Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hero or Protagonist?

I've wondered on whether to use the term hero or protagonist when talking about writing. Both have their upsides and downsides.

Hero is the older term. Its short, four letters, I'm done. But it traditionally indicates a male character. The term also tends to connotate a character with few faults. With the modern fixation on "three dimensional" characters, or even worse "gritty and edgy" characters, hero just seems old fashioned and past its prime.

Protagonist? Too long, and my fingers hate typing it. Its just damn pretentious, like my main character has a dark past doing something awful, like "selling drugs disguised as a nun". Or he stands on windswept crags, staring into dark thundering clouds, spending forty two long pages pondering the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

I've decided to use the word "toon", from "cartoon". Toon is used by many MMORPG players to refer to their characters in the game. It seems to have come from World of Warcraft, inspired by the cartoon like artwork perhaps, but may be older.

Oh, but am I writing cartoons? Those aren't realistic at all! Well, when you get right down to it, most fiction is about unrealistic people or situations. The audience, whether readers or viewers, generally want something extraordinary. More action, more drama, more comedy than in real life. All fiction is about the out of the ordinary. A story about an engineer who goes to work, comes home, reads novels, goes to movies with friends, works out twice a week and goes to church once a month will never get published. If the same character stumbles across a plot to assassinate the president, or discovers vampires living next door, or "falls into a wormhole and the next moment is fighting Sleestak halfway across the galaxy", well thats sellable copy.

And in the 21st century its not enough to have extraordinary circumstances. Your character has to have some dark past. Its just not enough to fight fundamentalist christians bent on assasinating the great progressive hope, the protagonist (I swear it takes me a full sixty seconds to type that fricking word) must also be a former drug dealer, or committed atrocities as a mercenary in Iraq, or something "gritty and edgy". All in the name of 'three dimensionality'.

Of course, most people just aren't like that. Most of us are pretty two dimensional. Most of us will not dangle upside down from a high rise trying to disarm a nuclear bomb while struggling with the DTs because we're an addict who picked the wrong day to give up heroin.

The word toon reminds us what we write is not normal. Our audience wants more than normal and its our job to give it to them. If we don't, the reader will move to some one who will.

Reference: Orson Scott Card in his book on characters points out that fictional characters are not normal. I think Dwight Swain does too in his "Techniques for the selling writer", but can't recall. The quote about Sleestak is from an episode of Castle, I don't know which one.

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