Know Me for a Little: The Heroic Protagonist

I’ve been trying to articulate, for a friend, the problem I’m finding in the depiction of a protagonist who does not appear, some sixty thousand words in, to be on the path of personal change.

This is a vague accusation to be levelling. I’d be heartbroken, though, if someone told me that, after sixty thousand words, my characters still read as the same people they were at the beginning of the story. (Heartbroken, and then looking at what I can do to fix that, but heartbroken nonetheless.) How can I not be, when I spent so much time with these fictional people, when they are different facets of me, when I breathed life into the words that comprise them?

I’ve heard, many times, that a good heroic protagonist doesn’t end the story the way they began it.

What does that even mean, though? Why is it important?

We consider it a tragedy, in the main, if a person exits adulthood as much the same person they were at its beginning. It’s why the death of children is considered a greater tragedy than the death of an adult, I believe: the child was denied that chance to develop, explore and metamorphose as a person. An adult, at least theoretically and given the assumption of certain circumstances, is believed to have that chance, however curtailed.

We have a strange relationship to change in Western society: we need it, and we oft glory in it when it comes to technology (unless we just resent it) but we also fear it. We’re entirely capable of needing it, loving it and fearing it all at the same time, to the point where I wonder how much we understand it! We fear it so much we cling to situations that make us stressed, miserable and ill out of the belief that we cannot cope with the unknown change thrusts upon us. I’m a breathing example of this: my psychologist points out, rightly, that I’m trying to be both a revolutionary and the child my parents raised me to be all at the same time, despite the fact both positions are entirely antithetical to the other. One is embracing change, with the wildness of the unknown; the other is constraining, but it is known, and safe in that way, even if it is damaging and unsafe in every other. I stayed in a job where I was being faced with outright discrimination and abuse – I mean routinely denied the privileges other employees took for granted – because it felt safer to me than the terrifying unknown of how a person with my chronic hand pain is supposed to gain and hold another job.

When abuse feels safer to me, it’s safe to say that change sets my knees knocking.

I’m never going to have a comfortable relationship with change. Like some with anxiety, I fear the unknown and my ability to cope with the unknown, and change is seldom known enough for my comfort. Like some with autism, I’m not terribly flexible: a certain degree of what is seen by others as rigidity is how I manage just living in a world that isn’t optimised to suit me. Change renders my coping mechanisms less useful, takes me into a world where I don’t have a script that tells me how to speak and behave, and inspires a series of emotions I have difficulty allowing myself to experience. (At the moment my psychologist and I are looking at my habit of shutting down, entirely, when the conversation veers emotional. I switch from an engaged and interested conversationalist to a silent person crouching on the edge of the chair ready to run, all in the space of a second.) I’m not incapable of change. I don’t know if anyone realises how hard it’s been for me to get back to just posting my writing here (who knows what kind of response or non-response I’ll get) but I’m glad, in an intellectual way, that I’ve been able to do it, even if I’ve got a long way to go in terms of things to get back to. That is change. I don’t have any faith in my ability to cope with the unknown, though, and that makes everything far more difficult.

In my experience, though, this difficulty with the construct of change isn’t limited to the neurodiverse. When Mum tells me that she’ll “let me do the dishes” and I grumble at how the phrase doesn’t say what she means (“Can you please do the dishes?”) with a side comment on how I feel that phrasing to be passive-aggressive/manipulative, it doesn’t occur to her that a simple change in her phrasing, in future, will solve the problem. No. She gets angry at me until I learn to shut up. The dialogue is centred on my need to change, with unpleasant circumstances until I do, not hers. I can only assume, based on all such conversations I’ve had, that neurotypicals are as reluctant to change their behaviour as I am, perhaps more so, and therefore resistance to change is universal. Maybe they’re better at coping with big changes, like changes of job or school or house, and maybe they don’t feel quite so much distress, but I don’t see how they’re any more willing to take on small or behavioural changes themselves. I just see how they’re willing to make me miserable until I change for them.

It is strange, given this general discomfort with change, that, save in tragedies, we expect our protagonists to end the story in a different mental if not physical space than where they began it and regard this shift as a positive thing.

Strange, but not nonsensical.

But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me for a little, you may know me better there.

Aslan, to Lucy and Edmund, at the close of C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Aslan, of course, is referencing the Christian God. To me, though, this quote operates on another level: it describes, quite elegantly, the relationship a reader (or audience) has to the hero protagonist, a character who, if the story is successful on an emotional or philosophical level, changes throughout the course of a narrative.

The heroic protagonist, in the real world, has another name: the reader’s name, and we too must learn to know them by our own. By witnessing a character change and survive the changing to become the person we should aspire to be, we get to know it a little better in ourselves. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll fear it less. It’s illustrated in the character arcs of Lucy, Edmund and Eustace over The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lucy’s arc is the most subtle, as it involves her growing in her understanding of faith, important given her status as truthsayer, but Edmund and Eustace shift from selfish, self-absorbed and arrogant children to heroic adult (regardless of actual age) protagonists capable of love and sacrifice. Their names are always ours, if we’re willing to look at ourselves with generosity and honesty.

(It’s also why representation is important, too. I shouldn’t have to know the story of an able-bodied cishet boy, for a little, to get to know my journey, as a human, better here. I should be able to find my name in stories of people like me.)

We consider it a tragedy (both literal and of the genre) if a character ends their story (because the plot concludes or because the character dies, a la King Lear) before they’ve changed from the character they were in the beginning or before they’ve reaped any benefits from the change. This can go far beyond the individual tragedy to the social or global. 2016, as a case example, feels like Western mainstream society is going around in circles, our refusal to learn and change marked by a torrent of blood. Stagnation is a tragedy, both personally and socially: society tends to resist change. For that refusal, others bleed.

At best our change, this year, seems to be a frantic retreat into what is deemed safe for those already safest, such that I can hardly call Brexit and Trump and the Australian Federal Election (and this is the lesser of these evils, I know) change. It’s certainly not development.

I think this is why the hero protagonist is more important now than ever.

We need to get to know change and development in ourselves, as individuals and as parts of the social construct.

We need to know it by our own name, and as Aslan allowed the Pevensie children to get to know God, we need to get to know a character who learns and grows in the course of the story.

This change, too, is the very reason we can see our own names in these characters.

A protagonist needs to change in a (non-tragic or non-existential) story in order for the story to have any true emotional resonance.

It doesn’t matter what the genre is or what kind of protagonist features in the narrative. Most of us, big or small, experience some form of change, however much we wish it otherwise. We might resist it or fear it, but we experience it nonetheless. From birth to death, the very nature of the human experience is that it is impermanent. Change is forced upon us. The person we are today isn’t the same person we were last year, even if those changes are so subtle we don’t see them ourselves. A character who feels real to us, in the way that we know how to be human, undergoes the same progression.

We’ve all read (non-tragic, non-existential: these are just different ways of exploring change in a character) books where the character doesn’t have to change. Take Twilight, for example. The book tells us Bella changes from a human into a vampire who is characterised by being unchanging, but Bella as a character doesn’t change before her turning. She doesn’t learn or grow. She just changes from a pretty, meant-to-be-perfect girl to a pretty, meant-to-be-perfect vampire. I can’t say that Twilight hasn’t made an impact on an audience, because it clearly has, but Bella isn’t a character who teaches us more about us as human beings. She’s a name and a body we can insert ourselves into. She’s forgettable. She is literally nothing, and it is in fact a crying tragedy that so many girls and women have identified with a character, who is nothing, who weds a vampire who is literally the antithesis of what it is to be human (by being incapable of change). Twilight, in fact, is teaching us to lose our own names through an impossible story with which we are nonetheless meant to identify. It’s not a commentary on the dangers of stagnation. It’s a narrative that divides us from our own humanity, and it’s dangerous.

It’s a story, sure, but there’s no emotional resonance: we gain nothing from the character but a distancing from ourselves.

Compare and contrast the fantastic, also unrealistic Star Wars. We remember Star Wars because Luke struggles with the Force, because we see Han Solo shift (several times) from selfish mercenary to Rebel revolutionary, because Finn is an anxious wreck trying to do the right thing and doesn’t run when it counts, and because Rey fears casting aside her own family and their constraints upon her (wait) to become her independent adult self (no longer waiting, now searching). These characters are still walking our roads, facing our decision points and living our lives despite the fact that the Force is even more imaginary than vampires and we haven’t yet left the solar system. We know we’re Han and Finn and Rey at heart, and this is why we don’t care that The Force Awakens is an unoriginal, plot-wise, rehash of the original trilogy. We see our names in theirs.

Aren’t these the kinds of characters we as creatives want to see in the world? The ones we don’t forget, the ones that matter, the ones that connect us with our humanity, the ones that show us how to be a better kind of human?

Our salvation, as members of a species set on violence and slaughter directed at each other, lies in our ability to see the change and development – and the consequent growth, belief, compassion, and understanding – in the literary hero protagonists we admire. Oh, the postmodernists decry the evils of narrative, but maybe we as post-post-postmodernists need to proclaim the power of character! We can change, and we can survive change, and we can emerge on the other side of change as better and stronger people, and characters who do the same just might teach us to stop resisting it. They just might teach us that we can look at our failings and overcome them when it it matters.

It’s my opinion that we can fail in every other way as a creative but still create profound and meaningful art if we can get this one thing right.

Don’t add to the litany of Bellas already cursing the world with lessons on our own nothingness.

Write characters who, at the end of the story, look back on who they were and wonder how it is they were that person at all.