Friday, August 31, 2012

Most over-used protagonists in today's novel - part two

I'd like to start this post in an unusual way - with a quote, from a comment, from my previous post:

"Curious what your next over-used protagonist will be! Please make it Kickass Fearless Girl. Because she doesn't exist."

Kiersi, I couldn't agree more.  At first I thought, "hmmm...who is a truly, Kick Ass, FEARLESS girl?  She has to be a teenager.  Teenagers are afraid of nothing, because they have yet to comprehend their own mortalities and the mortalities of those around them - and anyway, they wish most of the people around them dead."

But then I had a quick conversation with a real, live teenager, and quickly remembered the truth: they harbor even more fears than the rest of us.  What if I get a zit on prom night?  What if I get an erection (or my period, as the gender may be...) during gym class?  What if that bully calls me a name and everyone laughs at me?

So I'm back to drawing a blank on the real existence of Kickass Fearless Girl.  Show me someone who is really fearless, and I'll show you a damn good liar.

But there is another protagonist who trumps even Kickass Fearless Girl on my over-used list, and who is even more non-existent: The 22-year-old, Female, Supermodel, Head of [name your department] at [name your world-famous hospital or research institute].

This girl seems to be everywhere in fiction.  I understand that it's almost law in modern literature that the protagonist must be young and beautiful (although I also believe in rebelling against the laws of literature.)  But that said, there's a serious credibility issue with this particular woman.

Let's start with some perspective:

A female scientist friend of mine is 38.  She considers herself fairly successful, as evidenced by the fact that many of her peers on the same pay grade are at least ten years older than she is.  But she's still three levels below the head of the department.  She works out of a cube, not an office, and the business end of a desk in an ocean view corner space is something she will probably never see in her lifetime.

Real Female Scientist spent twenty two years in school before getting her first job.  Surprisingly, that job was NOT Head of Anything, Anywhere.  It was a post-doctoral fellowship that earned her something below the wages of your average plumber.  While attending those twenty two years of school, she also worked two or three jobs at a time.  She spent the income from those jobs on rent, food and books - and not a nickel went to skin care, hair care, or designer clothes.  She pulled all-nighters, made it to class, took the tests, and excelled on them without a second thought as to what her nails were doing at the moment.

So while she might have once been quite a biscuit, Real Female Scientist now wears thick glasses because her eyes have gone bye-bye from peering through microscopes for a couple of decades.  Her forehead is permanently wrinkled with that "deep in thought" look.  She has bags under her eyes.  And her hands, following years of donning, removing, donning, removing, donning, removing and donning latex gloves - while being scrubbed ferociously in between each pair - look like the hands of an old woman.

Real Female Scientist chose decades ago to prioritize her career over her looks, and it shows.  But to the real Head of Cardiology, my friend is still a biscuit.  Because the real Head of Cardiology is a 65 year old man with bad, gray combover, Coke bottle glasses, and absolutely no social graces to speak of.  But he is a genius.  Their story can make for some great fiction.  Or better yet, some great non-fiction.

The young and beautiful Head Scientist is a myth.  Perhaps even more so than Kickass Fearless Girl.  If you want to write a book, or make a movie, about her, that's fine.  We write all kinds of fiction about fictional creatures.  But if you want a realistic Head Scientist for your protagonist, Google Image Search "Nobel Laureate" - and then try not to get distracted by making a drinking game out of the combovers and Coke bottle lenses.

Now, Kickass Middle Aged Woman Who Can Compartmentalize Her Fears And Still Whip Ass On The Bad Guy - she is my hero.


  1. My other favorite non-existant in real life, over-used protagonist is the starving artist/student with the $3000/month NYC loft and no rich parents.

  2. There's also the 30YO colonel in any branch of the U.S. military, the omniscient forensic pathologist, and the supermodel cop. You could make this series last forever.