October 20th, 2010

Books - Writing

Unreasonable Expectations? (Part 1 of 2)

I've seen a couple of criticisms cropping up in reviews lately -- not reviews of my own books necessarily, but of some very fine books by other authors. They're often stated somewhat crankily, as though they are universal rules and every author worth her word count ought to know better than to flout them -- but as a matter of fact they are comparatively recent expectations, and not ones that every reader shares or, I think, even needs to.

The criticisms are, as follows:

1. The protagonist must drive the plot at all times;


2. Any development which is surprising to the characters must also be surprising to the reader.

Today I'm going to tackle the first one.

Now, on the surface, insisting that the protagonist should incite the plot of the book or at least keep pushing it forward sounds like a solid fictional principle. After all, nobody wants a book where nothing happens, and nobody wants to read about a main character who never does anything. If a particular protagonist never grows or changes or becomes stronger or takes decisive action, one may be tempted to wonder why the author bothered to write a book about them at all (and this is certainly a fault which dooms many an unpublished manuscript).

But I am not talking about books so obviously flawed as all that. What puzzles and annoys me is that I've seen the "protagonist isn't doing enough" charge leveled against books which I really don't think deserve it. To use one specific example, I've seen a couple of reviews of Erin Bow's lovely, haunting, utterly unforgettable upper MG / lower YA novel Plain Kate which accuse Kate of not driving the plot enough -- that too many things happen to Kate rather than being initiated by her.

Now to me, this is just mindboggling, because Kate has a quiet strength and determination which is very evident from the beginning of the novel. She is not spineless or soppy or whiny; she suffers greatly and experiences deep sorrows, but she also displays great courage. And if Kate were what these critics seem to want her to be -- a feisty take-charge type who sets off into the world to have a great adventure -- then Plain Kate would be a very different story, and not nearly so emotionally affecting as it is.

Yes, we all enjoy reading about larger-than-life characters who do extraordinary things. But people like that are only a small part of any world's population, and most of us readers aren't like that ourselves. Very few of us get to be constantly in charge of our lives or otherwise making things happen; instead we spend most of our lives reacting to what others do around us, or to us. And when we face obstacles and challenges, we don't all leap at them with drawn swords and hack until the walls come down. Sometimes we run. Sometimes we hide.* Sometimes we're too busy reeling in shock to do anything for a while.

To me, as long as an MC keeps responding to the things that happen to her in a way that I can understand and find at least a little sympathy with, and as long as the plot keeps moving forward to the next situation or circumstance, there's nothing wrong with her not being Miss Spunky Dynamic. In fact I find it easier to care about her and identify with her if she isn't, because that makes her seem more realistic to me.

Of course, at some point in the narrative the protagonist has to take some kind of deliberate action to face their fears or confront the villain or solve the mystery, or they aren't worthy of being the protagonist at all. When a character is completely passive and does nothing but cringe and moan about their hardships without attempting to resolve them in any way, they become contemptible to the reader.

But if the character reacts to a succession of difficulties by trying to make the best of them, or trying to escape them, they are taking action, even if it isn't a big showy action. We aren't all knights of Camelot setting out on quests, after all. Often we're more like Hansel and Gretel, abandoned in the woods and trying to find our way home. And I think we need both kinds of stories -- and both kinds of protagonists -- to remind us of that.

Now, having shot off my own mouth on the subject, I'm interested to know what you folks think. Can you tell me about books you've enjoyed where the MC is more of an observer or reactor than a take-charge type? (I'll give you one: Alice in Wonderland.) Or do you have a different perspective on this subject that I might not have acknowledged here? Let me know in the comments.

And tomorrow I'll tackle #2, about surprising the characters vs. surprising the reader, and whether the two always have to be the same thing.

* Sometimes we draw on all the fire we have inside. (And +100 points to anybody who gets that reference WITHOUT googling.)