One of the questions we writers get all the time is:
“Is your protagonist you?“
I’ve heard a lot of different answers to this question, some long and some short, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone just come out and say what we all know to be true:
“Of course he is!”
Because really, is there ever any doubt? Why create a heroic character — especially one who triumphs in the end — if you can’t live vicariously through him? And how can you live vicariously through a character who’s totally removed from yourself?
Has any card-carrying ‘Rati ever read a Charlie Fox thriller and not seen Zoë Sharp herself doing all that ass-kicking?
I didn’t think so.
Sure, we take pains to disguise ourselves, giving our protagonists attributes we don’t actually share, but we’re in there, all right. Fiction is a game of pretend, and part of the fun of writing it comes from putting yourself at the center of the action, in the guise of a bigger and better you, facing enemies and dangers larger than you could reliably handle in the real world. With ourselves as the underlying framework, we build a protagonist built for heroism, endowing him with strengths and powers we either lack altogether, or do not possess in sufficient quantity to tackle the task at hand.
But there’s a limit to this process. Unless you’re writing pulp, or some kind of retro-crime fiction that harkens back to the days when “realism” was a dirty word, you never want to follow such fantasies to their extreme. You know what your perfect protagonist looks like, but he’s not anybody you could actually use in a story supposedly grounded in a non-fictional universe.
God bless Ian Fleming. He got to have his cake and eat it, too, creating the ultimate male protagonist in James Bond, agent 007, at a time when scores of readers were still willing to forgive such laughable affronts to realism, common sense, and the sensibilities of women. Try writing a series about such an ingenious, indefatigable, sexually flawless protagonist as Bond now and see how many rejection letters you collect.
Still, whether you can use him or her in your fiction or not, it’s always fun to imagine what kind of protagonist you could build were the sky the limit. Unencumbered by any restrictions suspension-of-disbelief might demand, what would he look like? What would his powers be?
Or should I say, what would your powers be? Because your protagonist is really you, remember?
When I created Aaron Gunner, the Los Angeles private investigator I’ve now put at the center of six novels, I drew the line at giving him only one thing my “perfect” protagonist would possess that I, sadly, do not: a red Ford Shelby Cobra, my favorite sports car of all time.
But I could have been much more generous to Gunner than that.
If I were building him according to my own personal wants and needs today, independent of what I thought readers would be willing to buy, this would be his basic profile:
- Height/Weight: 6′-2″/220 lbs.
Just big enough to give someone thinking about throwing down on him reason to think twice.
- Physical attractiveness: 7.5
This is on a scale of 1 – 10, 1 being Homer Simpson and 10 being Denzel Washington.
- Sexual prowess: 8
Again, this is on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 basically means any song featuring the words “all night long” in its lyrics could have been written about him on a typical Tuesday in March.
(Sorry, ladies, I know you think this stuff is silly, but we guys really do fantasize like this, especially those of us with serious performance anxieties. You dream about chocolate and warm baths, we dream about making Gisele Bündchen forget she ever even met Tom Brady. What can I tell you?)
- Annual income: $95,000
Enough to live comfortably without losing sight of his humble origins.
- Place of residence: 3 bedroom home in Ladera Heights (Los Angeles, CA)
Because every man should have an expansive view of his city, and a spare bedroom to put all his toys in.
- Could be a Jeopardy champion in the category of: World history
- Aptitude in the kitchen: 7
Where Bobby Flay would be a 10. Not good enough to win any cooking contests, but capable of making any first date memorable for the food and drink alone.
- Languages spoken fluently: 3
English, Spanish and Japanese
- Musical instruments played: 2
Piano and guitar. Self-taught. No pro by a longshot, but he could join the band at any concert and not embarrass himself. And every once in a blue moon, can rip off a jam like this:
- Hidden talent: Expert magician.
And I don’t mean card tricks. I mean “How the hell did he do that??” stuff.
And so on and so forth. You get the idea. A ridiculous character, to be sure, but someone it might be fun to be for a day or so, just to see how it would feel.
So what about you, my fellow ‘Ratis? Using the 10 categories above as a jumping off point, what would the profile of your “perfect protagonist” look like, if suspension-of-disbelief was not a consideration?
Hey, this was *fun* !
1. Height/Weight: 5'9" – muscular build
I'm not stating a specific weight because she's secure enough to not give a damn and doesn't even own a scale — you did say suspension of disbelief wasn't a consideration, right? Because I can hear the winch creaking already.
2. Physical attractiveness: 9
On the Margaret Thatcher — Gisele Bündchen scale.
3. Sexual prowess: Hmmm . . .
Let's just say that when her counterparts — who are based on Oded Fehr, Rupert Graves, a young Carl Weathers, Jason O'Mara, Ving Rhames, and/or anyone who has played the role of Sherlock in the last five years or so — make her breakfast (and they do . . . eventually) they break out the waffle iron and the champagne.
4. Annual income: $125,000
Enough to seriously lose sight of her common origins if she wanted, but half goes to the domestic violence shelters in her city.
5. Place of residence: A two-bedroom apartment in Boston and a large house in Derbyshire.
'Cause I like Boston. She inherited the Derbyshire house from her mother's family.
6. Could be a Jeopardy champion in the category of: Opera
She doesn't often cry, but when she does, she likes to have an excuse.
7. Aptitude in the kitchen: 6
She'd be better if she practiced more, but she *likes* leftover waffles.
8. Languages spoken fluently:
Fluently? English, French, Spanish, German and Hebrew. And Yiddish.
But she understands Italian (all that opera), Russian and some Chinese. And one of her boyfriends was into Klingon, so . . .
9. Musical instruments played: 1
She can sing like Bessie. She wouldn't have minded Maria Callas, but she's not complaining.
10. Hidden talent: Knitting
It relaxes her. Plus, circular needles are an amazing multipurpose weapon.
I don't know that it's true that protagonists are always the author. For series characters, yes, absolutely, I see that all the time, but I write standalones and I write male protagonists half the time and they may have a few of my qualities but OH, they are not me; they are ten times harder to write than women because they're so not me.
But I like this fantasy game. For a FEMALE protagonist:
Height/Weight: 5'7" – I like my height. Weight – 115, because as I know too well, being too thin is like flying all the time.
Physical attractiveness: 10. I thought you said this was a fantasy.
Sexual prowess: 10. This doesn't HAVE to be a fantasy, it just takes a little dedicated work.
Annual income: unlimited. Again, fantasy, right? It would be useful to be able to buy small countries.
Place of residence: unfixed. Unlimited income means being able to live anywhere without commitment or dealing with yardwork.
Could be a Jeopardy champion in the category of: I agree, Gar, World history would be it for me, too.
Aptitude in the kitchen: 0 – a 10 in the bedroom doesn't have to go anywhere near the kitchen. Not to cook, anyway.
Languages spoken fluently: again, unlimited, but specifically French, Russian, Spanish, and Latin.
Musical instruments played: 2 Again, agree, piano and guitar. Mostly piano, but enough guitar to get by.
Hidden talent: breaking and entering. Including on computers.
That's a pretty bitchin' character. Except for maybe the knitting.
Man, when you dream, you dream BIG, don't you?
Except for the knitting?
I hope the Ravelry crowd doesn't find out you said that . . .
Seriously, the woman who finally managed to teach me colorwork has a skull tattooed on the back of her head and sings in a thrash metal band. She's also a state-certified genealogist. Just sayin'.
Sarah, men don't get the concept of meditative handwork. They simply don't. I think maybe if we explained it to them in terms of "what to do with our hands so we don't strangle anyone", they might try harder to understand…
I mean, even I get knitting.
I want Alexandra's perfect protagonist's life! Especially the nomadic part.
I actually taught a class this week on the protagonist, and I mention that one of the frequent pitfalls is crafting the hero so that he's a thinly veiled stand-in for the author. I think being this deliberate about it like this can really be a great tool.
1. Height/Weight: 6' – athletic
My guy needs to be strong but unassuming. He's a PI, based shamelessly on me, just more so, and PIs have to be not too flashy or they put people off (though some guys do the ponytail and cowboy boot bit and get away with it — but that's my guy's partner).
2. Physical attractiveness: 8
I actually base him on a photograph by Consuelo Kanaga. A very striking face, heavy-lidded eyes, sharp nose and chin, dark curly hair and a sensual mouth. Looks like an artist, not a cop.
3. Sexual prowess: His girlfriend's happy, unless he gets distracted — which is how the book begins, actually.
4. Annual income: $100,000
Take away taxes, he's basically getting by in the bay area.
5. Place of residence: He still keeps the loft he moved into in San Francisco after his wife died, but lives with his girlfriend at her place in Rio Mirada, up near Napa. With her dog, Noble.
6. Could be a Jeopardy champion in the category of: He's an intellectual magpie, with a breadth of knowledge that's five miles wide and two inches deep.
7. Aptitude in the kitchen: 4
Bachelor food. His wife was a great cook, his girlfriend's Italian. He visits a lot of taco wagons.
8. Languages spoken fluently:
English. Dabbles in Spanish, knows some French. Can decipher a little Latin.
9. Musical instruments played: None. It's his greatest regret.
10. Hidden talent: I need to come up with one.
Write that character, Gar! I think we all want to see him come to life.
You did good with that car, man. I'd put that at the top of my own wish list.
This isn't a girl I've written about, but off the top of my head…
1. Height/Weight: 5'5" 110 pounds
Tall enough not to be a pixie, short enough to be deceptively harmless.
She has the lean muscle of a ballerina without the turned out feet.
2. Physical attractiveness: 9
Just short of perfect is, in a way, more intriguing.
A lot of her attractiveness comes from the way she moves.
3. Sexual prowess: Secret. The truth is, she's wildly inconsistent.
If she's into you or using sex to erase something else, she's intense and crazy.
Otherwise, she can be very uninterested.
4. Annual income: $250,000 legal. $100,000 illegal
5. Place of residence: Brownstone in New York's West Village. She inherited it from her uncle, who killed himself. Also, a pied-a-terre in Tokyo.
6. Could be a Jeopardy champion in the category of: fashion, literature, and antiques
7. Aptitude in the kitchen: 8
Sensitive palate, great knife skills, but not interested in super gourmet food.Any basic she cooks — fried rice, simple pasta, salad – is likely to be amazing.
8. Languages spoken fluently:
English, Japanese, French, Conversational Chinese
9. Musical instruments played: Violin and flute, but she's done with that.
10. Hidden talent: Can draw very accurately from memory
I got all distracted when you said women dream about chocolate and warm baths. Because really? Not even once. Now I feel all deficient. I'm more likely to dream about making Tom Brady say, "Gisele who?"
Wait. Who is Tom Brady? Can he play piano? Because a guy who plays piano is sexy as hell.
Sorry, I'm dealing with year-end tax reporting and whatnot at work and I'm feeling sort of brain dead. Gar, I'd read a book with that character. I'd even be willing to suspend… my… um, sorry, my mind wandered for a minute to ceilings. What were we… oh yeah, disbelief. That. Definitely. I'd suspend that.
Have you considered writing romance? 😉
Ok, I just got done with a really busy day but I didn’t want to miss this.
This is the guy:
1. 6’1, athletic but not physically imposing
2. 9 but he doesn’t know it or think about it. Actually, he looks a little like Robert Crais, but used to be fat as a kid so his self image is different from his public image.
3. Sexual prowess: again he doesn’t think about it but all the girls still remember. Another 9 just because he’s a good guy.
4. Annual income: varies from $150,000 to $350,000 in a good year, but he’s an astute investor so always ok.
5. Lives at a California beach in a bungalow he bought on a lark from a couple divorcing that just wanted to get rid of it. He runs on the beach in the morning and practices Tai Chi.
6. Sports on Jeopardy but also science and he has a pension for ballet…he likes dancers.
7. A solid cook so around a 7, enough to invite her home for dinner and she doesn’t regret it.
8. Speaks English and Italian and proficient enough in Spanish.
9. Plays jazz piano very well but doesn’t talk about it much.
10. Flew helicopters in the military but never talks about it.
This is the gal:
1. 6’1”, athletic but not muscular
2. 9 but she doesn’t think about it. She was gawky and too tall as a kid and still thinks of herself that way. She is aware enough to use it though.
3. She can be a 1 or a 9, depends upon the mood for prowess. She’s adventurous with the right person. A complete bitch with the wrong person.
4. Annual income is $500,000. She likes security and shopping at Bergdorf's..
5. Lives in a NY penthouse and a beach house in Orcas Island (near Seattle).
6. Sports but also World History. Never forget.
7. Solid cook, especially with seafood so around a 7 if its simple.
8. Speaks English, Japanese and French.
9. Plays the shit out of a blues harmonica but she has to have had a little to drink.
10. Fly fishing.
[Um, kidding about that whole "who is Tom Brady" thing. I've been a football fan for so long, I remember when Madden was a refreshing new change in announcing. Back when I was, um, maybe two years old. Big big fan, as a toddler.]
In answer to the "Is your protagonist you?" question, I used to deny it, but now I just say, "Oh, it's *entirely* autobiographical." It's a lot easier.
Some great sounding characters here!
Late in commenting, but this was a fascinating post, Gar!
All my yet-to-be-pubbed main characters have a bit of myself in them, plus more, of course. Because who the hell wants to be sorta normal? I like everyone's fantasies, and think everybody in the world's got a little crazy in them! I like that about people!
BTW, "Cousin" Stevie's song is stuck in my head now. Could be worse! Thanks!