Writing Excuses Episode 5: Heroes and Protagonists

What makes a good hero? Why is Dirk Pitt so cool? Why do people like Superman? And why does Howard-with-a-chest-cold start to sound like Barry White? Some of these questions are answered in this episode while others are better left unexplained.


Howard repeatedly invoked John August’s blog post about heroes, protagonists, and main characters. Here it is.


20 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 5: Heroes and Protagonists”

  1. Ah, finally an episode on characters! First of, let me answer the questions posed in the intro.

    Dirk Pitt is escapism. He lives the kind of life that really isn’t possible anymore today. Travelling the world and adventuring. It’s just fun to read about someone like that, whether they are real or imagined. Not everything needs to have an underlying, thought-provoking basis. Sometimes we just want to see our heroes punch nazi’s in the nose.

    Well, I could say the same for Superman, so I will say this about him: He isn’t. Popular, that is. In Europe (or The Netherlands, at least), he is a non-issue who wears his undies on the wrong side of his trousers. It’s the same way with all superheroes. We watch the movies, but I don’t think I could even find any of the comics in this city.

    Now, on to the meat of the issue. I’d say my experience in creating characters outstrips my other writing capabilities, thanks to a lengthy involvement in forum RPG’s (proper ones, at that). However, I’ve never really payed attention to Hero, Protagonist and Main Character roles. They don’t matter for the roles my characters take. The goal that takes first place is creating someone who is fun to write and read about, and the GM will create a fitting situation.

    The result is a bit of a border between character and plot when it comes to actual writing. In fact, I tend to think of characters and situations easily, and then find myself without a plot to speak of.

  2. For the record, if we ever do decide to open the “Superman” can of worms, we MUST invite Jake Black in for a guest appearance. He writes comics (among lots of other things) for a living, and has done extensive research on Superman for the Smallville series.

    He’s also a Utah boy, which is how he and I met, hangin’ out at Dragons Keep one Free Comic Book Day.

  3. There is a case for having a ‘perfect character’ such as Aragorn. In Lord of the Rings, Aragorn’s perfection serves two purposes.. The first is to provide a contrast to Frodo and Samwise, who are both depicted as rather ordinary folk. When placed up against perfect characters who seem to make no mistakes and have all the answers, like Aragorn or Gandalf or the Elves, the two hobbits seem more fallible and more real. We identify with them because we’ve all felt fallible in the face of a perceived perfection, whether it be in another person or in our own expectations.

    The second use for Aragorn’s perfection is to underline the superiority of the Numenorian line of men, which was supposed to be a better, stronger sort of men that, sadly, was dying out. Faramir was, like Aragorn, changed in the movie by adding flaws and that ruined the vital contrast that made Boromir and Denethor look more human.

    I contend that a perfect character works by adding contrast to the more human characters, giving them a humanity that no amount of words can explain. Those characters need not be explained or fleshed out any more than a splash of color that brings the main element into sharper focus.

  4. The flip side of the hero that does something well and that something well playing a pivotal role in the telling of the story is the hero that does almost everything well, but ends up having to negotiate his weaknesses to further the plot.

    It’s not quite the “Superman is invincible til someone pulls out Kryptonite trick”, but taking the “super mercenary soldier” and placing him in a situation where his skills are a liability and where he is weakest works.

    He’s got discipline on his side, but his kung fu is useless when he’s on trial for his life and has to work through proxies to prove his innocence. Or something. I think everyone here is smart enough to understand what I’m talking about.

  5. First off, thanks for the podcast, I learn something new and useful every week!

    My first question is about protagonists. You guys discussed individuals as protagonists, but I was wondering what you thought about a group or organization (ie: in George Lucas’ THX 1138 the main character and hero is fairly obvious, but what moves the story along is the actions of this megacorporation — at least I from what I can tell) as a protagonist. Would that group need a face, or something that the reader can identify with, or is identifying with the Hero enough?

    Secondly … hmm I guess there is no secondly.


  6. The main reason I wanted to post was to say that I was really struck by the point that readers want (need?) character’s who are competent in something but not necessarily useful in the area of crisis. This idea is very apparent in Harry Potter. Harry was totally outclassed in wizarding skill and knowledge in comparison to Voldemort. Given this deficiency, going into book 7, I had no idea how Rowling would bring Harry through to victory without pulling an unsatisfying cheep trick to get there. But I was surprised and moved to watch how Harry survived and won not because of exception magical skills (which no one possesses), rather he wins because of his capability for and expression of love, friendship, compassion, cooperation, and self-sacrifice (which all people are capable of). I think it is these essential human (and doable) qualities on display that worked to make Harry Potter cross age, gender, and national lines to become part of our global experience.

    While not a “die-hard” fan whose read each novel multiple times, I have read all of Clive Cussler’s novels, and I want to say that I echo an earlier post’s comment that Dirk Pitt stories are escapism, in the truest sense of the word. A reader gets to ride along on a journey where amazing things are seen / found / accomplished all within a shoestring’s breadth of failing. But I think there is more to the mass appeal of this character.

    What is interesting to me, is the idea of why Dirk Pitt’s character would be appealing. Dirk Pitt is essentially James Bond in every sense of the word (exotic travels, kills people, saves the country / world, always gets the girl), but there is one major difference between these two characters that marks an important distinction. The distinction lies in their jobs. Dirk’s job meaningfully contributes to the world by both its scientific investigations and historical discoveries. Bond’s job is one of protecting the status quo. When the stories are done, both worlds might be safer, but Bond’s has not been made better or richer by the process.

    It is also interesting to compare how their jobs interact with the plot. Bond’s job is the plot, whereas Dirk’s job “accidentally / coincidentally” brings him into contact with the plot. Both characters are “uber mensch” supermen by how and what they accomplish, but I think Dirk’s job makes him on the surface at least, more of an “everyman,” more readily accessible to the reader and maybe makes things easier for the reader to suspend disbelief. I think Bond’s job as a governmental spy / assassin makes him a cold anti-hero and creates a distance between the character and the reader. It is the accessibility and “goodness” of Dirk’s character that makes him fun to hang with for 400+ pages. In general, I would point out this may be part of the appeal of Superman himself. As mild mannered reporter Clark Kent, he is intentionally as “everyman” as he can get.

    One last topic. Mike makes an interesting argument for having “perfect” characters, such as seen in LOTR, but I have to say perfect characters tend to be boring, relegated to being plot tent poles, giving important structure to the story, but largely uninteresting to look at in themselves. Aragorn and Faramir are more powerful / meaningful characters in the movies than in the books.

    Good books become great and important books when they accomplish two things. First, the book needs to paint a realistic portrayal of the human condition. Secondly, the characters in the story need to reveal (instruct by example) how to rise above it. Take LOTR books for example. Does it portray the human condition and evil in the world? Yes. Does it teach us how to rise above it? Not as well as it could.

    As portrayed in the book, Aragorn and Faramir are perfect, self-less characters who encounter the ring, but suffer no real temptation to take it. Thus their stories fail to be instructive. Boramir’s nobility falls before his pride and vanity. Ok, very instructive as a “do not”. Frodo takes the ring out of duty and responsibility, but as motivations for navigating through the dangers of temptation, these fail him in the end, because ultimately playing with fire (living in compromise / proximity to evil) will destroy you. Again, an instructive “do not”.

    As is, the only positive REAL resistance of the temptation we see are in Sam and Galadriel. Being an immortal elf, tends to distance us from Galadriel’s resistance of global domination. Also, unless you’re the President, this is not the kind of temptation most of us face in the real world. Thus her “teachable example” falls a bit short and shallow. Only by scaling down the global domination to thinking of our workplaces or homes / families, do we achieve some measure of instruction in seeing an example of why one might forsake power which we could claim.

    That leaves us with Sam. Sam’s resistance of the temptation of the ring is VERY instructive and teaches us several things. 1) The Importance of short term exposure. To resist the destructive qualities of temptation requires us to avoid / limit our proximity and exposure to it. 2) The value and importance of love and loyalty. He was able to bear the ring and give it up because he took it upon himself out of loyalty and love for Frodo and the cause. And 3) He was a servant, not only as a job, but in spirit. He alone was able to triumph over the evil of the ring because he served the cause and his master; he bore the load when his master could not, and he bore his master when his master could no longer bore the load.

    In comparison to the book, the movies’ revised characterizations of Aragorn, and Faramir provide interesting additional lessons about avoiding temptation that in my mind, enrich and improve the story. Both Aragorn and Boramir are noble self-sacrificing characters, willing to die for the greater good of Global preservation, but Boramir is vain and proud, leaving him blind to the danger of the Ring. Aragorn resists because of his powerful meekness (not weakness – big and important difference). Through this quality, Aragorn is able to recognize the true danger of the temptation. He knows himself well enough to know that if he plays with fire he will get burned (as Frodo eventually does). As one who has the potential for great power over many people, he realizes he would not be the only one to be burned. Thus best to leave the matches alone.

    However, the change in Faramir’s characterization elevates him from the weakest character of the novels (IHMO) to one of the strongest, most poignant of the films. Faramir is motivated to take the ring not out of some noble idea, but a much more earthly one, that of earning the love of a parent (loved one). I think this is a very real and identifiable temptation that most people face at some time in their lives. Faramir is not noble but selfish (which is what I think ticks people off about the change). What saves his character is his humility. He has no vain or proud illusions about himself, but he is humble about his own status and worth. This allows him to recognize the dangers of his selfishness when confronted about the global costs of giving into it in comparison to the costs of giving it up (which are real, in the story and in life). It is in Faramir’s story that the value and importance of true virtue is shown, even if it means letting go of what is most important in your life, even to giving up your life itself.

    As the podcast mentioned, Sam is most people’s favorite character (mine too). Yes, he is an everyman, which makes him accessible, but I believe it is his qualities, of showing us an attitude, a way of living that we can strive for and achieve that makes Sam an endearing and enduring character. With the movies, I also add Faramir to my favorite character list.

  7. @AndrewB: Regarding groups as protagonists — I think this could be done, but you would need an individual as the main character and hero. Remember, the protagonist is the one who gets the development arc, who changes during the story. The main character is the one who moves it along, and with whom we’re most likely to identify.

    @Jon: Wow… nice analysis. Longer than the whole podcast, too. But yeah, you pretty much nailed my thoughts on LoTR and Rowling.

  8. Jon, fantastic post!.

    After listening to the guys (and now you) say that you prefer the more fleshed-out Aragorn and Faramir of the movie to the plot device they were in the book has got me thinking. Superman, who, in the very beginning and at his most powerful, was only there to satisfy people’s need for someone that life couldn’t defeat (that was the Depression era after WWI and just before WWII and people were desperate for some hope. Another popular favorite at that time was the Three Little Pigs and the song ‘Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?’ so you can see where their mindset was at the time). Since then, audiences have changed and have wanted more flaws in their supermen.

    Have readers changed in regards to Aragorn and Faramir? Many books tend to describe their main characters in-depth and give them some flaws as well. There aren’t many novels that have a main character that is only there to provide some world history or background. Would today’s readers find that unsatisfying? Aragorn, to me, doesn’t fit either the main character or the protagonist role, yet he’s a prominent part of the book.

  9. Counterpoint: I’d just like to weigh in here as someone who capital-H hated almost all of the choices made by Peter Jackson to deviate from Tolkien’s characterizations.

    1) Aragorn is not some flawless white knight who exists in “The Lord of the Rings” to mow down orcs and strike kingly poses. Ironically, it’s Peter Jackson who’s most responsible for giving people that idea. In Tolkien’s story, Aragorn argues with Gandalf about where to take the fellowship, anguishes over how to proceed after Gandalf’s fall into darkness in Moria, and eventually fails to protect Frodo and, as a result of indecision, ends up pushed aside from directly helping the quest to destroy the ring. If you don’t feel the tension caused by the division of his loyalties between Gandalf (must help Frodo) and Gondor (must reclaim a failing people), then you aren’t reading the books carefully enough. One of the most beautiful (and brief) moments in the whole story is when Aragorn chooses to forsake “the heart of Elvendom on Earth,” and never “came there again as a living man.” Other shadings or difficult choices of Aragorn’s include the very subtle weighing of him by his Elven peers, his gentle rejection of Eowyn and his decision to travel to Gondor by the paths of the dead (rendered supremely idiotic in the movie; that avalanching pile of skulls is among the Jackson adaptation’s worst moments). He’s a very dynamic character.

    2) So is Faramir. All of the stuff about being rejected and unloved of Denethor is in the book. Jackson didn’t invent that for the movie. Faramir is tested by the ring, it’s just that he succeeds on the basis of having made wise decisions in the past. His nobility, something that a careful reading of the book will show you that he has earned, is the very thing that makes him a strong, enduring character. I think a lot of readers have been so trained by the Bildungsroman format of so many heroic fantasies to expect an unshaped, uncertain protagonist, that when we meet strong, self-confident character, we just automatically assume they have no arc and are therefore not “interesting.”

    3) Which brings up another key point: A lot of the turmoil, growth and indecision in both men’s lives, the stuff that your average schmuck finds relatable, took place before their involvement in the “Lord of the Rings” storyline. Tolkien’s mastery is that he suggests a very abundant, complex backstory for both men while allowing them to be true in the present to the choices that have shaped them.

    4) Food for thought: How is Sam any different at the end of the novel than at its beginning? He changes the least of any of the major characters. He’s more widely experienced at the end of the story, but not fundamentally different in his values or motivations. He’s steadfast and true to his nature in the faces of ridiculously daunting perils and people LOVE that about him.

  10. Speaking of perfect and imperfect characters, I wonder what everyone thinks of the presently popular, tortured “musclemen”, as seen in Andy McNab’s work (and similar stuff). You probably know the type. Military or mercenary, extremely competent at and indifferent about killing people and generally leading an unsatisfying, hollow life where the only light at the end of the tunnel is the killing of bad guys. Which may not actually accomplish anything.

    What irks me is that the writer is trying to shock the reader into expressing sympathy. For instance, I’ve always liked Forsyth, but when, in a recent book, he simply said the main character’s daughter had the hell raped out of her before being murdered instead of, I don’t know, exploring her as a character, I put it away.

    I don’t have issue with violence in fiction, but there’s a difference between killing a character and writing a description of something.

    Now I’ve moved to narrative technique, but that’s another point against the musclemen. Death seems to follow them around in a wake of destruction, which doesn’t really make them appealing characters.

  11. No. No. No. No.

    I might have to stop listening to the archives. Because Dan and Brandon, at least, keep using Superman and Spider-Man as examples and I don’t think they’ve read ttheir actual comics from how they talk about him.

    Why is Superman an interesting hero? It’s *because* he’s so powerful, yet he’s a HERO. Why do you think his origin story is repeated so often with so many variations but they will never *ever* change the fact that he was raised by down-home farmers in Kansas with solid Middle-America values? Because that aspect of his origin is infinitely more important to who he is than the fact that he came from Krypton. Here is the man who can do anything he wanted. It would be no trouble at all for him to be the most powerful tyrant on earth, the richest man, or the guy with the biggest, most attractive harem. The Jesus comparisons are not far off. He is a man with temptations, and he never gives into them. The fact that he doesn’t is why we look up to him. He’s popular because we want definite heroes — men we can look up to without cause for embarassment.

    You guys even talk about the Übermensch and thing of this as physical traits. Newsflash: Nietzsche was a philosopher, a thinker, a NERD. He wasn’t an athlete at top physical form. Physical fitness may have been an aspect of this, but his books were not about it. They were about things like “Will to Power.” It was about moral values and ethical superiority. Superman is a poor tranlsation of the term, but it is from this Übermensch that Siegel and Schuster got the concept, at least in part (they certainly weren’t dividing the moral superiority from religion or god like Nietzsche felt was necessary).

    And yes, this ties back to his first comics early in his existence. You can see his choices in stories where he risks his popularity and the admiration he receives to choose to do what is right. He was popular with more than just Jewish boys for his proclivity with punching Nazis, incidentally. And he destroyed ghettos (in both uses) in order to rebuild real housing, often in direct contradiction to the will of the civil government, even in the US. Superman is an example, and that’s why he’s interesting. HE DOESN’T KILL. Even though, you have to admit, with the ability to lift an entire building without breaking a sweat it must often be more difficult to pull punches enough to be non-lethal than it is to waste ’em.

    It’s only been recently that his “perfectness” has been seen as a literary flaw, mostly because of the dark direction so many comic book properties have gone. But they’ve highlighted the limitations to his “infinite power.” When he was killed by Doomsday, it was not because of some secret weakness. The two beat each other to death. Not even Superman can punch everything in the universe to death. And there’s been other opponents who could take anything Supes could dish out and throw down just as well (the most famous example being Captain Marvel, whose magical lightning – induced transformation has nearly killed Superman when they’ve been at odds).

    Spider-Man is the same way. Howard did a good job correcting Dan when Dan tried to say that Spidey hasn’t been allowed to grow with his readers. The only reason Peter Parker isn’t a dad is because a miscarriage was arranged by Green Goblin and baby May was stillborn. He deals with work adn wife more than bullies.

    I’m watching you guys…

  12. Hero: a character who is heroic, saves the day, who is good, someone who we want to be.
    Protagonist: Who the story is about.
    Main character: Who the story revolves around.

    I had a story in which, the story revolved around this character who was morally neutral genius-in-distress guy (Main Character) The hero was the cop who ended up saving him, and the protagonist was the cop’s friend who got dragged along. And the narrator was the cop.
    So all of them different.
    And with such a cool premise I still managed to mess it up. Well… I was 12.

  13. One word, Luffy!
    Well, he’s the hero of a really famous manga, (understatement) and probably would be the 1st in any popolarity pool . Why?
    He isn’t perfect, he isn’t someone you can identify with, he also doesn’t have a striking flaw… I think the most important aspect is that while he doesn’t even care about being a hero, he decides to be one out of the most selfish reasons. It’s not like he saves things for the sake of saving, he saves them because he likes person X, and person X likes town Y. For instances there is an arc where an evil scientist is doing REALLY bad stuff. And his friends are the ones insisting to solve that problem. He’s only doing it because ‘someone said cool things would happen if I defeated you’. And that’s original and a good break from our usual heroes, without becoming an angsty anti-hero. He’s someone who does good because he likes good, not someone who does good because of any dogma. That and he’s hilariously funny every time he isn’t extremely cool.
    Just my analysis of a type of hero you didn’t mention in the podcast. Gonna listen to them all, they’re interesting and informative. :3

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