By now, it’s pretty obvious that the days when the fiction shelves were dominated by straight white males are long, long over. Women authors may feel that reviewers review them differently, or literary awards are unfairly distributed, but there’s no question that women authors are more than holding their own in sales in every bookstore fiction section there is. Even better, multi-cultural and marginalized voices are being published as never before.
Name a cultural background, gender identity, disability, or condition and there is a novel the protagonist of which represents that. Homeless? Abused? Foster care? Immigrant? Refugee? Undocumented? Poor? Overweight? Anorexic? Scared? Deformed? Ugly? Dwarfism? Deaf? Mute? Autistic? Asperger’s? Brain damage? Illiterate? Impulse control? Phobias? Depression? OCD? PTSD? Addiction? Suicidal? Terminal illness? MS? Cerebral palsy? Clubfoot? Amputee? Stutter? Narcolepsy? Photo-sensitivity? Shooting survivor? Hate crime? Trans-racial? Prisoner? Ex con? Dead?
Yep, there’s a protagonist for that.
But good as that is, for fiction writers it raises, or ought to raise, a question: Is being represented as protagonist the same as being a hero or heroine? Is “represented” enough? Is it all that’s needed? Don’t all protagonists deserve more? I think they do. All protagonists deserve a promotion. All deserve a place in the pantheon of literary heroes and heroines, but they won’t attain that stature unless fiction writers know how make it happen on the page.
When last I wrote of heroes and heroines in our multi-cultural, inclusive literary era, I suggested that heroism in stories has its basis not in heroic actions, in the traditional sense, but in self-awareness, overcoming self-doubt, hidden goodness, and the ability of a hero or heroine to rise. Those are durable and utile traits, I think. They explain certain craft puzzles. Self-awareness, for instance, explains what makes it okay for us to like dark protagonists.
More recently, though, I’ve come to believe that what makes a hero a hero, or a heroine a heroine, is founded not exactly in what they do, but in what we feel about them. [Read more…]