There’s a structural issue I see quite frequently in fiction – especially indie fiction – that bothers me quite a bit, but in the few places I’ve ever seen it discussed, it tends to be buried within terms like “Mary Sue” and “Deux Ex Machina.”
The concept is one I call the “pampered protagonist,” but I don’t mean that the protagonist is loved and admired by all the other characters, or that his life is made easier by attentive and admiring servants, friends, etc. What I’m referring to is the case where the author himself does the pampering. I find that many writers cannot bring themselves to let anything bad happen to their characters, and the result is a hero who waltzes through his journey, achieving great things with scarcely any effort and damnably little opposition. In some cases, there is no actual conflict, and the character simply wins big just by showing up, while in other cases, there is opposition, but it is of the token variety, and quickly scatters at the first sparkle of his steely-eyed glare.
The problem with this, for me, is that success without effort, without risk or cost, rings hollow. Sure, it can happen in real life, but I get no sense of satisfaction from watching some entitled twit win big every time he throws the dice. When was the last time you really cheered for an already wealthy neighbor who got lucky in a deal and became even wealthier? If there’s no chance he might lose, where’s the fun in watching? Nobody likes a perpetual winner. Or at least, nobody I know.
But as frustrated as I am by these kinds of stories, I am equally frustrated by the lack of discussion I’ve been able to find about this writing practice. As I said above, it often gets buried in the Mary Sue or Deus Ex labels, so maybe other people see them as the same thing. Let me articulate here why I think they’re not.
Not a “Mary Sue”
A Mary Sue is generally perceived to be an authorial wish-fulfilment character. The author creates a personal avatar character to insert into an existing story world or even a genre, and then romps that character through the world, collecting all the prizes, just the way they’ve always dreamed that they would do themselves, if they were in that world. It’s a common enough fantasy, but that doesn’t make it fun for anybody other than the author.
It’s clear that the Mary Sue character is often a Pampered Protagonist, but the reverse is not always true. Some PP characters are not at all authorial avatars. The other common cause of pampering, from what I’ve seen, is an author who isn’t comfortable with conflict. This too makes some sense. After all, if you’ve spent months developing a character you really bond with emotionally, it can be very difficult to throw Hell at them by the bucket load. You can’t protect your children from a life of hardship and cruelty, but by golly, you can certainly protect your characters! But just as with children, it is often the hardships they grapple with that makes characters into richly rounded, capable beings worthy of our attention and respect.
Nothing “Deus Ex Machina” About It
I have also seen this conflictless style of character success rolled into the Deus Ex Machina trope, but let’s be clear. Deus Ex refers to an unlikely intrusion into the story. A previously unmentioned character rides into the story and saves the princess just when all the other characters seem doomed at the hands of the villain. A wizard pulls a spell out of his pants that we’ve never seen before, and it’s just the thing to make Unstoppable Monster #3 crawl back into hiding. These are what is normally meant by Deus Ex. It is certainly unlikely that anyone can succeed time and again, winning riches or accolades of any value, without having any competition or resistance, but the lack of resistance itself can’t be called a Deus Ex, unless it were introduced as an “out of the blue” change of conditions that somehow managed to facilitate our hero’s success at just the right moment.
Nope. The Pampered Protagonist is a structural flaw unto itself, related to, but not identical to, these other flaws in which it usually gets buried.
How to Spot a Pampered Protagonist
So, are you worried that Ken Dexter, the hero of your WIP, might be a Pampered Protagonist? Here are a few signs to watch out for:
- Is he loved, respected, admired or generally regarded with favor by everyone who knows him?
- Does he solve problems that have eluded other competent characters, simply by applying his critical thinking skills, his charm, or with a lucky guess?
- Has he managed to avoid fights, failures, setbacks, and even the angry muttering of jealous observers?
- Does he worry about problems, resistance, obstacles and objections that never materialize?
- Does your story lack a clearly defined villain?
- Do you have a clear villain, but he never seems on the verge of winning?
These are all traits that point to a Pampered Protagonist, but bear in mind that simply answering “No” to one of those questions does not mean you don’t have a case of it. I have seen cases where, for example, the story did have a declared villain, but the protagonist was still a pampered house cat, because the villain was incompetent, or the protagonist dreamed up a scheme to avoid the villain altogether, or Lady Luck intervened and the villain’s Dastardly Death Machine failed to work at the crucial moment.
If you’re still not sure, here’s another test you can apply: Is there ever a point in your story where things look grim for the protagonist and he is in the midst of abject failure. I don’t mean that he’s worrying about a future in which things might not work out, but is actually present in a moment of apparent defeat. Conflict in stories does not come from worrying about negative outcomes – it comes from facing them. If your character doesn’t come face to face with life-changing troubles, you may be pampering him.
Why Pampering is a Problem
So what’s so all-fired important about conflict, anyway? Many of us ask that question on our path to writerdom. I know I did, early on. But since those days, I’ve come to understand its value. I don’t mean to suggest that conflict is the be-all and end-all for creating stories, but in western culture, we have been weaned on it, we have bathed in it, we have been forged in the fires of conflict stories, and when we encounter the conflictless variety, they seem less brilliant, less substantial – even if we can’t quite put our finger on why.
The reason for this, I think, has something to do with our basic human psychology, but I don’t mean that people are basically violent or combative. It has to do with what our intelligence is actually for, in an evolutionary sense, and the role stories play in that evolution. We all know that one of the primary advantages human beings have is our prodigious intellect. Compared to other beasts and creatures, we are smarter, and it is that intelligence that has put us at the top of the hunt-or-be-hunted chain of command. We aren’t the dominant species on the planet because we have sharper claws, better armor, stronger muscles, or any of the physical features that allow other critters to dominate their local regions. Instead, we got a more advance brain, and that has turned out to be a huge advantage.
In short, I think it’s because our brain allows us to theorize about the world around us. By seeing that world as it is now, in the present, and then making accurate predictions about how the future will unfold, it is like we are practicing magic, when compared to our competitor species. Time and time again, good old homo sapiens seems to be able to anticipate crises better than his cousins, and as a result, is better prepared to deal with them when they arise. Okay, but what does that have to do with stories? The answer is simple.
Stories are how we sharpen the edge on that intelligence. When hearing tell of the hunter who got stuck in a tree and then had to out-think the hyenas below him, we extract a number of useful lessons. We identify a few of the warning signs our hunter/protagonist failed to notice; we gather intel on what kinds of environments might lead us into similar predicaments; we learn about the strategies of our hyena enemies; and we gather evidence about what kinds of response tactics work (or fail) if we ever find ourselves up a similar tree. The more of these stories we hear, the better armed we are for facing our own brutal futures. And so, in a very real way, story-telling makes us better survivors, and since those who appreciate stories are more likely to survive, an affinity for hearing and telling stories gets passed on to surviving generations. The result is that we have become genetically addicted to stories.
The Value of Conflict Stories
But not just any stories. The kinds of stories we most specifically crave are the ones where the hero gets into some kind of identifiable trouble, and then finds a way to get out. A story without such danger and conflict fails to give us that much-craved jolt of survival practice. And a story where the hero wins by luck, or through no discernible agency of his own, fails to teach us any useful techniques we can adapt.
Consider two “treed by hyenas” stories. In one, the desperate hunter notices that all the hyenas seem to get sleepy, just before sunrise, so he waits until the third night, and then jumps down and runs like hell at just that time, and narrowly manages to reach a river, after having fought off the only hyena who hadn’t gotten sleepy. In the second story, our frantic hunter wakes up on the first morning to discover that the hyenas all died of cancer during the night. Wow. Lucky him. I know that the next time I’m stuck in a tree with hyenas at my feet, I’d much rather remember having heard the sleepy-time story than the cancer version.
And that, I think, is why we crave conflict in our stories – because they allow us to explore something useful, and maybe even extract a re-usable lesson from them. Without conflict, or risk, or hardships to overcome, and credible, actionable efforts to overcome them, stories are just daydreams. And daydreams don’t have the power to save your life from hyenas.
What About Some Examples?
We don’t tend to see the Pampered Protagonist very often in traditional publishing or mainstream film or television, because those media have developed a strong affinity for conflict-driven stories, and this kind of conflictless character gets beaten to death by script supervisors and developmental editors long before you and I will ever see them. But in the emerging world of indie fiction – whether it’s novels, films, web series, or whatever – I’m seeing more and more of it.
Having said that, though, I suspect that a few of them must have snuck past the gatekeepers and I’d love to find some well-known examples to cite. Can you think of any characters that just seem to win over and over again without ever having to try? If so, hook me up in the comments below, and I’ll try to provide enough push-back to make your victory seem worthwhile before I designate a winner. :-) After all, you wouldn’t want to win without any believable effort, would you?