Priscilla Obilana looks into the arrival and purpose of indefinable protagonists.
The trend of difficult to define protagonists has recently gained immense popularity in modern literature. Traditionally, we could count on protagonists to be reliable, consistantly good or bad people who easily fit into righteous or evil binaries. For the villain, they would be absolutely so; a morally degradable beast incapable of any natural feeling, with a complex backstory that led to their reprehensible behaviours.
For the hero, they would face a conflict along the way, lose sight of their true nature and start doubting themselves, veering slightly off-path. Nevertheless, these characters would inevitably stay on track. The guiding moral compass who would ultimately drift them back to their true north.
This has led to a powerful resurgence of the Grey Protagonist in recent years. The not so heroic hero and not so antagonising antagonist. No longer are we reading about solid colours but rather the morally grey. This archetype has been around for years and has grown in popularity, showing that it is here to stay. Still, it comes as a shock when your main character whose identity you have decided for yourself, switches on you. Of course, plot twists have been around since the very invention of storytelling, what I speak of now, is a completely separate creature, a character twist, if you will. It is characters such as these, that will have you put the book down and try to think back to find clues or hints that you may have missed.
Of course, plot twists have been around since the very invention of storytelling, what I speak of now, is a completely separate creature, a character twist, if you will.
The first book (or play rather) I read that elicited such a response was Macbeth. Upon initial reading, the reader’s expectations are led to anticipate that Macbeth will resist the witches bait and emerge the hero. Unfortunately for Macbeth, he fails to appreciate his own title and pursuing that of the king’s, ultimately leads to his downfall. Macbeth crushes all expectations and descends into utter villainy. This is the type of character twist that looks your pre-conceived notions of main characters right in the eye and spits in it.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, is another example of a character twist that has caused a similar response in readers. The reader has no idea who the hero is nor the villain. They don’t know who to root for or against. Support is divided between Nick and Amy Dunne for over half the book. When the novel climaxes, and these two characters can change sides no longer, the full picture is made clear. The hero is faced with an opportunity to redeem themselves and uphold the traditional ideals of a hero, even if to do so would lead to their own detriment. Again, this does not happen. The hero lets the reader down and leaves them robbed of that triumphant feeling of catharsis when a protagonist fulfils their purpose.
The hero is faced with an opportunity to redeem themselves and uphold the traditional ideals of a hero, even if to do so would lead to their own detriment.
A sense of disappointment arises when a book’s hero is found to be lacking. Like the hero in Gone Girl, Pip from Great Expectations, is a perfect example of when the protagonist doesn’t manage to actualise the future the reader has predicted for them. In such cases, it can be extremely frustrating.
Despite this, a popularity for such protagonists has surfaced. One reason for this phenomenon is because these books remove a need to pass judgement on the protagonist’s character, the reader relates to them more, leaving us to simply read their stories and enjoy the twist and turns.
Despite the outrage and heartbreak when a main character who is perceived as a “good-guy” falls short and adopts the characteristics of a villain, we as readers, constantly flock to bookstores in order to purchase the next details of similar shortcomings in protagonists. It is impossible to deny that there is a market for them. It is also obvious why the market also includes novels which showcase this character twist for villains.
It is refreshing when a character shocks you for the better. This has been a common occurrence since Ebenezer Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol, provided the Cratchit family with the presents on Christmas Day. Moving to modern times, with Tyrion Lannister being a hero despite his last name, in A Game of Thrones. A redemption story provides hope. One of the most notorious character twists for a presumed villain, is Marvel Comic’s Black Widow. The femme fatale, ex-Soviet spy, provided a female role model in a traditionally male-dominated franchise and reached a pinnacle of popularity with viewers when her character was portrayed by Scarlett Johansson in the 2012 film, The Avengers.
The point of this new trend in books is to illustrate the lack of need for readers to support or oppose main characters. This method brings a change that proves readers can appreciate an interesting journey whether they like the protagonist or not. Sometimes all the reader needs is to be able to sit back and watch the narrative unfold.