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Powerless Heroes, by Michael Pryor

I know this article should really be called ‘Powerless Protagonists’ or ‘Powerless Main Characters’ but I couldn’t resist the nuance of ‘Powerless Heroes’. What I’m talking about is the tendency of many stories to have a main character who is helpless. Put upon. A loser.

I was once reading a book – and it shall remain nameless – when I ran into a character who lurched from disaster to disaster, relationships soured as soon as he touched them, businesses went downhill as soon as he joined and weather became inclement the moment he stepped outside. He was hapless in the extreme. I think we were meant to sympathise with him as an everyman, but I just grew more and more irritated – and then I had an insight.

It isn’t just that he was a victim of circumstance, it was his reaction to all this. Hardship didn’t make him stronger and didn’t make him more determined – he simply bore it with what was meant to be good grace but came across as peevish whining.

When writing, I maintain that main characters should be powerful in two senses:

Firstly, your main character needs to be in a position to act. By that, I mean she or he should be physically able to affect events in the novel. For instance, a hermit, all alone on an island, is probably a poor choice as a protagonist in a story about the wheelings and dealings in political circles in Whitehall, where up and coming crusader Holly Stanthorpe is caught up in a controversy that shows us the seamy side of the historic buildings clique. No, Holly Stanthorpe is better placed to be the main character, instead of poor shipwrecked Ishmael Callaghan, having to read about events by way of the erratic delivery of messages in bottles.

Secondly, your main character should be psychologically able to act. This doesn’t have to mean that they are out and out action heroes, ready to disarm the terrorist using materials close at hand, no matter how appealing that might seem. It doesn’t mean that they are successful in their attempts to act, but, to drive the novel forward and engage a reader as an accomplice, the main character should, at some time in the story, make decisions that affect the events unfolding in the narrative.

Without being physically able to act and psychologically able to act, we have main characters who are buffeted about by the seas of fate and destiny. This is all well and good for navigational buoys but deadly dull if you’re a reader.


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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. marlish glorie #

    Many thanks for this post Steve. But I’m afraid I’m a little perplexed by some of your observations in regards to main characters who are either hapless or powerless, or both. My reading experience tells me otherwise, that in fact, such characters can really drive a story along. The first one that comes to mind is the catastrophically luckless ,Quolye, in the Shipping News by Annie Proulx, a phenomenal novel, a great read by any measure. Then of course, there are many of Many Charles Dickens novels where the main character is a powerless child. E.g. Pip in Great Expectations, is a gripping read. I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts on this, Steve.

    March 7, 2015
    • Hi Marlish,

      Firstly, it was Michael Pryor who wrote the article.

      Taking Pip in ‘Great Expectations’ as an example, the story opens with Pip helping Magwitch, an escaped convict. This is an action that has a big impact on the events of the story. Magwitch gets transported to what is now Australia despite Pip’s help but he becomes an anonymous benefactor to Pip, after building a fortune in the Australian colony, and provides an opportunity for Pip to change the course of his life. Pip falls into unrequited love with Estella and fails to embrace what could have been a good relationship with Biddy. These are also actions which have a big impact on the events of the story (eg. Biddy eventually marries Joe instead of Pip). When Miss Havisham fails to help Pip ‘become a Gentleman’ Pip seeks Biddy’s help to become more literate and educated. When Pip gets his money he lacks self-discipline and direction. When Magwitch comes back into Pip’s life, and Pip helps him again, Pip regrets not making more of the opportunity provided to him by Magwitch. When Magwitch dies, Pip finally works hard and makes the most of the opportunity he has. He also solves mysteries about Miss Havisham and Estella’s past, enabling him to attempt to save Miss Havisham’s life and to reconcile with Estella.

      Although Pip’s story is heavily impacted by the actions of characters such as Magwitch, Miss Havisham and Estella, he is also an active participant driving the story. He could have chosen not to help Magwitch in the beginning. He could have chosen not to go to Miss Havisham’s. He could have chosen to respond differently to Estella. He could have chosen to embrace his relationship with Biddy instead of being fixated on Estella. He could have chosen to make more of the opportunity provided by Magwitch. He could have chosen to feel sorry for himself and feel like a failure after Magwitch’s death instead of making something of himself. He could have chosen to be bitter about passing up the opportunity to be with Biddy instead of being happy for her and Joe. He could have chosen not to bother with Miss Havisham and Estella after he got his money from the mysterious benefactor (Magwitch) or again after he made something of himself. Pip actively made lots of choices which impacted the events of the story.

      There are well-regarded novels with a peripheral narrator, such as Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’, but the narrator is generally not considered to be the main character in that case (Captain Ahab is generally considered to be the main character of ‘Moby Dick’).

      March 8, 2015
      • marlish glorie #

        Thanks for the clarification, Steve. And my apologies for the confusion over who wrote the article.

        March 8, 2015
  2. This is a very good point. There’s a big difference between a person who is challenged by a difficult situation and a person who is put upon by a difficult situation.

    I must be one of the only people who found ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ painful but honestly, all the protagonist does is bitch and moan for three hundred odd pages.

    Anyway, thankyou for sharing Michael’s insights. They’re helpful and I’ll keep them in mind.

    March 9, 2015

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