Welcome to Whimsy and Metaphor. Instead of an introduction, here’s a blog post, chosen because it’s a big thing, for me, in the media I enjoy and the way I like to construct my own books.
I love depowered heroes and heroines. That’s pretty much the main gist of this entire post: I love them, and I wish I could read and watch more of them.
I don’t know what it is, but I’m seeing a whole lot of protagonists in fantasy (but hardly confined to there) who are awesome. They’re incredibly skilled swordspeople, or musicians, or magic users, or what have you. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a good, awesome protagonist once in a while (my undying love for Girl Genius and The Name of the Wind prove this), but that’s not all I want to read.
It’s tempting, when writing, to create a protag who’s just cool. And it’s much easier to have a protag win against the villain because they’re smarter or better or something. And gosh darn, it’s just satisfying when the villain gets the beating they so richly deserve. But the problem with these characters is that it’s so hard to make the story appropriately tense. Sure, you always kind of know that the protagonist will win, but it’s much harder to maintain the illusion that they might lose when they consistently show themselves able to beat nearly any obstacle that comes their way.
The obvious solution to this, if you want to keep your protag’s mad skillz, is to give them harder villains. This works excellently – power within the story is relative, after all. But the much more overlooked, in my experience way, is to power down the protag.
In my opinion, fantasy should take more cues from survival or psychological horror. Horror generally features normal-people protagonists because it’s much easier to convince the audience that the monster is terrifying when it’s orders of magnitude more powerful than the protag. I suppose there’s also something to be said for the audience being able to identify more with a totally human protag, but I wouldn’t say that’s the only thing.
The main thing that depowered protagonist mean is that the author has absolutely no way to just pull a solution out from nowhere. There are no previously-undiscovered powers, no divine intervention, and no cool sword trick to get them out of a problem conveniently. A depowered protagonist is a clever protagonist, who fights smarter, not harder, and is usually resourceful and cunning. Not that every one is necessarily a genius – some do eventually brute force their way through problems, but damn do they need to work hard for it.
And there’s the crux of it. A protagonist who needs to work hard for their victory is far more interesting than one who’s just naturally good and only needs to find the right combination of being awesome to save the day. Give me a happy ending earned with blood, sweat and tears any day. Writing a depowered protagonist is certainly harder, but it’s so much more rewarding at the end.