Dear Story Nurse,
I’m about to start writing the next volume of a fantasy series and find myself-second-guessing my choice of 1st person protagonist. In the usual way of fantasy novels, all of my previous protagonists (multiple per book) have been exceptional in some way: magical talents, physical skills, social status, etc. Because I want to write a wide diversity of characters, for this one I deliberately designed a character who is not “special”. A young working-class woman with no magical talents, no money, limited economic expectations, and only tentative aspirations with regard to the skill she has her sights on (dressmaking). But she gets drawn into adventures because of the friends she makes and because she chooses to support the skills and aspirations of those friends with her own more everyday abilities. (The book is planned to be YA.)
That circle of friends is itself fairly diverse, including people with physical disability, marginalized ethnic and religious background, trans identity, as well as some with more privileged backgrounds. But now I’m second-guessing the reasons I chose a “default settings” protagonist. (She’s lesbian, but in my series that pretty much counts as a default character setting, though it does make her life more precarious.)
I keep thinking of stories I’ve read or viewed where my reaction was, “Why wasn’t this the black girl’s story—she’s the more interesting character? Why doesn’t the disabled character get to be the hero?” And yet, as the story is designed, all those other characters intersect the story and are brought together through her. Her story arc is to learn how to value her friendships for what they are, and not in how they relate to her, and to choose to support those friends in their triumphs specifically because they have talents she lacks, rather than choosing the path of self-benefit. (I know this is sort of vague without giving the whole plot.)
Am I overthinking this? Can an everywoman of a poor non-magical queer white laundry maid be a worthy protagonist?
You’ve actually got two questions here, cleverly disguised as one. The first is whether an ordinary person—in the sense of non-extraordinary, someone lacking in special powers or status—can be a successful protagonist. The second is whether a “default settings” person, someone who is not significantly marginalized in their setting, can be a successful protagonist. The answer to both questions is yes. You just have to pick the right kind of story for her, and understand who you’re telling that story for.
1. Ordinary protagonists
Off the top of my head, here’s a short list of positive, inspiring media that center ordinary people:
- The song “Somebody Will” by Sassafrass
- Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series of books
- Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
- Sesame Street
- Bob Ross’s painting videos
- Jane Austen’s novels
- This video from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee of interviews with civil rights activists
Stories about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things are escapist fantasies: “Wouldn’t it be cool if my life were like that?” Stories about ordinary people doing ordinary (but still important and valuable) things are very different. They encourage us to think, “I can do that right now.”
The television shows I mentioned basically teach that message over and over and over. You can manage your feelings! You can learn to count! You can paint! And gradually viewers absorb the greater lesson: whatever it is you think you can’t do, you probably actually can.
Austen’s novels have a more specific focus: even if you think you can’t find love, you probably actually can. And the activists and “Somebody Will” say that even if you think you can’t contribute significantly to efforts to make the world better, you probably actually can. And Pierce’s books, like your story, say that even if you think you can’t have adventures because you’re too ordinary, you probably actually can. But the gist is the same.
So let’s recast your story in those terms:
Her story arc is to learn how to value her friendships for what they are, and not in how they relate to her, and to choose to support those friends in their triumphs specifically because they have talents she lacks, rather than choosing the path of self-benefit.
That sounds to me like “Even if you think you can’t be a good friend without uncomfortable amounts of self-sacrifice or self-denial, you probably actually can.” And that’s a lesson many people could stand to learn, especially many people who, like your protagonist, are marginalized in some ways but privileged in others, and are trying to figure out how to balance what they need (or feel they are owed) with what they can give.
You’re absolutely right that many stories with ordinary protagonists also have boring protagonists, but that’s a story craft issue. We’re swimming in the narrative conceit that what makes extraordinary characters interesting is their extraordinariness and what makes protagonists interesting is that they’re protagonists. Stories built on those premises tend to keep the action and adventure coming so quickly that they can kind of get away with it for a bit. (They also tend to have sequels that fall flat as pancakes because the initial excitement has worn off and readers realize there was nothing underneath it.) So if you take away the crutch of extraordinariness, many writers fail to realize that they now have to put in actual protagonist character development work to compensate.
Meanwhile, those same writers put significant effort into building up side characters because they’re more aware that side characters can’t just skate by on their extraordinariness. Side characters also often get moral complexity than the protagonist does, especially in heroic tales where the protagonist is the embodiment of goodness, and they provide conversational foils, dispensing both banter and wisdom. And if they’re more marginalized than the protagonist is, they have more real-world problems to contend with, making them more relatable to readers. Naturally, these complicated, sympathetic, well-developed characters steal every scene.
To avoid this trap, take the time to figure out what makes your protagonist interesting, to herself and to the people around her, and to learn the Mister Rogers lesson that characters can make their stories special just by being their unique selves. Think about the people in your life with whom you can happily talk for hours and never feel bored. How do they hold your interest? What makes you want to hang out with them over and over again? Use that knowledge to help your readers feel just as good about spending hours of reading time with your protagonist. And make sure you spend just as much time developing her depth and complexity as you do for any of her companions, and give her plenty of opportunities to make mistakes, wrestle with her conscience, and support other characters on their own journeys.
2. “Default settings” protagonists
You’re also right that many (many) (so many) stories fall into the trap of considering someone with tremendous social privilege to be a protagonist whom of course all readers will be able to relate to, while relegating marginalized characters to narrative support roles because they would be “unrelatable” in the central role. (“I can’t relate to this character” is a phrase often used by privileged editors and readers to reject work featuring marginalized protagonists, even though marginalized readers are expected to force themselves to relate to privileged protagonists.) To some extent, you’ve fallen into that trap too, awkwardly stretching the term everywoman to cover both the ways your character is marginalized and the ways that she’s privileged. Is she an everywoman because she’s poor and queer and low-status and therefore overlooked by the elite, or because she’s white and able-bodied and therefore the narrative default? Rather than trying to thread that needle, I recommend ditching the label altogether. No one is actually an everywoman, and you will do your story and your readers a much greater service by focusing on her as a complete and unique person.
With regard to having a protagonist who’s privileged in some respects, you’ve already taken steps in the right direction by constructing your story around her learning to genuinely value the marginalized people she knows rather than treating them as objects. Now you just have to make sure the narrative also doesn’t treat those people as objects for her to learn important life lessons from.
There’s nothing morally wrong with having a white protagonist, but you have to put some work into making her a protagonist worth reading. Some starting points:
- Give her a distinct identity, rather than leaving her whiteness as an unmarked state. (Both those links are to posts by the marvelous and insightful Mary Anne Mohanraj. I highly recommend reading them in full.)
- Describe her and other white characters in similar ways to how you describe nonwhite characters. If you mention race for some people, mention it for everyone.
- Don’t define the character’s attractiveness in terms of her pale skin, light-colored eyes, or other attributes linked with whiteness. If a particular other character is attracted to her because of those qualities, be careful to distinguish that from a narrative opinion that those qualities are inherently attractive.
- Be aware of ethnic distinctions as well as racial ones, and how identities and labels change from one situation to another. For example, someone who’s seen as white in America might be regarded as Italian in Europe and Calabrian in Italy—none of which tells you how they think of themself (which may also change depending on the situation they’re in).
- Avoid the many clichés of white exceptionalism, such as the white savior, the white anti-racist activist who helps nonwhite people realize how oppressed they are, or the white ruler over a nation of nonwhite people. If your story looks like a million anonymous brown arms reaching out for one named blond lady, something is awry.
Likewise, for an abled protagonist:
- Give her an explicit relationship with her embodied self. The biggest cliché of the able body and brain is that they just work; the protagonist never encounters a burden they can’t lift or forgets important information. But in reality, everyone is conscious to some degree of being embodied, and everyone encounters situations that they’re not equipped for. Showing how your protagonist works around those situations can be great for character development.
- Mention her physical and cognitive reactions to everyday situations such as not getting enough sleep or food, being startled, catching a cold, or having period cramps. Or, since she’s a poor working-class woman and probably has never gotten enough sleep or food, mention her physical and cognitive reactions to finally having a good meal or a full night’s rest, if the narrative allows her to have those things.
- Mention her sensory reactions to the world around her.
- Don’t use temporary injury or disability as a plot device that affects nothing else in the character’s life and magically gets better as soon as it’s no longer needed for plot reasons.
- Make her skills and abilities appropriate for her age and lifestyle. There’s a fine line to walk here, because one person’s “that’s unrealistic” is another person’s “that sounds just like my grandma,” but in general, any skill or ability she has should have at least a scrap of attached backstory explaining how she acquired it (for your reference even if it doesn’t make it into the narrative), and any new thing she attempts should have a learning curve. Also, expending much more effort than usual should leave her tired and sore, and her vulnerability to ailments and recovery time from exertion should be increased by age, illness, malnourishment, or chronic exhaustion.
And in general:
- If your character is aware of her privilege in certain areas, give her complex and plausible reactions to it, especially if she’s marginalized in other ways. Don’t make her a mouthpiece for endless platitudes about the importance of allyship, and be very wary of centering her story around her political awakening, which can easily turn into an exceptionalism narrative (especially if the less privileged people around her disproportionately admire or reward her awareness).
- Regardless of whether she’s aware of her privilege, the narrative should be, and the marginalized people around her should be.
- Her setting, whether real-world or created, should incorporate diversity of all sorts from the ground up. If it’s not, its homogeneity should clearly be due to overt or covert actions taken by one group to exclude other groups. Women-only colleges exist, but not by happenstance. Many of those colleges have majority-white student bodies, which is also not by happenstance.
Most importantly, she needs to be a real, multifaceted person. Just as you can’t assume that the protagonist is interesting by virtue of being the protagonist, you can’t assume that privileged people are interesting by virtue of being privileged. So in the end, there’s one answer to both your questions: yes, any fully developed character can be a protagonist in a story that’s written with care.