The Protagonist Syndrome

I recently started watching Carnivale with my girlfriend, and rather like it. I know that it’s one of those shows that ends without complete resolution, but I enjoy the aesthetics of it and the inclusion of supernatural elements that are at once flashy and subtle. I have one problem with it, though: I can’t stand the protagonist. He’s boring, stupid, and lacks a sense of curiosity about the obviously interesting setting he’s in. Worst of all, I can tell that the writers and directors of the show want me to identify with him. I identify far more with the carny hucksters and weirdo psychics, though. I want the show to be about them. The protagonist is dead weight.

This is a common problem.

Protagonists are supposed to be people we identify with, and all too often writers and directors interpret that as “let’s put some boring guy at the center of the action.” And it is usually a guy. And he’s almost always boring. Think about it: Who’s the most interesting character- Luke Skywalker or Han Solo? Frodo Baggins or Aragorn? Charlie Bucket or Willie Wonka? Johnathan Harker or Van Helsing? Jack or everyone else on Lost? The list goes on. All too often, perfectly interesting pieces of fiction have their weakest link front and center. Protagonists tend to be watered down, terminally decent, utterly good and rather boring schlubs who somehow get laid despite not having any edge to them at all. Frequently, they are outshone by the supporting cast, who are actually allowed to have a certain dimension of weirdness and even a personal demon or two. Protagonists, though, tend to be empty balls of uncompelling boredom.

What should a protagonist be like, though? How about Willie Lowman, someone who evokes our sympathy and pity even though his plight is different than ours. How about Dr. Frankenstein, whose ambition and lack of responsibility to his work is applicable to pretty much anyone who’s wanted to create something? How about Holden Caufield, who continually struggles for authenticity and who goes crazy while he does it? How about Orlando who retains his/her mercurial identity even though so many other things change? How about Satan in Paradise Lost, who bravely defies stated authority? These characters are all awesome protagonists. They are weird, yes, and oftentimes kind of nasty, but their authors made them real, above all else.

Protagonists don’t have to be decent, “normal” ciphers of characters. They shouldn’t be the one character in the given medium without dimension or depth. I can tell what the creators of various shows and movies are trying to do- they want to provide an empty slate that the audience can project their identifications onto. That’s hugely aggravating, though, because instead of having a person at the center of the action we have a void. The protagonist should carry a story, but all too often they seem to drag it down.

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