Why I Fell Out of Love With Old-School Fantasy Protagonists, #2: 25 Things I Hate

So, last time, I set us up with a good, long look at why I consider Frodo the epitome of the Old-School Fantasy Protagonist done right. If you want a jolt of positivity, this is your chance to double back.

This time: the rest of them, who I feel are almost uniformly uninspired. Firstly, every jack one of ’em is a teenager or even younger. And to be clear, I’m not against having role models for teenagers–I’m not so old as to have forgotten that being a teenager is a stressmare of hormonal abandon.

I’m just against these role models for teenagers. I will now give you all a dash’d list of common high fantasy MC traits. Only the tiniest handful of characters will flout a meaningful number of these:

  1. He’s white
  2. I just pulled a fast one on you, but I’m betting at least some of you read past #1 without saying, “Hey, you just said white AND male!” So, anyway: he’s male
  3. By the time the adventure starts, he will either lose or be estranged from his parents, assuming they’re not already dead.
  4. Any further parental figures will sooner or later die, usually in especially chilling fashion right before the MC’s eyes because fuck them for trying to have a stable childhood.
  5. History of trauma which will have no meaningful effect on the protagonist’s personality in years to come, and really just serves to allow other characters to remark on how sad his life is.
  6. He either has no useful skills at the start of his journey, or else will never find himself in a position to use any of them
  7. Despite having spent his life doing fuck-all before the adventure, never seems to have found time to read and so is woefully ignorant of most parts of the world.
  8. Comes from the remotest possible area the writer can think of that won’t teach him any interesting skills.
  9. Absolutely must stand out in some meaningless way, frequently by being improbably attractive, so that the author can pretend he’s some kind of social outcast despite clearly thinking, feeling and acting much the same as everyone else.
  10. Has the moral nuance of a Saturday morning cartoon; either does good things or bad things at a given point in character development. The world will conspicuously avoid throwing any hard decisions at him unless the author decides this needs to be the key theme of the entire series.
  11. Catastrophically unmotivated until the plot needs him to be because “learning to not be lazy” is the only arc most writers can think of for teenagers. Maybe don’t write teenagers, then? Also, I know you guys are apathetic blurts upon the cosmos, but if you want to write with more energy, just do that instead of writing a character who serves as a metaphor for your own unwillingness to write a better version of this book. Asshats.
  12. Will never be allowed to lose meaningfully except when the author’s ready for him to get caught for the obligatory “captured and tortured” sequence.
  13. Is under no circumstances to develop as a character except in linear fashion at the last possible instant. As an extension of point 12, this has no meaningful consequences for the plot instead of getting everyone killed because the hero refused to learn his hero shit in advance.
  14. Never encounters any situation which is completely unwinnable, even when the author says the situation is completely unwinnable. In the event the author writes themselves into a corner, expect a hasty-handwave and attempt to move the plot forward with a big sparkly set-piece before the readers realize this victory made no sense. Not like they could rewrite the sequence of events or, heavens forbid, write a protagonist who’s not so useless for the first half of the series.
  15. Constantly benefits from improbably leaps in logic or changes of procedure from the enemy, as well as the sudden loss of any competence or threat said enemies might have had in order to avoid acknowledging that it’s even physically possible for the hero to die, and possibly having to write around this sad truth.
  16. His social status either has no bearing on the story or dictates everything; there will never be any of the subtle shifts in power which happen in real human social interactions.
  17. He will be misunderstood, and clearly just better than the people refusing to help him even though the author has gone out of his/her way to demonstrate that the protagonist doesn’t put in enough work to be good at things.
  18. Even if he does, somehow, fail, it will almost never have a long-term effect on the story. At best, expect this to be referenced sadly in a couple of introspective lines without otherwise controlling the future events of the plot.
  19. The narrative constantly goes out of its way to harangue characters around him for their advantages–even perfectly reasonable ones like “they study and you don’t, of course you failed the test you fucking prick”–but does nothing to penalize him for these same advantages when he inevitably becomes rich.
  20. He inevitably becomes rich.
  21. Sooner or later the world will be divided into “enlightened” people who wholeheartedly follow and agree with him, and evil or at best misguided people who do not. If there is, somehow, a middle ground, it will receive minimal attention and in no way be used to call into question where this hero has actually earned the accolades he’s receiving.
  22. He gets an unmitigated happy ending where all past trauma is reduced almost to irrelevance or wiped away entirely.
  23. You will write him at least four times without meaning to before you come up with a better protagonist.
  24. You will, in the end, easily come up with a far better protagonist. Just try to begin with.
  25. Changing his gender and/or ethnicity in no way justify the rest of these issues, and in fact torpedo a beautiful opportunity for this non-white, non-male MC to blow their supposed competition out of the water.

I could keep going, but I have HEMA practice soon here and… feh, all that stuff above is enough for now, isn’t it? I’m not sure I’ll write a Part 3 of this–seems likely to be more of the same–but either way, let’s move on for now.

I wouldn’t want to write more of the same about not writing more of the same.

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