Frantic Puppy Protagonists
They’re adorable and you love them, but do they ever do anything useful?
In the summer of 2021, I read a very popular YA fantasy. Very popular — more than 750,000 ratings on Goodreads and more than 12,000 Amazon reviews. It enjoys a 4+ star rating on both sites. It was a few years old, but it was one of those I kept meaning to pick up, so when I finally got around to it, I was pretty excited to read it.
About halfway through, though, I realized the protagonist hadn’t … done anything. She had been kidnapped (more or less) and had watched a lot of terrible things happen. She had shouted her disapproval and tried to escape, but she hadn’t changed the course of events in the book. She was there, she had front-row seats for all the action, but that was it.
This was odd, so I started to really look more closely through the second half of the book. I really wanted to see the moment where all this helplessness turned into action, when her hidden talents leapt out onto centerstage to prove that she was the right person to be at the center of this story.
No such luck.
By the end of the book, the bad guys had triumphed mostly, and the foothold the good guys had was thanks to someone else, not the protagonist. She was a bystander for the whole thing.
She did a lot of stuff. She punched some people, just to be put back in handcuffs. She shouted at people, just for them to not listen to her. She ran away, just to be dragged back. She watched as atrocities happened. She bemoaned the atrocities in her inner dialog.
But none of it mattered.
Big Bang Theory and Indiana Jones
You might be thinking, “That’s crazy talk, there would never be a protagonist in a big-budget book who doesn’t do anything! That’s bush-league stuff!” This concept, though, was memorialized in an episode of The Big Bang Theory, in which Amy points out that Indiana Jones is superfluous to his own movie. This was not the first time someone pointed it out, but it was the first time this fact was put in front of a mainstream audience on a large scale.
And it’s true: Indiana Jones does a lot of stuff in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He shoots, he runs, he jumps on cars, he’s ruggedly handsome and charming, he dodges arrows and slingshots, he gets the girl.