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?