Is Your Protagonist Worthy?

Posted March 19, 2021 by Amber in Writing / 4 Comments

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Lately, I’ve been wrestling with the importance – or lack thereof – of my WIPs.  I think this stems from my own existential struggles.  Why do my character’s stories matter?  Why are they worth telling?  How extraordinary does a person have to be to have a worthwhile story to tell?

I struggle with this the most in contemporaries.  When I write a fantasy, I find it’s easier create extraordinary characters with extra interesting backstories, missions, and motivators.  In contemporaries… I struggle.  For example, I want to share Emma’s little corner of Vermont and her friends and her love of MMORPGs and how brave she is… but I find myself wondering… why?  Why would anyone care about a nerdy teenager from rural New England who isn’t, technically, “extraordinary”?

I think this is something that I run into a lot when I’m reading books as well.  If it’s a good book, it’ll wrap me up and I won’t even worry about if the character earned their right to have their story told.  But slower books, contemporaries… I struggle sometimes with why this character and why this story.  I recently read Ready Player Two and this was a huge issue for me.

I liked the world building in Ready Player One a lot, but when we got to Ready Player Two, I found myself frustrated that Wade was getting another story.  For me, he ceased to be worthy of the honor.  It wasn’t just that his character was unlikable – he wasn’t … making a difference, I guess.  It felt to me like a story of privilege rather than a story of deserving.  It could have been told from either Samantha, Aech, or L0hengrin’s POV.  Of course, Cline was not the right voice for those characters so from a political standpoint it’s good he didn’t write from the POV of a trans or female or Black or lesbian character… but it stands that these characters we far more worthy of the spotlight than Wade.

This is a struggle in my writing I’m still working on – understanding how to create dynamic, interesting characters that tug the reader’s heartstrings just enough to make their story something worth reading.  I understand this comes from balancing the characters’ own lives – their failures and successes and universal relatability.  As a writer, I think I have a long way to go before I’m able to do this with the same skill as Becky Albertalli or Roshani Chokshi.  But I’m going to keep reading and examining the craft and trying.

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Do you ever judge characters as undeserving of having their stories told?  What elements do you find help you deem a character worthy of their story or rewards?  Am I thinking too hard about this?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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4 responses to “Is Your Protagonist Worthy?

  1. If I like the character, I would say they deserve to have their story but if I don’t like them, well, maybe not. I think reading is still very much a personal preference thing where if one reader might like the character, while another may not. But even if I don’t like the character, I might still think they deserve to have their story told if I find their story compelling but still, it’s personal preference.

    I don’t read contemporary books but I can say if a character have traits that someone can relate to, that character may be worthy of a story but again, it depends on personal preference and various factors and the way the way the character is portrayed.

    But I think writers would know when they have a character worthy of a story, maybe it will take a lot time writing and reading to really know this but in the end, you’ll know, at least, from my own experience.

    Have a lovely day.

    • Amber

      Hi Lissa! You have some wonderful insight here – “worthy” can be in the eye of the beholder! I hadn’t considered that angle, but it certainly makes sense as if a character aligns with our personal values and/or sympathies, they may seem more deserving in our eyes, though maybe not in another person’s eyes – it can depend. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Vera

    You just wrote what my mind thought all these years. Maybe it depends on how much we relate to the protagonist.