Protagonists don’t get pimples

There’s a big difference between YA protagonists and real people.* I mean, besides the fact that one kind of person is made out of fiction. Protagonists are, well, proactive. They get stuff done, especially when they’re told not to. The more dangerous the better!

I don’t know about any of you, but I don’t think I’d make a very good protagonist. Just. well . . . I’ll show you.

First, let’s define protagonist. From

pro·tag·o·nist [proh-tag-uh-nist]
1. the leading character, hero, or heroine of a drama or other literary work.

Got it? The main character. Usually our point-of-view character. They’re the characters we read about, are meant to admire, and who should inspire us.

Now let’s take an honest look at a real person** vs. YA protag.

Boyfriend admits he is a vampire:
Real person: freaks out, questions sanity, has honest-to-goodness mental breakdown and/or moves to Timbuktu
Protag: freaks out, gets over it, has more kissing scenes with vampire boyfriend

Friend dies:
Real person: grieves, but lives with it
Protag: finds magic, resurrects friend, stuck hiding the dark truth for months until the friend discovers a love for human flesh, igniting the zombie apocalypse

Zombie apocalypse:
Real person: eaten by zombies, dead (and/or a zombie)
Protag: thanks to childhood survival training and/or being immune to zombie bites, the protag lives to meet a love interest and find a small community of survivors; chaos ensues, but protag takes care of it

Radioactive spider bite:
Real person: dies a horrible death

Told to stop investigating a murder or There Will Be Consequences:
Real person: not even sure how to properly investigate a murder, anyway; stops and does lots of extra worrying; gets wrinkles
Protag: sneaks around, solves murder; police are confounded and embarrassed and send a fruit basket with an apology for the threats

Burning building:
Real person: calls 911
Protag: races inside to help

Sleeps with makeup on:
Real person: breaks out worse than puberty
Protag: retains beautifully clear complexion

Imminent death on all sides:
Real person: dies
Protag: finds another option

There’s this thing about protagonists: they don’t accept easy answers. They have little regard for their own lives when the life of someone they love is on the line. (That said, most protagonists have Plot Immunity.)

Yes, protagonists need to be real people on one level, because real people need to be able to identify with them. But remember what I said about protagonists inspiring us? Protagonists make decisions we could never make. They do things we might not be brave enough to do. They may even have unwavering loyalty for someone, or faith in something, or morals and ideals — and then writers get to test that resolve. (Muahaha.)

So . . . I gave you a few scenarios highlighting the difference between real people** and protagonists. Do you have any? Bonus points if you make me laugh out loud.

*When I was telling her about this post, Cynthia Hand sent me to look at E.M. Forester’s Aspects of the Novel, about Homo Sapiens vs. Homo Fictus. His is a much more serious look than mine. You should totally go read it.

**For the sake of this post, since there are many, many real people, I will use myself as the “real person” because I don’t mind making fun of myself. Other real people would, of course, react differently in these situations. This list is meant to be silly, but if I inevitably offend or hurt anyone, you have my deepest apologies.


Protagonists don’t get pimples — 29 Comments

  1. Haunted House:

    Real person: Looks at it from afar, wondering if it’s really haunted.
    Protag: Goes in and finds an odd symbol on the basement floor. Reads from the book next to it. Ends up in another world that’s been waiting eons for the door to open so the creatures there can spill out into our world. Protag goes on the run with the book. It ends messily.

  2. Ooh! This is fun!

    Seriously injured while trying to escape a dangerous situation/fleeing from criminals intent on murder:

    Real person: Curls up in a ball and awaits the inevitable.
    Protag: Bandages wounds with torn shirt hem, overcomes the pain, finds a weapon (such as a large pointy stick), calls upon secret hidden Inner Ninja Strength, and defeats the attackers a la Jackie Chan. Alternately: Miraculous healing occurs, whereupon the protag is able to flee like the wind, suffering no further effect of the original injury.

    Discovering you have Secret Magical Powers that only develop on your 16th birthday (or 18th birthday, or whatever):

    Real Person: Freaks out, accidentally turns self into frog and/or burns own house down.
    Protag: Accepts the responsibility of the power, resents attempts of Responsible Adult Magic User to teach them to use the power, realizes the adults are involved in a Dark Conspiracy to Achieve Something Horrible, single-handedly stops the Adult Cabal from taking over the world/enslaving humanity/bringing eternal darkness/opening the gateway to an alternate dimension/rezoning the property where the local mall is to agricultural use and bulldozing the only teen hangout in town.

    • These are both so, so true! Now, to be fair, a lot of protags freak out about their surprise magic powers for a little while. But the hot guy who usually accompanies them helps with the acceptance a LOT. Hot guys . . .

      Wait, what were we talking about?

  3. Parents of only child suddenly killed:

    Real person: dissolves into grief, sent to foster care

    Protag: Rich, reclusive uncle no one has ever heard of rescues protag and takes to European chalet.

  4. Tuesday night:

    Real person: Picks up milk on way home from work. Looks at dirty laundry and decides to ignore it. Makes dinner (using too much pepper). Watches a few TV shows, reads, goes to bed. Has trouble sleeping because of tenant next door insists on playing trance music at 1am.

    Protag: Hot date is interrupted by imminent vampire/zombie/demon threat. Calmly stakes/head-shots/otherwise disposes of threats while engaging them in witty banter. Finishes date successfully, still looks gorgeous despite earlier action-packed sequence. Soundly sleeps in four-poster king-sized bed in a ridiculously large house in LA.

    (Disclaimer: I may have been thinking a lot about Buffy lately. Heh.)

  5. 1. Child’s parents die, and he is sent to live with repulsive relatives who make him sleep in a closet under the stairs.
    Real: Child grows up and requires years of therapy to overcome his social anxiety disorder, assuming no one ever called child protective services to get him sent into foster care.
    Protag: Crazy people show up to whisk the boy off to a school that teaches magic, where he will learn how to fight off the most dangerous wizard ever despite the fact that none of the adults in the entire WORLD are capable of it.

    2. Man wants to be with a younger woman he’s fallen for, instead of his infirm wife.
    Real: Man probably has an affair and figures his wife won’t find out about it from her sickbed
    Protag: Distraught protag and his young mistress try to commit suicide together, and fail miserably

    3. Teen is the only person in the empire with no magical ability whatsoever, and gets caught up in the middle of a war with the neighboring barbarians
    Real: Child is coddled and pitied and never amounts to more than a farmhand, then dies within the first ten minutes of the war
    Protag: Child makes an alliance with some of the savage clans, and rides in to save the the day on the back of an animal as large as an elephant.

    4. An all-powerful magical ring must be destroyed in a volcano in the midst of enemy territory, and it is currently in the possession of some schmuck with a pituitary gland deficiency.
    Real: He gives the ring to someone remotely capable, like the elven special forces, or to the all-powerful wizard who could fly the whole way there on his giant eagles
    Protag: He marches for miles across perilous lands and through impossible odds, only to chicken out at the end and be saved by a madman’s clumsiness

    5. A moisture farmer somehow gets important information back to a rebellion, that will use it to attack the largest space station in existance.
    Real: Moisture farmer hears about the rebellion’s crushing defeat on the news two days later, and is sad.
    Protag: Farmer decides that sure, he can fly a starship, and flies into the middle of a WARZONE in order to somehow make a million-to-one shot with his eyes closed, and blow up the space station

    (Bonus points to those who can name all five protags)

  6. Walks past restroom after consuming gratuitous amounts of water/soda/tea/whathaveyou:

    Real person: Nature calls … be right back
    Protag: Maybe I should check my lipstick/hair/change into superhero spandex

    The hero never has to pee.

  7. I hate this one;

    After whirlwind romance full of kissing and soul-baring, love interest confesses to being a secret billionaire/royalty/superhero/deity.

    Real person: Does touchdown dance and lives happily ever after.

    Protag: Is devastated, has emotional breakdown, contemplates the universe and reality, finally forgives secret billionaire/royalty/superhero/deity, and lives happily ever after.

  8. Thought of another one:

    Girl is shy, ordinary, suffering from anxiety and low self-esteem.

    Real: Parents seek psychiatric counseling for her, encourages her to pursue hobbies she’s interested in, and she muddles her way through high school. Graduates. Realizes that real life isn’t half as bad as high school led her to believe.
    Protag: Every boy in school is secretly stumbling over each other to date her, and the hottest guy in the whole school pledges eternal devotion to her. She rejects him repeatedly, because she can’t believe she’s worth his attention. Eventually, she caves in and dates him, tormenting herself the whole time that she’s not worth it. Then the Princess Moment occurs, where she realizes her True Potential, and they live happily ever after.

  9. I think the read on many people like to read is because the protagonist can do things that normal people cannot. They can be stronger, braver, and brighter while they are reading the story.

  10. I love your post and all of the comments. Hilarious but true!

    Girl tosses hair dramatically/walks outside in the wind:

    Real: Hair gets stuck in lipgloss and leaves streaks of color across her face and 1 hr worth of styling is turned into a rat’s nest
    Protag: Music plays as hair falls perfectly into place like a shampoo commercial, love interest just so happened to be watching at that moment.

    (of course, this could just be me and my lipgloss+ wind fiascos.)

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