Monday, 18 February 2013

Being a Protagonist Sucks

Last night I was trying to come up with a Word for this post, and I was stuck. So, as I often do, I gave up. Instead, I decided to read a book. Then, a mere four hours later, I finished reading “Mogworld” by Yahtzee Croshaw. It’s a strange story, and plays around a lot with genre and convention. It also, quite prominently, challenges our previously conceived notions of what a main character can be.
Also, since my last post was about ‘Chick Flicks’ today I watched one of those ‘Tolerable Romances’ in the form of WALL-E. This is another story with a drastically unconventional hero. I also recently watched MovieBob’s review of A Good Day to Die Hard, wherein he claims the original Die Hard was good because it defied genre and had an ‘average joe’ as the main character of an action film. All of this is making me think a lot about character, & what it actually means to be a ‘hero’ in modern fiction.
The Word of the Day is: ‘PROTAGONIST’

Protagonist /prō’tagənəst/ n. 1. The leading character, hero, or heroine of a drama or other literary work such as a play, novel, etc. 2. A proponent or advocate of a political cause, social program, etc. 3. The leader or principal person in the support of a movement, cause, etc. 4. Archaic. The first actor in ancient Greek drama.

To demonstrate, I will be looking at superheroes. Not only because it's easy to find through Wikipedia but also because, let’s face it, they are very much the pinnacle of fantasy. Since its inception, superheroes have been good, have had the power of good, and have fought against evil. Superheroes were perfect, and just as we saw the world and fought against evil, so too did our superheroes. In fact, sometimes, they fought the same evil.
My favourite example of this is a Superman cartoon, which I saw as a rerun a few years ago. In this show, our hero Superman stops an aeroplane from being hijacked. The plane was being taken over by, I swear I’m not making this up, the Japanese. It was made not long before the Hiroshima bomb was dropped, and this was our wish fulfilment fantasy of the ultimate good fighting the ultimate evil.

I believe that this Good vs. Evil mindset, with Black & White Morality, is based entirely on Racism, Religion and War. Back in the day, it was Us vs. Them. You had your side with your beliefs and culture and they had theirs. Since you knew for a fact that your side was right, you called the other side heathens, sinners and foreigners. They were considered evil and corrupt, so we sought valiantly to ‘remove’ them from our field of vision.
Our fictions and fantasies reflected that mindset.

Unfortunately, after the wars were fought and the xenophobic, bible-thumping tendencies died down, we had to change our tune. Because when the dust settled we started to realize, as a culture, that in the enemies eyes we were the villains.
With peace, came much needed understanding.
No longer did Superheroes fight against foreigners. Now, they fights alongside them. Asian superheroes, Black superheroes, Filipino superheroes, Latino superheroes, Italian superheroes, Middle Eastern superheroes, Russian superheroes & even Australian superheroes  now all fight against evil (Wikipedia doesn't seem to have a list of Australian superheroes).
With all these races working together, we had to find new evils, or in the very least ‘differences’, so for a while we demonized folks like Women, Homosexuals & Jews. But villains of that ilk also went the way of the dodo, and we now have Female superheroes, Gay and Lesbian superheroes & even Jewish superheroes.
And with everyone now working together, comic book writers have had to find new evils, for their heroes to fight. So to keep the ball rolling, often our mighty warriors have to fight off Aliens, Ghosts, Robots & Zombies, just so they can have someone to fight against that doesn't look like them.

But as we evolved, so too did our fiction, and just as we have accepted other races and cultures, superheroes have also adopted Alien superheroes, Robotic superheroes & Undead superheroes.

To be honest, since Superman is an alien, and the first ever superhero, despite being called The Human Torch
, was actually an android, I feel the need to point out that despite the order I've listed these in, superhero comics have had aliens and robots before they had gays and women [wrap your head around that]. But my point stands . . . and my point is, that our definition of who can be a hero has changed over time. Not only through race, creed and sexuality, but also verging across towards morality.
Not long after we accepted all of these strange folk into the realm of heroism, we started going deeper. Deeper than skin, deeper than the mind. We started looking at their soul. Until someone wondered:
  "Why do heroes have to be good all the time?"
Thus came, the Anti-Hero.

In superhero comics, there's The Punisher, Lobo, Deadpool, Jonah Hex, Spawn, Rorschach and even Batman. These were characters which, while they may ultimately be on the side of good, did so without the chivalry, valiance or 'niceties' of their classic counterparts. In fighting criminals, many of these characters turned to crime themselves, some even to the depths of sin

So at some point, I don't know when, we stopped calling them 'heroes'. Some people, probably either really old or really stupid, might tell you that this is a bad thing. They'll tell you something about 'role models' or some other bollocks, and I'll stop listening.
Because to me, this is a good thing. Because I don't believe that fiction should ever have rules. Fiction is fantasy. Reality has rules it has to follow, Rules of Physics, Chemistry & Science. But fiction can be anything.
Sure, there's convention, but convention was made to be broken. I love this because we can have creativity in the form of Romances about robots, and Action movies without Action stars - and all kinds of stories to play with. But rolling it right back around to what I started with, Mogworld, there's a part of that story that I both enjoy and find quite enlightening.
Although it's played for laughs. The main character in the story, Jim, doesn't want to be a hero. He doesn't want to go on an adventure. He's in the middle of an epic, fantasy world with magic, pirates & dragons [most likely], and he doesn't want any of it. He'd rather be running a magic shop, or just dead.
While this is a joke, it actually got me thinking.

We have foreign heroes, inhuman heroes, dead heroes & anti-heroes. We can even have heroes that don't want to be heroes.
Where does it end?
Fun fact of the Day: just as I was typing those words, a goddamn cockroach ran out from under my desk. I jumped, and accidentally squashed it with my chair. As I was putting the poor thing in the bin, I asked myself: "Can a cockroach be a hero?"
Well yes, they can. There's Milquetoast the Cockroach, from the Bloom Country comic; Gregor Samsa, from Franz Kapfka's "The Metamorphosis" is a giant bug described as a cockroach & Roger, the main character from PC game Bad Mojo, transforms into a cockroach.
This is just getting ridiculous. What about a vacuum cleaner?
Well, in RoboDad [known as And You Thought Your Parents Were Weird in America] the dad comes back to life in a robot built out of parts from a vacuum cleaner; the house keeper/guardian of the Teletubbies, Noo-noo, was a big, blue vacuum cleaner & hell, what is Kirby if not a pink, spherical, alien vacuum cleaner monster?

Okay, maybe that's a bit of a stretch. But I can't see a reason why a vacuum cleaner can't be a protagonist. Hell, Pixar's logo is an anthropomorphic lamp called Luxo Jr., and there's a movie called The Brave Little Toaster! Household objects can have their own stories, so there's no reason why a vacuum cleaner couldn't.
Where does it end?So far, I'm left saying nothing but the ridiculous. I mean, things like 'leather', 'yellow' & 'denouement' can't be protagonists, since they're not 'things' so much as they are concepts of things. Barring some surrealist crap with art and poetry, it's pretty impossible.
The only problem is that a lot of those stories would be rubbish. I mean, I can write a story about a bottle of sunscreen if I wanted to. But beyond teaching kids about skin cancer, it would be really, really stupid. The only thing holding us back is inspiration. We need only find a good story, and fiction can come from anywhere, and our protagonist can be anything. Hell, some stories don't really have protagonists. Sometimes it's a group of people, sometimes the antagonist is the protagonist. Some of my favourite stories don't have a protagonist at all, just horrible people doing horrible things to one another.

But maybe I'm asking the wrong question. I mean, if I throw a tomato against a canvas, I can call it art. But it wouldn't necessarily be good art. So with that line of thought:

What makes a good protagonist?

Well, after thinking about this since . . . well, since the start of this article, I think there's one thing all of my favourite protagonists have in common:
I understand them.I don't mean that they all speak English, since some don't speak at all. What I mean is that I understand where they're coming from and I understand their mindset. Assholes, serial killers, rapists, demons and jaywalkers alike - no matter how they are portrayed, so long as I can understand why they do the things they do (no matter how horrible) then I can accept the character.

I also suppose this goes on to cover "I understand why they are the protagonist", sometimes it is because they are smart, sometimes it's because they have special powers, and sometimes it's because they have a tragic past. But in every case of good protagonism (which should be a word, so I'm pretending it is and ignoring spell-checker), I can understand why we're not seeing the story from someone else's viewpoint.
Because this is the guy. This is the guy I understand, and the person I want to know about, this one.

Well, that's about enough of that. I didn't really have a point to this entry beyond "Fiction has no Boundaries", which I kinda just covered in four words. But there's a lot of fun to be had with protagonists. So, go nuts.
I'm also sorry this post was late. But, as I said in the beginning, I was procrastinating for an awfully long time, so I didn't get around to this until the last minute. I'm also sorry if this was very meandering and didn't seem to get to the point, but I didn't have much time to fix this as. I'm already late for my unofficial deadline. that's also why the picture looks so crappy, I drew it in about 30 seconds.
I didn't really have any way to wrap this up. But I didn't get to mention this quote of mine, so let me finish with one of my favourite sayings, something I came up with myself:
  "Be a protagonist."
In your life, try to be the hero. Even if there are no villains around, even if you're not slaying dragons. Hell, even if you're just an accountant who lives on his own in an apartment in the city - be a protagonist. I mean, we just covered this: You don't have to be a hero. But always do what's right by you; and if you try hard enough, you might just live happily ever after by the third act.

Right, I'm done prattling on. Absurd Word Nerd, out.

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