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#38: The Protagonist Trap
Brian Evenson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alyssa Songsiridej, Danya Kukafka, Annie Ernaux.
It’s Week Four of my semester here at Arizona State, which is about the time things usually start to settle into its usual rhythms. But this semester has felt a bit different, as I’ve been working on launching the new ASU Worldbuilding Initiative, a student-focused but public-facing series of workshops and events themed around encouraging inventive ways of imagining new and better futures for ourselves and our communities. This new project emerged out of the Worldbuilding for Science Fiction and Fantasy class I’ve been teaching for the past few years, and I’m excited to discover how that class’s principles can engage and encourage a wider audience.
The Worldbuilding Initiative programming will begin with four free workshops, starting 2/17, on “Constructed Languages, Box-Words, and Neologisms”; “Sports and Games: Modeling Reality through Play”; “Stories About Artificial Intelligence vs. Stories by Artificial Intelligence”; and “Democracy, Consensus, and Communal Problem Solving.” We’ll finish the semester with a special guest lecture and Q&A, which I’m excited to say more about as soon we finalize the details.
If you’d like to learn more about the Worldbuilding Initiative—or to join us at one of our events, all of which are free and open to the public, in person and online—please visit us online at ASU’s Lincoln Center for Apples Ethics. I’d love to have you in our virtual audience for any of the workshops you think you might enjoy!
As always, I hope your writing is going well, and that you and yours are happy and healthy. Be safe, be kind, and have fun with your reading and writing!
What I’m Reading:
Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka. This was the best crime novel I've read in ages, detailing the last hours of a convicted serial killer through the lives of the women most affected by his life and his crimes. I’ve been looking for more crime novels that privilege the perspective of victims over those of criminals, and Kufafka’s is an excellent addition to that canon. “A fleeting instant between action and inaction. Doing something, or not. Where is the difference, you wonder? Where is the choice. Where is the line, between stillness and motion?”
Getting Lost by Annie Ernaux. I hadn’t read Ernaux before her Nobel Prize win this year, but I’m so glad I’ve finally started. I loved her Simple Passion, and while I’m still in the middle of Getting Lost, I’m loving it too. More than anything else, Ernaux’s close attention to her own desire has left me captivated: “I have too much time to think of passion, that is my misfortune. No absolutely mandatory tasks are imposed on me from outside. Freedom makes me prone to passion, so very occupying.”
#38: The Protagonist Trap
One of the complaints I sometimes hear about certain novels—a complaint that has only become more frequent in the social media age—comes after a protagonist professes to believe something the reader disagrees with, or voices a problematic opinion, or takes an action the reader believes is immoral. It’s an understandable response, at least some of the time: even the most open-minded reader will sometimes finding a protagonist morally lacking. But is this response really related to some flaw with the book, or is something more interesting happening?
Assuming the novelist is writing in good faith, what accounts for the feelings readers sometimes express when a character demonstrates some perceived moral lack? It is possible that their anger or frustration or dismay or other expression of moral angst is actually the point? What’s happening here, at the level of craft, to make the moments powerfully affecting?
It’s my belief that sometimes the emotions that arise in these moments aren’t really about the protagonist’s moral lapse (which is also not necessarily the author’s, a fact that’s lost on certain readers), but about something that’s become exposed in the reader’s own moral code: a complicity, an inconsistency, a flaw. I believe that in the best books of this kind, the writer works to actively encourage this happening, not to be frustrating to the reader but to offer them richer ambiguities and an unfolding moral awareness.
One way to make this possible is to skillfully set what I think of as the protagonist trap. As readers, we have been conditioned to cheer for the protagonist, hoping that they will achieve their goals, no matter what they are. In my aforementioned heist movies, we might cheerfully watch bank robbers prepare to steal millions of dollars for no reason other than greed. In a story about a famous assassin, we cheer their murders, which may or may not be justified by understandable moral outrage. Elsewhere, we watch characters try to get away with embezzling from their workplace or maintaining a secret family or taking some other action most of us wouldn’t take in real life—or that we believe we wouldn’t.
How this works is that more than anything else, we usually want the protagonist to succeed, no matter what their goals are: once we’re in, we’re in. We follow our main character step by step through the complications and reversals of their journey. When they achieve their aims, we celebrate alongside them, even when their aim is morally suspect. This tendency for the reader to choose to share the protagonist’s wants is part of what gives every story its stakes—but this tendency can, in the hands of a canny writer, also be turned back against the reader.
To begin with an extreme case, let’s consider Brian Evenson’s novel Last Days, which I’ve written about in other editions of this newsletter. Last Days concerns a amputee detective named Kline, who before the novel begins loses one of his hands while apprehending a serial killer. (Kline self-cauterizes his own stump on a hot plate, a grisly fact that comes up often in the novel.) Pressed into solving a supposed murder in a mutilation cult—the more amputations you’ve had, the higher you rise in the cult—Kline falls down a rabbit hole of ever more violent interactions between himself, the cult members, and the members of a rival sect devoted to similar ideas. Many people attempt to kill Kline; Kline kills many of them in return. This violence takes a toll: By page 48, Kline is “having a hard time even remembering that he was human.” By 141, he’s making deals with himself to hold onto what’s left: “If I only use one clip, I can still come out of this human.” A page later: “Three dead. But four bullets. Still human.” Another page and he’s out of bullets—but he picks up the weapon of a man he’s killed and restarts the clock: “Six bullets left. Still human.” Soon another character calls him out on it: “Still pretending to be human, are we?” Kline kills this man too—but agrees with him that he is, in fact, only pretending.
At the beginning of the novel’s final section, Kline is still doing the math:
How do you know the moment when you cease to be human? Is it the moment when you decide to carry a head before you by its hair, extended before you like a lantern, as if you are Diogenes in search of one just man? Or is it the moment when reality, previously a smooth surface one slides one’s way along, begins to come in waves, for a moment altogether too much and then utterly absent? Or is it the moment when you begin opening doors, showing each man behind each door the head of his spiritual leader before killing him with the cleaver tucked into your belt? Or is it the moment when all these dead begin to talk to you in a dull, rumbling murmur? Or is it the moment when these same voices suddenly fade away and stop talking altogether, leaving you utterly alone?
I am remarkably calm, thought Kline, moving from room to room. I am doing remarkably well, he thought, considering.
Now, a more moral person than me might’ve abandoned Kline to his impending inhumanity long before I did. But the first time I read Last Days, the very late passage above was the point where I finally thought, Maybe I shouldn’t be cheering for Kline to murder all these people, even if they are members of a violent mutilation cult that has definitely murdered other people before, and would murder him if given the chance. By the point of the block quote above, Kline has been telling me his actions are costing him his humanity for over 100 pages—but up to then I’d continued to hope he “wins.”It’s only here, when Kline made it as obvious as possible that there is a point of no return, that I flinched.
If there is a moral failing present in Last Days, is it with Kline or Evenson or me?
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, our protagonist is Genly Ai, First Envoy of the Ekumen, a spacefaring eutopian culture made of eighty-plus worlds hoping to bring Gethen, the wintery planet where the novel is set, into the fold. Gethen’s people are ambisexual, taking on what Le Guin identifies as male and female genders only during kemmer, a short period of sexual fertility which occurs every 26 days. The rest of the time, they are physically sexless—but Genly still genders every person he meets, according to his own preconceptions. He calls them all by the he pronoun, although they are not in any other way he; he thinks of the Gethenian who runs his housing complex as his “landlady,” although again the landlady is only female-presenting, not actually female:
He was the superintendent of my island; I thought of him as my landlady, for he had fat buttocks that wagged as he walked, and a soft fat face, and a prying, spying, ignoble, kindly nature. He was good to me, and also showed my room while I was out to thrill-seekers for a small fee: See the Mysterious Envoy's room! He was so feminine in looks and manner that I once asked him how many children he had. He looked glum. He had never borne any. He had, however, sired four. It was one of the little jolts I was always getting. Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphroditic neuters.
Genly, despite coming from a supposedly enlightened society, harbors a host of unexamined misogynist viewpoints and attitudes: throughout the novel, he takes offense at what he perceives as the feminine traits of others, be it their voices, their mannerisms, or their actions. By the midpoint of the book, some of my students (and a writer friend or two who read the book at my urging) were enraged by Genly’s misogyny to the point of not wanting to go on—but I like to believe Le Guin knew exactly what reactions she might provoke by her design of Genly’s worldview.
If Genly was a more perfect feminist—something he could only truly be in the Ekumen, because before Genly’s arrival there was no feminism on Gethen, as there was no misogyny —the book might be less impactful. Without Genly’s flawed thinking, The Left Hand of Darkness might do less to expose the reader’s own potentially problematic ideas about gender and sex; I believe that it’s our affection for Genly as our protagonist, whose goals we’ve made our own, that makes his misogyny so offensive. Once we’ve chosen to identify with him, after all, might we not also feel complicit in his wrongheaded thoughts, which he so stubbornly fails to see?
Again, it is in the growing gap between the protagonist and the reader where the most interesting moral activity occurs.
In Alyssa Songsiridej’s Little Rabbit, our first-person protagonist’s name is never revealed, although she’s called Little Rabbit by the choreographer who becomes her love interest. In a novel about control and power, this is the first submission: in her own first-person account, Rabbit goes only by the name the choreographer gives her. Rabbit is a young bisexual fiction writer who’s published one small press book described as a “fragmentary hallucination” that takes place “in a Central PA town haunted from below by demon-ghosts that were also, somehow, capitalism”; the choreographer is older, divorced, well-off and firmly into his mid-career success. As Rabbit reports: “I still stood at the beginning of my professional life while he lounged accomplished on the other side. I was emerging, a gerund, and he stood established, a state, all action in the past tense.”
Rabbit’s roommate Annie is a writer too, also slightly farther along in her career than Rabbit. When Rabbit reveals her first tryst with the choreographer, Annie replies, “A him? A cis him? I can’t remember the last time you slept with a man.” For a variety of reasons, Rabbit becomes increasingly reluctant to submit her relationship with the choreographer to Annie’s scrutiny, a choice that at first likely gains the reader’s sympathy: who is Annie to tell Rabbit who she can and can’t sleep with, or to judge her for her romantic or sexual desires?
As Songsiridej’s novel unfolds, Rabbit and the choreographer’s relationship grows stronger, but the power imbalance widens too. Their sex includes escalating acts of seemingly consensual BDSM, sex that only occasional brings an objection from Rabbit, most notably in an early scene in which the choreographer’s jealousy over a woman Rabbit showed interest leaves Rabbit feeling that “for the first time I felt he wasn’t fucking me but a near approximation, pounding hard into my body.” But if Rabbit believes she can influence their power relationship in the bedroom, it remains true they outside the choreographer has so much other power that Rabbit lacks, including that derived from his money, career success, and connections, the latter of which he uses to send her work to an agent without her consent.
The operative phrase “without consent” comes from Annie too: Annie is the voice in the novel who most consistently pushes back against Rabbit’s relationship with the choreographer. Again, I often found myself resenting Annie’s intrusions and questions: wasn’t Rabbit capable of choosing what she wanted for herself? And of course she is. No matter others say or how they try to dissuade her, Rabbit persists in her decisions: “How I was perceived mattered, this was true. But it wasn’t all of me. Beneath the surface lived something large and uncontained. No matter what I said, what play I took part in, no one had that. Not the choreographer. Not Annie.”
How I was perceived mattered. Like Annie, the reader may perceive and sympathize with and finally judge Rabbit, maybe even coming to believe they know something about this “something large and uncontained” within her: after all, haven’t we been reading her in the first-person, listening to her tell her own story? But a reader—this reader, at least—might increasingly wonder how much of that “something large and uncontained” gets lost or bounded or controlled by the choreographer, who has so much more power than Rabbit does, in almost every sphere of their shared lives: in most ways, they are not equals, and the more the choreographer does for Rabbit’s career, the stronger their imbalance becomes. It’s in the gap between what I think Rabbit should do or feel and what Songsiridej tells me Rabbit does that the novel’s ending comes most alive—but my agreement or disagreement perhaps reveals more about me than it does about Songsiridej or her protagonist.
One final example, from my own work: In my novel Scrapper, the protagonist Kelly commits an act of violence late in the book that makes sense inside Kelly’s admittedly strained moral code: it is the best choice he can imagine out of a selection of bad choices. But the novel abandons Kelly’s righteousness in the middle of the act: he loses the novel’s support—he loses my support, if we can dispense with the euphemism of the novel as sentient entity—at the exact point of no return. Kelly completes the act, but with the novel’s approval withdrawn; ideally, this pulling away leaves behind a space for the reader to consider their own complicity in Kelly’s story: is this brutal act of violence what they wanted him to do to protect the people in his care? Is this who they’d imagined he’d become, when they set down his path beside him? If not this, then what? What else might Kelly have chosen? What would the reader do instead, in his place?
From those questions emerges the moral world of the novel, a morality that ultimately lives best not in the book itself but in the mind and heart of the attentive reader of good faith—and isn’t that the reader we all want to be writing for?
Your exercise this month is to identify a place in a story or novel chapter of your own where your protagonist is making a moral decision that you’d like to also strongly affect the reader. Once you’ve found it, ask yourself a few questions, using your answers to strengthen the effect of the “protagonist trap” in your story:
How have you invited the reader to sympathize or empathize with the protagonist? Where are the likely points of strongest connection between the reader and your character?
Once you’ve identified these points of connection, how can you put stress on them in the moment of highest moral or emotional action that you’ve identified?
Is there a repeated device or character serving as the novel’s “conscience” or as a counterpoint to the protagonist’s stated desires? (For example: the repetition of “still human” in Last Days or Annie in Little Rabbit.) How can this device/character be made to better serve in setting the parameters of the novel’s moral argument?
Good luck! I’ll see you next month!
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Matt Bell’s novel Appleseed (a New York Times Notable book) was published by HarperCollins in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, is out now from Soho Press. He’s also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.