As threatened promised hinted at.
1) Let other characters react.
The single manifestation of this that bothers me the most is the part where the main character says something witty, shocking, clever, or whatever, and everyone else responds with…silence. Because, of course, no one has ever said something that witty, shocking, clever, or whatever before.
Oh, please. And that goes double when the line in question is simply unexpected, or not at all amusing (since so many fantasy authors have this bad disease of mistaking something like “Bite me!” for the height of wit, especially in urban fantasy. At the very least, the werewolf or the vampire should take the heroine at her word when she says that).
Here’s the rule: You get one of those a novel. And that’s being generous. The rest of the time, the other characters get to snap back, responding with a scolding, a burst of passionate outrage, a laugh, a roll of the eyes, or, my favorite, something that totally cuts the ground out from under the protagonist.
This gets even worse when the characters taken aback are immortals, whom you could expect to have seen and heard things much more shocking than this mortal teenager who thinks she’s such Hot Stuff. There were far too many moments in Kay’s Ysabel, which I just finished, where the teenage character, Ned Marriner, shocks the immortals who have returned for twenty-six hundred years into silence, or asks a question they then claim to have never thought about. Yes, it happens in Kay’s other books, but there, the power balance is more in order; the protagonist is the one verbally slapped across the face just as often, and by people much closer to him in age. Kay likes the dramatic potential, obviously. Yes, him and far too many other authors.
Another obvious consequence of this problem, which ought to be employed far more often than it is, is that the protagonist so often fires her mouth off in situations where she really should not do it. Yeah, that’s a hell of a way to win allies from iffy people or make sure the villain doesn’t torture her and her friends, let’s insult them. You are such a genius, Typical Fantasy Protagonist. And instead of standing around in stunned silence, the iffy people or the villain should make you suffer for it, but do they? No. They gape, because the author is far too fond of you.
Just quit it, all right? Let other characters have their say, too, or respond in-character to the hero/ine’s defiance. I think it’s noticeable, especially as a contrast, that when Frodo offers to take the Ring to Mount Doom, he’s immediately given an outpouring of support, rather than people just gaping witlessly at him. But then, Frodo is a fallible character, which is something that many fantasy authors do not seem interested in.
2) Power is nothing without context.
This is for all those moments when the protagonist awes someone else with Mad Skillz, whether they be magical or with weapons. What strikes me about them—and annoys me about them because, really, what else would you expect in this rant?—is when they show off their power in a void, without showing how it will be useful. The author acts like the protagonist is someone special just because she can do something that no one’s ever done before. Well, guess what, I bet somewhere out there is someone who can eat five pies in a minute, which I cannot, but this is not necessarily awe-inspiring to me.
So the protagonist can control Earth and Fire and Air and Water, while every other person in the world can only control two elements. Wow. /monotone And will this actually help save the world, or find the quest object, or defeat the enemies trailing them, or earn her money? (The last is a motive that 90% of fantasy protagonists never think to use their magic for. Dumbasses). If the magical power is unconnected to the main plot of the book, and there’s no way in which it will help her in everyday life, either, I have to wonder why everyone’s standing around slack-jawed. Pretty special effects! Yes, and?
One interesting facet of this is how often fantasy protagonists have destructive magic, as opposed to creative or protective. I honestly think it’s only that way because authors get trapped into a certain mindset: the protagonist must be able to kill people. Forget having her heal them, or be an artist, or be able to halt famine in its tracks by creating food, or alter the face of the earth to stop a quake, or negotiate with an alien species. No, it’s killing. And sometimes saving small furry animals, but that’s usually just to Demonstrate Her Compassion and not linked to the magic. (See point 3).
It affords me some bitter amusement, in fact, thinking back on those series which have groups sworn to the defense of a kingdom or country. How do they defend them? …By killing people, usually. You can have a bunch of people with various telepathic and magical gifts, like Lackey’s Heralds, but the focus of the books is often on blasting people apart, not dealing out justice or protecting the refugees that the wars create. And, when a moment arises where the protagonists could, say, choose between killing the enemy and constructing a defense that would keep them out, most of the time they choose the first option.
And that slides into a consideration of power that’s usually applied to villains, but treated as distinctly secondary when it comes to protagonists: the other people the power affects. Okay, so the protagonist decides to practice with her magic, and calls a storm. Does she think about the crops ruined, the rivers flooded, the homes swept away? Nope. She needed to practice, and, because her heart is pure, her faceless victims do not matter, even when the villain’s are the main tool used to get the “good side” in motion. At least, if you insist that this Mad Magic is necessary for defense during a war, show the protagonist going in and using the same Mad Magic to clean up after herself. If she’s willing to accept the consequences of her power, that should be part of it.
3) No act is worth anything unless it is extraordinary.
The protagonist cannot, for example, just rescue a drowning kitten. She has to rescue a magical kitten, and cry the purest tears ever over it, while the rest of the characters either admire her in whispers or snipe at her for rescuing the kitten, only gradually becoming accustomed to its presence and admitting she was right. No other character helps take care of it. No other character thinks of rescuing it.
I know it’s hard to imagine, but the presence of a fantasy protagonist with some character trait like compassion, courage, wisdom, a hot temper, or a quick mind does not turn the other characters into shells. I promise, they can also demonstrate some of the same traits, and they are not “competitors” working against her. Really.
They can also demonstrate “lesser” versions of the same act, like rescuing a kitten that might have swum away on its own, or the protagonist can perform an act like that and the rest of the cast can just accept it as part of who she is, instead of the awed staring, or the stupid opposition that will be proven stupid over the course of the book. You can have character development without holding a ticker tape parade every time it happens. If enough things like that happen in the course of a story, then they will help create a picture in the reader’s mind by sheer multiplicity. The parade is just obnoxious, and one of the clearest signs that the author is desperate for the reader to like the character.
Even better, and rarest, is having the protagonist perform some act she thinks is grand, having another character oppose it, and having that character turn out to be right. Guess what? It really was stupid to run away in the middle of the night with the mad idea that she’d infiltrate the mind-reading enemy’s camp, because she got captured and the location of her friends got yanked out of her mind. It really was stupid to try and make a pet of a large and dangerous beast; now it steals food from their camp and snaps at them, because it’s lost its fear. (The best depiction of that one I ever saw was a mainstream YA book, the title of which I unfortunately do not remember, that showed a teenage girl who lived in Africa dreaming of taming a leopard—and then she came face-to-face with a wild leopard, and, well, she learned a leopard is not a kittycat). It really was stupid to swear that oath just because she was convinced by a stranger’s sob story, because now it’s making her oppose and attack the rest of her friends.
And, again, such humility does not have to be the whole of the story. The protagonist can be right and wrong several times each over the course of the narrative. It’s simply really fucking obvious when the author lets the hero/ine be applauded all the time for an action that would earn a shrug from the narrative, at best, if other characters did it.
4) Remember that sometimes awe is just not appropriate.
Maybe your protagonist really has stunned or shocked, awed or impressed, another character. That doesn’t mean it’s the appropriate time for her to tell him so.
Why? Those sorts of situations often aren’t the ones where showing off such emotions will readily benefit the other character. During sparring practice, a teacher impressed by a student has excellent reason to keep pressing, to assume that, now that he’s arrived at this level, he’s ready to go further. I’d think she wouldn’t fling her sword away and embrace him while declaring that he’s learned all she has to teach, if only because of the potential being-stabbed-in-the-chest risk.
An enemy in the midst of battle is not, I hope, going to waste breath or show weakness by pausing to ask the protagonist how he got so good. In fact, when the main purpose in life of the villains becomes to praise the protagonist and lament how they’ll never be that great, the story is ready for the trash heap.
A political enemy, likewise, stands an excellent chance of embarrassing herself if she gapes like a fool at some unexpected move of the protagonist’s. And, hey, she’s used to a world populated with people more cutthroat than the usual protagonist is allowed to be. Why couldn’t she counter such a sudden, awe-inspiring move with a sudden and awe-inspiring move of her own, or some icy cold contempt?
People who don’t share the protagonist’s Mad Skillz might be awed, but they could just as easily not care, or be calculating what this means to them. Is she dangerous to be around, for example?
As for friends and lovers, I don’t think those can be true relationships of equals if one party is constantly in awe of the other. And someone who takes great delight in always doing something better than everyone else at all times is fucking annoying to be around. Take it from me; I have known two people like that, one who sought to impress with her intelligence (she had always just won a new scholarship or a new contest, or gotten a better grade than you on a test), the other with his suffering (anyone who complained of a cold got to hear about his cutting, his stalker, and his numerous allergies). They both found it very difficult to keep friends, I noticed.
Sometimes the problem is not so much the awe itself as having other characters constantly express it.
5) Cure the root of the addiction.
Why do writers want protagonists who don’t just do cool stuff—which is the basis of a lot of good fantasy books—but who constantly reduce other characters to a state of gibbering shock over it—not the basis of many good ones? There are a few answers. I think a large part of it is the addiction to underdog heroes. The majority of fantasy protagonists face their demons, and their villains, alone in the end. They never work well with groups. They are almost always emotionally scarred and reluctant to trust, such that most secondary characters have to go to insane lengths to prove they’re good people. They don’t have strong support networks, and they’re deeply unappreciated by the world at large. And the natural tendency to writing—or being—an underdog is to want the character’s triumphs to be larger-than-life, instantly acknowledged, and the cause of humility in others. Earning respect by doing more than one thing, or acknowledging that people had their reasons for doubting the protagonist in the past, is somehow never part of the process.
Does the underdog hero really need triumphs like that, though? Not all of them, I think. Maybe one, but leaving a constant trail of stunned people behind him is very wearing. And if he never, ever took the trouble to correct people about their mistaken perceptions of him, I’m not going to think that he really deserves to instamagically wow them now.
Another addiction is that I’ve mentioned before: the commitment to absolutely piling the protagonist with abilities, honors, titles, relationships to powerful and important people, and other “gifts.” Most of the time, she never gets to explore the full implications of them all, because too much else is going on in the story; she might never use some of them. Or the powers might actually cause plot holes at convenient moments (like the author putting her in jail because it makes a good plot, while forgetting that, earlier in the story, she had the ability to walk through walls). The awe in this case comes from people hearing who she is or what she can do and going white in the face.
This is just so stupid that I don’t really have much sympathy for it. I’m more interested in the interactions and intersections of powers, duties, responsibilities, and so on, and to explore those, the sheer number has to be kept at a manageable level. Being a princess and the wielder of Power X is enough for a good, crowded story, I would think, without the protagonist also having to be the granddaughter of the most powerful witch in the world, the wielder of a magical sword, the Sekrit Heir of the evil witch, and the lust object of the three most powerful men in the world. You are just asking for huge sticky lumps of exposition and contrived plots to explain why she can’t wave her hand and make all her problems go away if you do this.
So look for what awing the other protagonists is designed to accomplish, and think about other ways to accomplish it.
6) Become interested in other characters.
Yes, not everyone is going to love your central character, and you can’t really control the reader’s reaction on that; the most you can do is influence it. But I think it is imperative that the writer is interested in other characters in the story beyond her central one.
This represents the most complete and thorough wiping of the impulse to make the protagonist the center and complete winner of every interaction and every relationship. If you’re just as interested in what her boyfriend did last night, her best friend’s struggles with her own magic, her mentor’s past, and the anti-hero’s non-protagonist love interest, then you won’t have them falling down to worship at the protagonist’s feet every time she has a slightly witty comeback. No, you won’t spend as much time focusing on those plotlines. You won’t have to. This part depends more on what’s in your own mind, your own attitude to the characters, than what you put down on paper. They can be represented as leading very full existences just beyond the page, and so the protagonist becomes part of their lives as much as they’re part of hers, rather than their giving up everything that makes them individual when she has a moment of triumph.
Who knows? They might even awe her in turn.
The next one might be on oppression, though the Invisible Pink Unicorn knows it’s a rant I’m wary of writing.