Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Super-Protagonist

I meant to write this post weeks earlier, when I first saw The Hunger Games. While this is not a movie review, I have two points to make, the second being the topic I want to discuss today.

I. Shaky cam does not equal action or intensity. Now maybe this is a sign that I'm getting older, or proof that I spent too many afternoons too close to speakers cranked up too high and it screwed with my inner ear, but movies lately make me dizzy. When did people take every opportunity to jiggle, wobble and rattle the camera around during even the most benign scenes to give the audience a sense of "hey something's going on and you should pay attention!"  The problem is, when the camera's having a seizure, it's hard to pay attention.

Maybe it's those damn kids, and their attention spans being smashed down to fractions of a second, maybe it's because we all secretly enjoy a good jostle now and then, I have no idea....but I look at a lot of older action films (even stuff from 5 years ago) and the camera doesn't look like it's being held by a monkey going through meth withdrawal.

It's hard to convey intensity and "grr" when the camera bobs drunkenly along. If the action is supposed to rivet our eyes, why not lock in on it? If we're to invest in the anguish of a character, why not get us in a tight close-up?

And while that aggravates me, it's not why I started writing this post.

II. The Super-Protagonist is not as compelling as you think. What's a Super-Protagonist? That's a protagonist that isn't challenged by the situation they're in, but they say they are, and you sort of have to take their word for it.

Wait, John, are you saying Katniss Everdeen isn't challenged by the situation she's in? In the book, she totally says she is. And in the movie, it totally looks like she is. 

If I say I have trouble opening a soda, but you see me drinking a soda, how much trouble did I really experience? You took my word for it. I told you rather than showed you that I had a problem.

Yes, it's the old show-versus-tell problem again, this time in a new minty flavor. Let's break this down.

What defines a Super-Protagonist?
Main characters are supposed to experience trouble and difficulty along their path through the plot. It's supposed to be a challenge to them, to inspire/force/require them to change states from however they were at the beginning of the story to however they're meant to be at the end. A Super-Protagonist coasts through the challenge, sure they get a scrape or a bruise here or there to prove their humanity or mortality or their toughness, but in the overall scheme of things, it's a scrape versus being beaten and bedraggled and really limping toward the finish line.

And that's Katniss?

But does that mean you expect or want all characters to just barely scrape by?
No. I don't want all characters to just barely scrape by. I'm not asking for the global difficulty level of books to get jacked up to 'Hardcore' or 'Insane' mode, I'm just asking that the challenges be modulated for the character. Big, strong, smart, capable character? Then break out the big, powerful, brilliant, creative problems.

But...Katniss is a YA heroine and a model for girls, etc etc? Is this a sexist thing?
This has NOTHING to do with the gender of the character or the range of the readability of the book or the genre or anything like that. This has to do with the core ends of storytelling, and the ability of an author to imperil their characters appropriately, whoever they might be.

So the idea that Katniss has to leave her home, kill others and survive isn't dangerous?
Um, no. It's not.

Well you see, Katniss is a hunter (or as I identified her, a 1st-level Ranger). So outdoor survival isn't a new skill for her. And it's not that she's set up to be a killer, she's far more interested in self-preservation than in an active killing spree (besides, that's for the badguys to do to prove that they're bad, because, like, murder is totes bad), so she's not really out of her element.

But she sacrifices herself to save her sister....
It's only sacrifice if she dies. Else she risks herself, and as I just said, sticking her in the woods, where she's far more comfortable than when she's ever anywhere else (this is really clubbed over our head in the movie), that's not a risk. It's sort of like asking me to risk myself by going and sitting in my house with a stack of books, my Xbox and an internet connection.

But it's noble.....
No it's not. She's a great character, she's driven, talented, capable and powerful, but we can't see the full breadth of her potential because she's not out of her natural element. She's not challenged by the environment or the situation once the Game starts...her challenge came before she reached the woods, when she was back in the City and had to deal with the Game set up. But the book wasn't about Katniss-in-the-City, this was about Katniss-being-Katniss, doing-Katniss-things-that-just-happen-to-be-the-things-she's-good-at-already. Ho hum.

So how is she Super, exactly?
Okay I'll spell it out:

i. Her "struggle" occurs in her native environment.
ii. It's repeatedly made clear that she'll have access to her preferred weapon/tool.
iii. It's repeatedly said by other characters that she has a good/great/the best chance of surviving.
iv. Her knowledge (something unknown to other people, but something she acquired being herself) of berries sets up the conclusion. This wasn't knowledge she learned during THIS struggle, this was knowledge she came in with.
v. Even when she is out of her element, she's put into situations where she is clearly superior to others (she gets the Penthouse, she receives the most oohs and ahhs from the audience while interviewed, she makes the most striking impression).
vi. She says rather emphatically "she's not scared", when fear would be a natural reaction to oh-now-I-have-to-kill-23-teenagers-on-tv-and-not-die-trying.

But how is that a bad thing? I liked the series!
It's not a "bad" thing. The book/thought/movie police aren't going to come to your house and take away your ability to enjoy the experience, I'm just saying that writers need to be careful not to let themselves get drunk on the brew of their own protagonists.

Are you talking about character balance?
Partially, yes. But it goes deeper than that. This isn't just about making sure there's a flaw to counteract every positive you grant the character.

It's okay, I've given my super-smart, strong, attractive lead character a horrific mental disorder and/or drug addiction! Problem solved, right?
No....that's sort of exactly the problem.

Imagine a scale from -10 to +10. The character starts at 0, the center, and when you list the positive abilities or attributes, you move the character positively up the scale.

0 ---------> +4 
(for example)

And every time you give your character a flaw or a drawback or a hindrance or penalize them in some way, you slide that character back negatively so the overall effect is a dramatically lower state -

-8 <--------- +4 
(still with me?)

Which has the added complication of meaning you have to overcome that negative state when the story climaxes to prove the character positive overall

-8 ---------> + X 
(because you want your character to succeed and end on an up-note)

Now the tendency here is say, 'Oh but my character is so awesome, she's no longer believable, so I'll offset these mega bonuses with a super huge negative!' So that your sporty, independent, intelligent, outspoken, attractive female star now has cooties, agoraphobia and....really bad cramps or something.

Look: You don't have to swing the pendulum that far back to offset the positives. You don't need to -7 the character just to make us like them. We'll like the character for the SUM of the positives and negatives, but that means you have to show us both sides and trust us to make our own decisions.

Wait, what do I have to do?
You (the author) have to trust us (the readers) to make up our own minds about your character(s) after you present us the character(s).

But what if I want to hold something back from the reader for later?
If that "something" is skill or knowledge or something, be careful, it may come across as convenient (i.e. Your character knows just the right fact about a shoe print). If that "something is backstory, be careful, because it may change the way some readers respond to the character. (i.e. We finally learn the reason Character Bro is a douchebag, and it's different than our opinions, therefore we will make hyperbolic statements on the interwebs and rage at you!!)

I'm not saying that every story needs to spell out EVERY facet of a character for the reader. You, author, can pick and choose what you want to say and how you want to say it, but I'm cautioning you that the idea of "sum to date" (what the reader knows at whatever their relative "present" moment is) is how they judge the character - and it can be unfair to ask them to wait for stories down the road to hold off on passing judgement, especially if you spend a lot of the story cementing an idea that this character is pretty much an unstoppable force in your created universe.

But, I want the readers to love this character!
Yes, we all want that. We all want readers to love our characters, but we'll love them all the more when we see them pushed to their limits, overcome obstacles we didn't know they could and take on bigger odds to make themselves more heroic.

If you play it safe with your character, you're doing us a disservice as readers (we won't get to know the character fully) and you're doing a disservice to yourself (you're not testing yourself as best you can as a writer). If you think your character is so original and so "out of the box", ask yourself how big the box is. And how much of that box does the reader know about at any given time.

But I'm scared. What if I suck? Or fail or get it wrong?
That's sort of what makes writing hard, but worthwhile. If you do it everyday, if you commit to it, you'll get better at it. That's about the best I can tell you without getting all ranty or raining on your parade.

What can I learn from Katniss as a character?
Well, a lot, if you like physically strong and capable female protagonists with a skillset and mindset to overcome obstacles. Slightly less if you want to use her for an intelligence study (there are characters in other books admittedly older, more experienced and smarter), and slightly less than that if you want to use her for an emotional study (there are characters who experience and demonstrate a wider swath of emotions more intensely and more visibly and more acutely). But you'll get far more if you learn the pitfalls.

I. Risk includes taking the character out of their comfort zone. Like all the way out. Nero Wolfe left the brownstone (under protest, but he did); Sherlock Holmes (especially in the modern version) struggled more with people than casework; Captain America was a paragon in the 1940s, but lost in a sea of individualism in the modern era.

II. Your character does not need to be nearly flawless to be liked. Katniss has "a voice birds go silent to hear" and "a beauty enhanced by what's inside". Those are pretty high watermarks for a character. You don't need to be the best ever just to be liked (it comes off desperate and fearful on the part of the author when you've made characters that are too perfect).

III. Your character does not need to be mega-super-flawed to be realistic. You don't need to take that super skilled character and give them crippling Asperger's. Nor do you need to make them the angstiest-girl-in-high-school-like-OMG-why-won't-Edward-like-notice-me. Remember the number line, you don't need the character to 'zero' out. You need the character just end up positive if you want a positive ending, or negative if you want a negative ending.

IV. When in doubt, SHOW us the situation and SHOW us the character's responses and reactions, rather than tell us what they're thinking. Let the reader draw their own conclusions (which you can't control anyway), and stop dictating to us what 'we're supposed to think/feel' even if you're worried about us 'getting it right'. Paint for us the picture, and we'll 'get it', but yes, that means you (author) have to do some work and demonstrate your skill and your craft. Sorry, them's the tradeoff.

Anything else?
Yeah, when you make the movie version of your book, stop shaking the damned camera.