My first thought was a direct quote of a Will Wildman comment posted earlier that day: "Good lord, I've been quoted." Then I took a moment to marinate in the irony of me quoting a shocked-to-be-quoted quote. I confess: I take my ironies wherever I can get them.
Once I clambered down from all this meta-ness, I read the blog post in question. My next thoughts were, roughly: "Wow, this is really good," and "Holy Cheetos, she has a really great point. Whoops."
To summarize: Caleigh Minshall read my Curse of the Smart Girl post and eloquently noted that, in focusing as intently as I did on Faux Action Girls who steadfastly insist on "bring[ing] a knife or a bow to what is clearly a sword fight", I might accidentally give the impression to a reader (a) that female protagonists should be uber-warriors even when it doesn't fit with their characterization and (b) that protagonists who aren't warriors are therefore less useful than those who are.
Caleigh has a great point and all I can offer in explanation for how that particular perspective-slip happened is that this is the sort of mistake I make when I've been reading nothing but Percy Jackson books for days and writing Percy Jackson fanfic in my head for most of my waking moments. (This is the ride through my head, people, I hope you enjoy it.) In all seriousness, I think Caleigh hits firmly on the head of something that needs to be said more: we need weaker protagonists in modern fiction. Weaker men, weaker women, weaker small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.
I recently re-read (via audiobook) "Lies My Teacher Told Me". (If you haven't read it, it's an incredible book on American history and I recommend it highly.) James Loewen lays out history-as-it-happened in several major portions of American history that are usually not taught accurately in United States history classes, and the result is incredibly fascinating and somewhat depressing at the same time -- not so much because the history itself is sad, but because it's depressing to realize that there is this huge institution dedicated to "protecting" children from the truth.
Loewen lays out a very strong case that the warping of history frequently starts with hero worship: We can't teach that "give me liberty or give me death" Patrick Henry owned slaves because it would create a more complex, and less worshipful, picture of Patrick Henry than the textbooks want to convey. We can't teach the My Lai massacres because the students might take away a view that not every U.S. soldier has always acted with honor, compassion, and integrity in wartime. History takes a backseat in the censor's mind to building up the perfection of the hero on display: Patrick Henry, and the United States as a whole must be portrayed as always strong, always right, always improving over time, always becoming more and more perfect.
Reading Caleigh's post made me realize that in many ways modern literature mirrors this concept of hero worship. I mentioned in "The Curse of the Smart Girl" that we never really question why the Hero must always win:
We don't notice as a culture that the Smart Girl never really saves the day, and never really uses her "smarts" in a useful way, because we instinctively understand that the Hero must save the day instead. It's not that the Smart Girl is dumb, the tropers will insist, it's that she's handicapped by the demands of the plot; it's not that she's not a Strong Female Character, it's just that she's not the Hero. It's not the Hero's fault that he always wins, right? And yet we never really question why the male Hero "must" save the day each and every time.But I think that can be taken a few different ways. One obvious way is that sometimes the Hero can lose: the Villain can win, or neither party can have a clear advantage in the situation. Another way is that the Hero can be upstaged by a support character: the Smart Girl can save his life a time or two, or the Beta Male can swoop in for a few key victories. This situation may generate contempt from the reader, though, if the situation is clearly tailored to highlight the Hero's weaknesses and the Supporting Character's strengths, or if the situation seems artificially created to ensure that each team member is equally useful.
Another way to cut through the hero worship trend is to work towards Caleigh's excellent vision:
Why can’t intelligence, peace-keeping and a supportive or care-taking personality be heroic? Why do we assume strength in battle and a forceful personality(/pluckiness) are the most important qualities in a hero? Can someone be equally heroic without those qualities?I think a very real question here is whether or not we can even have non-violent, physically-weak, or otherwise unusual heroes in fiction. If most fiction is about conflict and if much of that fictional conflict is physical, wouldn't a physically-weak hero be impossible for an author to write? I don't think so.
I’d like to read about quiet heroes, lonely heroes, heroes who believe in compromise, non-violent and pacifist heroes, care-taker heroes, physically weak heroes, cautious heroes, female heroes* and male heroes. I do realize that there are already many books that feature unconventional heroes — but in my experience the norm does still lean towards strength, charisma, power, etc. I’m not sure that norm is a good thing. Our world needs all sorts of people, and if all we had were people who liked to lead and fight, we would never get anything done.
Back when I was writing Star Wars fanfic in college (and that is officially the geekiest thing I've said this week), I deliberately created a female jedi with bad back problems. She was most certainly an author-insert character given my own struggles with scoliosis, but she was fun to write and I think she was refreshing to read in a world of otherwise extremely powerful warriors and magic users.
I'd like to see Caleigh's vision come to fruition. I'd like more books with fewer "designated heroes" and more groups of interesting, complicated, and not always very strong characters working towards their common goals. I'd like to see more fictional characters who are nurturing, or intelligent, or shy without that one characteristic becoming the sole defining trait for their personality.
In short, let's have weaker protagonists in literature, ones who live with, accept, or embrace their weaknesses and who don't magically overcome it by the end of the novel. It might make for less fantasy fulfillment, but I think it would make for more nuanced novels overall.