens changed this by writing in multiple third-person perspective, where the narrator never steps back and expostulates; instead you’re always in the head of one specific character or another, close up behind their eyes. First person narration also always existed, but at first it usually took the form of epistolary novels or a fictitious memoir (think of Watson writing about Holmes). As the nineteenth century advanced, it became more acceptable to write in first person directly without framing as a letter, memoir etc.

Things changed as the twentieth century began, under the influence of cinema with its intense close-ups, the dominant forms came to be very tight third person (exemplified by Hemingway) as well as first person, though Dickensian multiple third person was still common. First and tight third are the forms in which you most commonly see protagonismos in written prose fiction. Next came the 1950s-80s when tapestry books were big, coexisting with other forms without one form taking clear majority. Some authors of bestseller tapestry books went on writing into the nineties, but at that stage few new authors started writing in this style. Something happened, specifically in the nineties. Could it have been the fall of the USSR and the decline of Marxist collectivist views of history? Or was it just a trend in what was fashionable? Whatever the cause, tapestry books specifically, and multiple-agent books in general, dwindled, so from the nineties to today bestsellers and blockbusters are much more likely to be first person or single tight third, following a clear protagonist, usually with a destined sense of being on the side of the angels, and the ability to get away with things. We do have bestseller braid books, such as Song of Ice and Fire, but even these constitute a small minority of all fiction, enough that people remark on them as unusual for not having a single point of view. They also usually still have a couple characters with protagonismos, while all the characters with power (those who determine outcomes of events) have distinct arcs, rather than power also being wielded by minor people like our Hotel desk clerk.

While this trend is most visible in the mainstream, you see it in science fiction and fantasy from the ’90s on as well, so it becomes hard to find stories about teams, about people who aren’t a chosen one, either explicitly as a plot point, or implicitly because of how the author treats the character. Most examples of team books that come to mind are older, such as C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station (1981) and Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman (1989). There are more examples in fantasy; Steven Erikson is definitely still writing tapestry-style, and Guy Gavriel Kay often writes in actual omniscient point-of-view, like George Eliot. Martin, for all that he is writing a braid, has a discussion in A Clash of Kings (1998) about where agency lies in the case of an irresponsible child king giving an order to a soldier who obeys and undoes all the careful diplomacy with a stroke of the sword. This passage is worth noting as one of the very few direct considerations of multiple agency in genre.

To sum up: in 1996, when the first big budget Mission Impossible movie came out, many who remembered the original 1966-1973 TV commented on how different it felt, despite the faithful formula, because the old show didn’t have a protagonist, it truly had a team. This was more than Hollywood spotlighting a star (Tom Cruise), though the way celebrity shapes film (which impacts books) is a factor. The change from team to protagonist-with-backup reflected a major shift in the pie chart of how we distribute power in our stories. Circa 1990, the single-protagonist structure grew to dominate the pie, while the plural-but-still-with-protagonismos slice also grew, and other story structures shrunk to slivers. We can change that. There is nothing wrong with protagonist stories remaining common, if not the plurality of stories, but it’s when we recognize there is a box that we can think, and write, outside it. Let’s write more stories about teams, plural action, tapestries, taking turns. Let’s write more stories where the plot does not wait for a special few, where power also rests the hotel desk clerk, the bystander—we can even have the voting public or the pop-up food pantry volunteer team save the day. When we do write about main characters, let’s think hard about how we use protagonismos, deconstruct it, invert it, surprise the reader. Varying our story structures, expanding, evening out that pie chart, and trying to use the common model in more innovative and examined ways—all these steps will make our stories newer and more powerful, not less. Le Guin in “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” (1986), when discussing the problem of how commonly the hero with a spear takes over stories, says, “I said it was hard to make a gripping tale of how we wrested the wild oats from their husks, I didn’t say it was impossible. Whoever said that writing a novel was easy?”

The crises of the last few years were shaped by hundreds of factors, as the French Revolution was, and the protagonist problem may be as small a contributor as cantaloupe, but it’s a contributor the genre fiction world has the power to do something about. If you doubt that power, remember that UK Health Minister Matt Hancock ordered 70 million extra COVID vaccine doses because he watched the movie Contagion, and learned from it that there might be shortages. Stories teach, and team stories, stories which remind people that power is shared, teach something the world really needs right now. For years, the toymaker Matel has released a “Career of the Year” Barbie, different each year and focused on powerful careers (movie director, Mars explorer, judge, roboticist, president), but for 2020 they released a team of four: a political candidate, her campaign manager, a grassroots fundraiser, and a voter, with the motto “Big Dreams: Bright Future” and packaging declaring that it’s teamwork that moves the world. It’s a powerful message, and that’s just 150 words on the side of a cardboard box. Writers of fantasy and science fiction have a lot to work with: 5,000 words, 50,000 words, 150,000 words—let’s use them.

Ada Palmer and Jo Walton

Ada Palmer’s acclaimed Terra Ignota series (Tor Books) explores a future of borderless nations and globally commixing populations; its fourth and last volume Perhaps the Stars is due out September 2021. She teaches history at the University of Chicago, studying the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and radical freethought, and is currently working on a book on censorship and the impact of information revolutions on censorship methods. She composes music including the Viking mythology cycle Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, studies anime/manga, especially Osamu Tezuka, post-WWII manga and feminist manga, consults for anime and manga publishers, and blogs at ExUrbe.com.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer who has published four poetry collections, two collections of nonfiction pieces, one short story collection, and fifteen novels, most recently Or What You Will. She won the World Fantasy Award in 2004 for Tooth and Claw and the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2012 for Among Others. She blogs about older science fiction on Tor.com. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are much better. She likes reading, writing, travel, live theatre, and science fiction conventions, and is finding this pandemic exceedingly trying.

2 Responses to “The Protagonist Problem”

  1. Doug Merrill

    The editors who buy stories and books can have the greatest effect on whether protagonismo continues to dominate. I hope they are reading and take this to heart.

  2. mikermnz

    Thanks for this. I’m very interested in questions of protagonism and agency and often write ensemble casts, and this gives me some new directions to explore. Time to read some older fiction, I think.

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