Why I Fell Out of Love With Old-School Fantasy Protagonists: Conclusion

Normally Tuesday is “Dark Helm and Wing’d Spear”‘s time slot, but since nobody read the last two entries I’m letting that percolate until anyone who’s interested has caught up.

Seriously, catch up, you guys are missing out. There’s damn good stuff in there.

Anyway: I felt I needed to wrap this up first. If you couldn’t tell, it’s just a little personal for me. Yesterday I gave you a list, and that list was a writerly jab at how easily I can sum up fantasy protagonists. It’s a pretty harsh list, but not quite enough to explain the clear disdain–and I won’t try to tell you it isn’t disdain–I have for “conventional” fantasy protagonists.

I have to warn you: as much as I try to keep my psychological foibles and my thoughts on writing separate, I can’t do that here. I’m not sorry for that, but whether you gain anything from this article depends on how much tolerance you have for a grown man venting his psychological problems on the Internet.

I’d, er, hope that since you’re on the Internet you’d have a fairly high tolerance for that by now, but I’m not here to judge you. A final warning: there’s a lot of pain here, full-on “I walk a lonely road with crawling in my skin” levels of pain. You’re going to notice similarities; that’s not because what I’ve gone through isn’t real, but because the language I have to use to describe it has been coopted by meme-happy brain-mangles in the wrong parts of the World Wide Web.

If this isn’t a day when you want to deal with these things, I understand. Come back later or not at all, I won’t blame you either way.

So, let me come straight out with it: entering young adulthood, and now full adulthood, under circumstances when I desperately needed heroes with grit, all I found were the same whiny teenager sad-sacks I always had. And the more of them I saw, the more I realized how little right they had to act the way they do.

My entire life, I’ve longed for a clear, self-supporting purpose I can pursue that’ll be more meaningful than a 9-5 job. That’s it. I don’t mind if I’m never wildly successful or if I just get by. I don’t mind if I’m never popular or famous or even if I die forgotten entirely as long as I can focus on my passions while I’m here. Something bigger than that would be wonderful, but I’m not asking for that.

This is my dream, by the way. This is the only thing I want from life. I never imagined something so modest could be so impossible to attain, but I keep trying anyway. How can I not? This dream is all that keeps me alive, but thankfully the war becomes easier year-by-year. If you go far enough back in the blog, you’ll find I used to post these kinds of frothing rants near constantly. Strangely, this didn’t grow my readership much.

For the most part, I’m a happier person now, only bringing up other creators for analysis rather than jealousy. I make a point of reaching out to people in my life who need it, I give to charity, I try to bring positivity wherever I go. And mostly I don’t feel burdened by these things despite the fact that I don’t really gain anything from them. We’re supposed to do the right thing because it’s right, aren’t we?

This journey hasn’t been easy, and I most days I make it alone. Once I started, it shifted my perception of the protagonists I grew up with. Or more accurately, it clove that perception into a thousand star-seared pieces and reforged it as a spiteful blade to butcher the sun. (Okay, that sentence was just edgelording for fun, I admit)

How the hell was I supposed to feel anything but relentless contempt for the common fantasy “hero,” for the whiny brat who meets the love of his life within months of starting his journey and only experiences courtship trouble by being a gutless twat despite her incredibly obvious attraction (like, holy hell is it obvious!), then manufactures difficulty in that otherwise perfect romance by being an obtuse asshat, whose greatness is not only foretold but guaranteed by prophecy, who only ever fails because he was directly thwarted instead of, for example, being completely invisible?

Don’t say a goddamn word to me about “pressure.” These worthless vermin are chosen by fate and causality–if they can’t handle the pressure, then they shouldn’t be the goddamned heroes! That fucking prophecy should’ve scrambled their genes to be less pathetic, then, shouldn’t it? What, it can control the actions and plans of everyone on the planet to make sure they do exactly what’s necessary, but can’t rearrange a few DNA-helixes to produce someone less disgraceful?

Side note: please don’t write world-controlling forces into your story unless you’re truly going to explore their every implication. Your hero literally can’t lose, so why are you writing this instead of something with proper narrative tension? You need to find a really good answer to that “why”.

When you have issues to work through, you can do that. When a fantasy hero has issues to work through, large numbers of innocent people die while he sulks. That’s borderline sociopathic, and real historical leaders–not even heroes, just “ordinary” heads-of-state–do not do this. Heroes are supposed to surpass ordinary humans, damn it!

Why would I feel any kind of admiration or respect for characters who buy their redemption with a single heartfelt “I’m sorry” when my path in life has been paved with apologies and mortared by self-improvement and nothing has changed? Why would I ever relate to characters who think they somehow count as disenfranchised or “outsiders” because a single, clearly asinine group in their school or town or city were or are mean to them?

They weren’t born with a mental disorder that makes them almost incapable of functioning without pursuing their obsessions. They don’t even have obsessions because that might make them slightly harder for the reader to project themselves onto–assuming there’s a reason for this at all.

If they give their all, they succeed. They will never know what it is to better themselves day after day after day and attain nothing for it, see no progress, make no mark on the world. I said I wanted a modest sense of purpose, but that’s still purpose. These days, I have to admit that most of what I do seems futile.

Worse than all this, the average high-fantasy protagonist relies on his friends to succeed. I don’t have a way to say this that won’t sound edgy, so I just have to say it and hope you’ll understand I’m aware how it sounds and I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t absolutely true: I don’t make that kind of impression on people.

I’m not saying I don’t have friends, but I don’t have anything like the consistently-supportive, always-ready companions every fantasy protagonist gets to have by default. I understand now that those friendships are incredibly rare for everyone, but considering I was socially isolated I had no way of knowing that when I picked this bullshit up from the books. The message I had to take from their stories is that if you can’t inspire people to believe in you just by being who you are, you’ll never achieve anything.

In most fantasy stories, being able to make lifelong friends matters more than anything else. Again, the protagonists are whiny, unmotivated, frequently talentless when they’re not actually worse at things than other people, always freeze up, frequently put abstract moral quibbles about not killing before the safety of their friends, and generally do nothing to deserve these friendships. And yet, they have friends, and these friends make sure they succeed.

Meanwhile, the way fantasy stories usually pan out, the person who has the gall to try and succeed on their own becomes one of the villains. In spite of the fact that the author frequently acknowledges in some way that these characters are hard-working and don’t deserve to be abandoned as they are, it happens every time.

“So,” I thought, “fuck me for being independently motivated. Fuck me for not having whatever kind of personality ensures that those around me feel determined to help me succeed. Fuck me for not wanting to lean on them, to parasitize the people who care about me. Fuck me for wanting to let them devote their strength to their own battles. Fuck me for wanting to focus on my craft: apparently I should’ve just gone out partying constantly and told people how much I loved to write without ever scribing a single word. Apparently I should’ve made connections instead of making improvements.”

Yes, I’m bitter towards fantasy protagonists. And in no small part, I’m bitter because of all the pretty lessons they doled out which came to nothing. For the longest time, because of them–we’ve established already I had no friends close enough to course-correct this–I really believed that if I was earnest, tried to improve myself and my skills, and just worked harder each day, I’d make it for sure. Sooner or later the right people would have to take notice, and if I wasn’t super-successful then at least I’d have friends I could depend on.

Except, of course, they didn’t notice. No one’s really looking for the quiet, diligent writer too shy to come to the center of the room; no one really looks past the ungainly gut of the earnest dancer to see how well he moves, except in a brief flare of social-network virtue signaling. Fantasy protagonists live in worlds that, ironically, resemble ours in most ways except that they assume a level of perception and compassion that don’t really exist.

How many times have you seen the fantasy protagonist befriend a reclusive, embittered intellectual who slowly opens up and becomes a better person through that friendship? That’s what I counted on. Except, of course, that there is no protagonist in this story, so I was waiting for an open hand from someone who doesn’t exist.

Last, and most acrid: none of the fantasy I read ever prepared me for the idea that maybe I might give everything and fail anyway.

That’s the reason I’ve shut this blog down so many times in the past: I was never taught how to handle the quiet, poisonous defeats. Posting writing here I absolutely love and seeing it get less attention than throwaway poems I wrote in five minutes and never revised. Spending up to six hours a day, six days a week exercising intensively and barely burning fat. Slowly making myself a less envious, less angry person each day only to wind up, time and again, posting things like this because it seems it won’t matter in the end.

When fantasy protagonists are defeated, they sulk in a corner until their friends pick them up. We’ve already established how that worked for me. But unlike them, I didn’t need the fate of the world to motivate me to keep fighting. The only thing needed was to know that it’s not in my nature to surrender.

I needed different role models: harder, purer, stronger, and more zealous. None of my peers were writing them when I last looked, and I don’t know how likely that is to change. In a genre overrun earnest but incompetent farmhands, I needed fighters. I needed people who would do the right thing no matter how little it got them, who would take every failure as a cue to push harder, become better.

I needed those who, rather than wait for the call to arms, would stand up and fight from the first so that others could keep living in peace. I needed true warriors born–who are apparently not allowed to be heroes in conventional fantasy because fighting to keep the world pure instead of waiting ’til it’s about to collapse is self-aggrandizing or something? I don’t honestly think there is a reason: this is just how fantasy protagonists have been since shortly after Frodo.

And that’s the final reason, I suppose, isn’t it? Fantasy protagonists just keep doing the same thing. As proxies of their authors, they don’t feel any need to improve themselves. And after everything I’ve gone through just to feel that my work is “basically good,” I have no patience for that anymore.

Conventional fantasy protagonists wait for the world to arrange their victories, but we live in a world that mostly offers us defeat. I don’t admire them anymore, and you shouldn’t either: they’re untempered glass, and would shatter instantly against your daily grind. You’re a better hero than they already, and you deserve better heroes to read about. Preferably, ones who don’t need a pushy old man or manipulative sorceress to tell them:

Now’s your time. Fight.

Say something, darn it!

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