A Common Missing Character Trait In Modern Protagonists
What is a characteristic missing in many modern protagonists?
I am reading a fantasy novel currently. I am up to Chapter 65 in “The Name Of The Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss. It is well written and engaging. It is fast-paced and clever. The main problem I have with the story is the protagonist is not interested in much more than himself and his interests. It may be easy for some readers to miss this absence because the story is told from the protagonist’s first person perspective – so readers are likely to cheer for the main character.
The protagonist is brilliant, funny, talented, and more. But if you strip away the excellent storytelling, words, the protagonist’s “clever” solutions (that work better in a fictional world than in a real one), and his fictional achievements, at his motivational core, several hundred pages into the story, he is primarily only seeking to improve things for himself. And as Orson Scott Card did with his famous protagonist Ender, it might be interesting to read an equally sympathetic story written from the perspective of one of the protagonist’s friends or rivals in this same story.
The story may change, and I suspect it will, as the young protagonist will likely learn good reasons to seek the good of others – beyond his own good. But 65 chapters in, the absence of the protagonist seeking others’ interests is wearing on me and remarkably absent. But I’m still reading it 65 chapters in – and that speaks to the story’s many other good qualities.
What will make you special or interesting to many people?
Despite the regular positive feedback you receive from your family and Facebook friends, the world probably does not care much about you, what you do, or your well-being. If they do care about you, it may be for this reason: You are exceptionally good at doing things that are pleasing or helpful to others.
If you are unpleasant, your unpleasantness will likely stifle many of your pursuits. You may be exceptionally skilled or even “worthy,” but unpleasantness tends to shut more doors than lacking requisite skills. A pleasant person who lacks skills can often learn and be taught – and most people prefer working with a pleasing person more than they enjoy working with someone who is exceptionally skilled, but also inconsiderate and insensitive to those around them.
Your community is probably not very interested in your great potential to help or please others. Your community may be mildly interested in what you do to help and please others.
You understand the distinction? Do you understand the distinction clearly enough that your better understanding leads you do more for others – beyond yourself?
I could begin this next thought by saying, “This is neither here nor there, but . . .” – But that would be dishonest, because what I’m about to explain matters a great deal:
I was born wealthy – by every measure. I had family and a community who loved and supported me. I was never want for food or shelter. My parents worked hard and smart to create a financial fortune by doing things that created great benefits to others. Their parents and ancestors were not monetarily wealthy. Our ancestors were financially poor: fruit pickers, clerks, bartenders, and church workers. But by the time I was an adult, I had a reasonable expectation I would never be want for money – I’d never have to choose what I worked at based on financial considerations. Instead, I only had to work at things I believed mattered – important, helpful work.
If you ever have the luxury of “winning the lottery” – in one way or another, you too will be faced with a similar question: Having no serious need to choose one career over another based on financial gain reasons, what work do you consider of great value for the benefit of yourself and others? How well can you do that work? How much of that work can you do?
The day I was born I won the lottery. I actually won multiple lotteries. The older I get, the more lotteries I realized I won.
As I mentioned, I won the financial lottery.
But I also won a child’s lottery - I had two parents who cared for me and worked each day toward improving our family’s and other families’ welfare.
I won the sibling lottery – I have a sibling who cared for my well-being and always worked toward my good. I’ve seen crazy things happen between other siblings – where they ended up being enemies, stealing each other’s spouses and such – awful things.
I won the school lottery – I went to an ideal public school system with many teachers who cared and gave excellent, invested instruction.
While all of those lotteries were a privilege to receive, they are all secondary to the greatest lottery I hoped I might be able to win:
The greatest lottery I ever won was encountering another person who knew me intimately and still wanted to be my daily companion.
Winning that lottery involves as much luck as skill. I’ve encountered people as worthy as me who had terrible luck in their significant other relationships – people who were smarter, kinder, more attractive, on and on – but they never crossed paths with another person who knew them well, wanted to be their daily companion, and wanted to associate with the other person publicly.
I tried harder (made more attempts) pursuing that lottery than any other. And I had many more failures than the one success I found sustainable.
Why have I combined these topics in this post?
As I thought about my single friends and read their Facebook posts this holiday season, I recalled how lucky I have been - even though I wasn’t necessarily a “better” person than any of them on any significant front.
I have worked to be a person worthy of another person’s companionship – but that does not make me “more worthy” than many others. After I consider as many components as I can, I believe my good fortune has come from a great deal of luck.
But if luck has “merit” components . . .
Or if luck is like Oprah used to like to say: “Luck is preparation meeting opportunity” . . .
If you’re single and you don’t wish to remain single, what can you do to improve your odds of winning “The Relationship Lottery?”
The more honest answer is probably: There are a million things that would be good to do.
But a staring point is this: Do other people in your social circles, good people who are potential relationship candidates – Do they easily see the good and pleasant things (you are not just capable of doing, but) you are regularly doing for many others around you?
The more other people see your real and realized abilities to please and help others, the more likely you will be attractive to other people who do many real, good things for others regularly.
So, returning to the first topic in this post:
If you’re writing a great life story, and accomplishing spectacularly good things for yourself, but not clearly doing much good for the people you’re regularly interacting with - you may be “succeeding” at your goals, but you may not be writing a very inviting protagonist that others will want to ally with.
Are you making the same mistake many other modern fiction writers are making? Are you writing a protagonist that is incredibly good and clever at seeking their own good? Or are you writing a life story, revealing a protagonist whose work is consistently pleasing and beneficial to others?
Jerry Seinfeld recently joked something to the effect of: The entertainment business is great. You figure out what you can do that other people like to see you do, then you just keep doing more of that.
Sometimes, the social world is remarkably similar. .
Through your actions to please others, you will shine an attractive light.