Writing — Extreme vs Mundane Protagonists

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Before I start, I want to thank all of you who helped make my book launch a success.  10 Bits of My Brain is off to a great start and the MW community is a big part of that.  If you enjoy the book, please tell your friends.  And now, since you and I need a change of pace, let’s talk about writing!

I’ve been thinking about character lately.  In particular, about the difference between extreme protagonists and mundane protagonists.  For my purposes, an extreme protagonist is the kind of character who is all action, never an ounce of self-doubt, never a moment of hesitation, the uber-hero.  This is Jack Reacher territory (or for cinematically inclined — the 80s action heroes like Stallone and Schwarzenegger).  A mundane protagonist is more likely to sit back and let the world happen.  This is the character that tries to avoid the conflict that is being thrust upon him until no other choice exists.  This is Holden Caulfield who runs from his boarding school and walks the streets of New York, angry at everything but doing very little about it.

Both types are common enough, and while writers often criticize the mundane protagonist, the truth is it can be an effective approach.  Like much advice, avoiding mundane protagonists is a “rule” usually given to new writers to help them avoid a difficult type of character to pull off.  Especially because a common error is to assume that mundane characters never act.  See, the extreme protagonist is (relatively speaking) easy to handle.  You need action to spice up your plot?  Romance?  Puzzle-solving?  Whatever the plot point, uber-hero can do it all.  Oh, we might give him a challenge or two, but in the end, we can write him into a solution that the reader will easily accept.

Not so easy with the mundane protagonist.  We have to give him a reason to jump into the action that’s more than just “to save the girl” or “to fight the evil.”  Want some romance?  The mundane protagonist won’t just sweep the girl off her feet.  In fact, he may be awkward at first.  Puzzle-solving?   Self-doubt may just turn the mundane protagonist away from the solution.  And that’s where the conflict often is derived for this type of character.  The obstacle in the way tends to be the character himself.

Really, these two types are the ends of a long spectrum.  Most characters will be some combination of the two.  And the question that I keep mulling over is one for the reader in us all.  I know as a writer that it is easier to write about and to get a reader involved with an extreme character more than a mundane one.  So, are we taking the easy way out with our focus on extreme characters, or is it part of our writer/reader agreement that we lean more towards the extreme protagonists than the mundane?

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18 comments to Writing — Extreme vs Mundane Protagonists

  • Unicorn

    Currently, I’m writing two protagonists that are almost on opposite ends of the spectrum. One is shy and has very low self-esteem; he has little confidence in himself because, quite frankly, no one has ever had confidence in him. Some things, though, he feels very strongly about, strongly enough to (eventually) kick him into action. The other protagonist is an extrovert; everyone thinks he’s wonderful and he tries his very best to be wonderful (and, in his mind, is succeeding); he’ll jump on his horse and save the world at a moment’s notice. Why? Because he’s a prince, and his father is a cruel, distant, and tyrannical king; and the prince is deeply driven *not* to be the king his father is.
    So far, though, the mundane character has been easier to write. I’m not entirely sure why; maybe because it’s hard to come up with reasons for why an extreme protagonist does what he does. It’s easy to turn away from the fight, and it’s in our nature to take the easy way out, which, if I’m understanding this at all correctly, is what the mundane protagonist does, right?
    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Stuart. I need to go and delve deeper into my protagonists’ pasts, see what’s made them mundane or extreme.
    Unicorn

  • Stuart,
    all my protagonists are mundane. I find them more interesting however fun the the more dynamic hero might be. But writing characters who are more like ourselves, who don’t always know what they want and how to get it, does present problems, as you suggest, particularly the trap of being passive which can be a real black hole for all but the most refective literary fiction. Protagonists do things, especially in the most important parts of the book. If your doesn’t, he’s not driving the action and is likely to feel adrift. Tough to keep your audience engaged when the central character feels like so much flotsam. But, as you say, the challenge is worth undertaking if you want the self-doubt, the sense of being out of one’s depth, the recognizeably real emotional response to things other heroes take in stride. I do 🙂

  • I’ll take a role as devil’s advocate on this one: I think that maybe Extreme Protagonists are difficult to pull off well in literature, whereas mundane ones are easier – whereas the reverse is true in Cinema.

    The reason: it’s hard for a reader to identify with an extreme protagonist, because we are nothing like such a person. What attracts us to extreme protags is an aspirational element: we’d like to be like them… but at the end of the day, we’re not. So when the extreme protagonist goes into uber action hero mode or rico suave mode, we don’t have the sort of life experience that allows us to invest in that.

    This lack of a personal connection with the character is counterbalanced by using extremely good-looking actors. The good-looking actors can induce something that mimics a real emotional reaction and investment in the character in the audience. But in literature, you have to imagine the character… and more often than not we do this by putting ourselves in the place of the character. But it’s hard to imagine ourselves going into uber action hero mode, you know?

    On the reverse… it’s hard to pull off mundane characters in cinema because… well… when an actor is that good looking, you know their life is going to be anything but mundane. This is the problem with some of those nerdy-girl to super-hot girl romantic comedies. The audience is sitting here thinking “I know that’s just [insert super-hot actress here] in glasses… and frankly she’s still hot, with or without glasses.” And our suspension of disbelief just went out the window.

    With literature, however… as a reader it’s easy to imagine the character being mundane, and reacting in the way a mundane person would, because my entire life experience is as a mundane person. It’s no trouble at all to invest myself into such a character – and to want them to do something heroic or romantic, because I want myself to do it, too. So when the character at last succeeds, I get a real emotional rush from seeing it happen, because it’s almost as if I had done it, too.

  • Unicorn — In reading this morning’s comments, I realize just how personal this can be. For me, writing extreme characters is easy but the mundane ones require more work. For others (see Stephen’s comments, for example), it’s the opposite. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise but I think I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I didn’t see the bigger picture. Regardless, though, you have the right idea — that you have to always try to delve deeper into the characters.

    AJ — When I wrote this post, I specifically tried to avoid words like passive and active for the reasons you bring up. A well-written mundane character is not passive, she is still a protagonist after all. I think that’s where a lot of beginning writers fall into trouble when trying to tackle mundane characters — they make them passive instead of conflicted.

    Stephen — You’ve given me something to think about. I understand your point, but I’m not sure I agree with it (in general, the specifics — like the nerdy/hot girl — is spot on). If you’ve ever read any of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, you get a straight forward uber-hero that’s every bit as accessible/believable as the cinematic variety. Hmmm. I’ll have to think on this one. Thanks!

  • Stuart, First — I *adore* Reacher! Totally adore him! In fact, Jane Yellowrock *was* Reacher in her inception. Welll… Reacher with paranormal stuff and a Beast inside. 🙂

    I always go for the active, extreme characters, but ones who are broken emotionally in some way, who percieve themselves as unsuccessful and therefore strive to make up for that in action. Watching the extreme character deal with personal mistakes and failure and facing that brokenness is exciting for me as a writer.

    Loved this post, and the idea of looking at characters in different ways: mundane and extreme.

  • Deb S

    I think a mundane protag would be a hard sell in today’s market, especially for a new writer. The introspective nature of the mundane protag creates a simmering tension, which might actually be more compelling long-term, but when you only have 250 words or less to hook an agent the slow burn pacing doesn’t translate. One option might be multiple POVs. Open with Kick-butt Sally, then once the reader is invested slow the pacing and deepen the narrative by switching to Mundane Protag’s POV.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    As a response to your question, I think one thing that elevates an extreme character as desirable in fiction is the element of dreaming. We read because we want to experience OTHER things. One way to do that, of course, is to have a mundane character that we can identify well with put into extreme circumstances, but the other way is to have characters who are other, who maybe give us something to aspire to or who are daring enough to seek out the adventures we don’t willing seek out on our own. I’ve said before that I believe that there is a moral aspect to the reader/writer experience, and extreme characters can, perhaps, lend that aspect a little bit of clarity.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    As an add-on, I just realized that my WIP has POV characters with strong elements of the mundane, but that the focus is largely on a very extreme (but non-POV) character – hmmm. Thanks for a post with lots to think about.

  • Faith — I think your latest post shows how you are a lady-of-action, so it doesn’t surprise me that these types of characters appeal to you. And, yes, I can see how Jane was inspired by Jack. Now, there’s a crossover story — Jack and Jane! 😉

    Deb — As with most things in this business, it depends. A hard sell in the action-oriented UF market, sure. YA has a lot of action, but given the expected age of the readers, a mundane character’s introspection might be welcome. Certainly the “commercial” genres look for more action characters, but in more general terms of fiction there’s room for mundane. And as AJ points out, just because a character is mundane doesn’t mean there’s a lack of action to be had. Just check out Act of Will.

    Hep — As I point out in the post, this ultimately two ends of a line. Most characters, most protagonists especially, are some combination of the two. Perhaps the best characters find the right balance between the two so that they appeal to both desires of identifying that you mention. Just some more to think about!

  • I think Extreme Protag is a product of Genre Fiction where you need to get from Plot Point A to B and end up at C as efficently as possible. Extreme Protags make this easier since they always seem to have forward momentum.

    Mundane Protags tend to fight the Plot Points and so are more passive. This runs counter to Genre Fiction and leans towards more Literary.

    In my opinion, Extreme Protags are allowed to be more shallow in character development. This lets the writer focus on Plot.

    For me, I have a very Mundane Protagonist mixed with an Extreme Antagonist. Fortunately they start out far apart or the story could be quite short! 🙂

  • I’ve never really considered any of my characters as being “extreme” or “mundane.” Some of them are leaders, making the decisions that propel them willingly into their conflicts; others are more akin to first time sky-divers shoved screaming from the airplane’s door. All of them have all the flaws and self-doubts and internal conflicts necessary to make them real people.

  • Razziecat

    I’ve never been very attracted, either as a reader or a writer, to the extreme protagonist, because everything always seems to be easy for them. They always know what to do and how to do it, and smash every obstacle in their way. On the other hand, I lose interest quickly in a protag who drifts through the story, reacting instead of acting, never knowing what to do, never committing fully to the action or the goal. So I tend to write people more in the middle: conflicted, driven and sometimes hesitant, but always deciding to act because the alternative–giving up–is unthinkable.

    May I suggest that someone do a similar essay about extreme vs. mundane antagonists?

  • I’m with Razzie. My favorite protagonists fall somewhere in the middle, usually as “mostly regular character is pushed to rise above her/his mundane life and goals (whatever those goals are) and becomes a hero”. I like them because I can relate to them, even when it turns out they have a special secret power and have to learn about it, because they *started* the story normal (whatever their definition of normal is).

  • I don’t usually think about my characters in these terms — most of the time I try to think of them as people with distinct personalities rather than as archetypes. But that said, I think that like A.J., I tend toward mundane characters who I throw into extreme circumstances. That for me is by far the most fun situation. (As opposed, I guess, to extreme characters in mundane situations, which sounds truly bizarre. “Rambo Cleans His Roof Gutters!” “The Terminator Repairs His Lawn Mower!” “Alien vs. Predator vs. the Oral Hygienist!”)

  • Y’all are having an interesting discussion. Please continue. Giving me lots to consider.

    David — Alien vs Predator vs the Oral Hygienist — I’d pay to see that.

  • Rambo Cleans his Gutters. This time it’s personal.

  • I first wrote characters more to the extreme end of the spectrum, such as Drohan, an orphan raised on the streets and trained by a thieves guild to be an assassin.

    I have since settled on characters who are more to the middle, and a bit toward mundane. Haldren is husband/father and a scholar with no martial prowess. Magic makes him kill, and he’s completely unprepared for the consequences. The story of his struggle to maintain himself and his ideals while trying to contain the magic and survive military life, is much more exciting than the assassin with nothing to lose, trying to save everything.

    I don’t agree that it’s easier in film to connect to an Extreme character. There are a lot of films where Extreme Protagonists in such films are taken too far where they then become laughable and not easy to connect with, or at least no more so than literature.

    Rambo makes the transition during Rambo: First Blood Part 1 from down-to-earth war vet who wants to find a friend into shoot-up-the-town psychotic who wants revenge.

    As for aspiring to be an extreme protagonist, there are lots of cases where that is certainly not the case, like The Brave One with Jodie Foster or Death Sentence with Kevin Bacon. Both characters start out normal but become extreme due to tragic loss.

    In literature or film, the trick for connecting to an extreme character, is not to make them a hackneyed and inhuman. They still need to show human traits. Similarly, mundane characters who do nothing but ponder and never attempt to conquer their situations are equally difficult to connect with because at some point in life we must face our problems, even if we fail.

  • pepperthorn

    Great post,Stuart. I love looking at opposite ends of a spectrum because it makes you see their similarities as well as their differences. It seems that both extreme and mundane protaginsts are often their own worst enemies, just like every other person on the planet. The extreme characters rush in and to heck with the consequences. The mundane ones miss opportunities because they are hesitant to act. However they deal with their circumstances, it’s the fundamental human characteristics we all share that draw us to their stories and make us care. Thanks, I’ve got a lot to think about now.