3 Truly Odd Protagonists & Why We Really Really Like Them

3 Truly Odd Protagonists & Why We Really Really Like Them

This post is about three truly odd protagonists, why they became so popular, and what we can learn from them.

A normal protagonist can be painted with the broadest strokes to appeal to the largest audience. Often, they are written for the very young or the very boring, and sometimes, both of these groups are unable to see that flaws make people interesting.

So, let’s look at these three flawed characters and how they’ve made a space for themselves on the page and in our hearts. Let’s see why we like them and what we, as writers, can learn from them.

Coldwater, Holmes, & Dent: A Tale Of 3 Truly Odd Protagonists

1. Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes - 3 Truly Odd Protagonists

1. Who Is Sherlock Holmes?

Sherlock Holmes is England’s best detective. Introduced by Arthur Conan Doyle in A Study in Scarlet, he is portrayed as one of the most intelligent people in the world, able to make huge leaps of logic to solve his cases from very little information.

2. What Are His Flaws?

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes is the modern archetype of a depressed protagonist.

“An anomaly which often struck me in the character of my friend Sherlock Holmes was that, although in his methods of thought he was the neatest and most methodical of mankind, and although also he affected a certain quiet primness of dress, he was none the less in his personal habits one of the most untidy men that ever drove a fellow-lodger to distraction. Not that I am in the least conventional in that respect myself. The rough-and-tumble work in Afghanistan, coming on the top of a natural Bohemianism of disposition, has made me rather more lax than befits a medical man. But with me there is a limit, and when I find a man who keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece, then I begin to give myself virtuous airs.” ~Watson

In some ways, Sherlock clings to the trappings of the heroic protagonist. He is, for example, the best in his field and defends England from people nobody else is capable of defeating.

His later incarnations play to his flaws and vices as a plot device in themselves, which is what makes him interesting. His dysfunctional relationships with Watson and his brother, and his love-hate relationship with Moriarty, add a depth to his world that the cookie-cutter protagonists of early modern English literature lack.

Traditionally, he would have been depicted as either perfect, or as a lovable rogue. Like a crime noire Dick Tracy type.

3. Why Do We Like Him?

The softening of the edges of Victorian perfection spoke to the class of people just getting by in society.

He was someone with a bit of an addiction, but still useful. Someone who could contribute to society even though he was embarrassing to his high-powered family. This made a certain class of bohemian intellectuals rejoice at a realistic, but absurd depiction of life.

We just call them the middle class today.

Robert Downing Jr.’s depiction of the character comes off as the perfect combination of insanity, addiction, and genius that captures what life feels like to me. Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction plays to a more modern mentally-damaged cliché that people have embraced.

This shows the enduring nature of a hero, who can just about manage to keep it together day to day, as he stands up for the broken, overlooked people. While Sherlock will never be every man’s hero, he fills an important role that has staying power.       

4. What Writers Can Learn From Him

Doyle has shown us that you don’t have to write a boring or perfect hero to write a successful protagonist.

Writing creates a real sense of intimacy with your reader. This in turn builds a relationship that the author can exploit to create more interesting characters and situations that they trust their audience will understand.

For example, Doyle wrote in depth about deductive and inductive reasoning, which are philosophical logic terms.

Traditionally you would expect this to go over the heads of most people and therefore exclude them from reading his books. However, a certain set of readers enjoys a challenge and most readers like being educated by what they are reading.

So, instead of driving people away, it created a subset of people who started trying to work out problems just like Sherlock Holmes. This bonded the reader, author and character in a very personal way which lead to a loyal readership.

Sherlock Holmes is also the perfect example of a protagonist in need of a sidekick. And that sidekick is Watson.

As we can see from the quote above, Watson’s relative normalcy is an aid to writers. It allows Doyle to have Watson ask Holmes questions that the reader would want to ask Holmes. It also allows a normal man, Watson, to reflect on the various things that make Holmes abnormal.

This relationship has allowed modern writers to better adapt new versions of Holmes and Watson, but still make it feel the way it needs to feel to get that strange dynamic just right.

2. Arthur Dent

Arthur Dent - 3 Truly Odd Protagonists

1. Who is Arthur Dent?

Arthur Dent is the “hero” of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

He is an average, late 20th Century Englishman who wakes up one day to find that the government had decided to demolish his house to make room for a highway. Coincidentally, on the same day, the galactic government has decided to demolish Earth to make room for a space highway.

He and his best friend, Ford Prefect, an alien, must hitch a lift off the planet before it explodes.

2. What Are His Flaws?

Arthur’s main flaw is being a background personality.

This makes him a good contrast to the other characters in the book. He is polite and reserved where a traditional protagonist would argue and be forthright.

He fails at crucial times. When a hero would win through grit and passion, Arthur gives up before trying.

3. Why Do We Like Him?

I think Dent is my favourite depiction of a protagonist.

Thrust into adventure against his will, he is terrified at every notion of the completely bonkers nature of the universe and how little it cares for him.

But, he freaks out in a way that I relate to, having been raised in the reserved English style of, “Don’t make a fuss, Christopher. No, not even if he has two heads and has ordered the destruction of the planet.”

The novel nature of a dispassionate, cosmic humour meets the brick wall of confused emotion that is Arthur Dent. He is also on the run from the law together with the President of the Galaxy. And, while dealing with the loss of humanity, he asks his ex-girlfriend out on a date only to find out she’s dating the President.

It is a delightful mess. And you can’t help liking how mundane human problems are when faced with incredible situations.

I love him and hope he has his towel with him wherever he is now. 

4. What Writers Can Learn From Him

What works from a writing perspective is Arthur’s loose interaction with the rest of the plot. He serves as a grounding point so that Douglas Adams can describe the strangeness of his world.

Arthur Dent has to be extremely normal. As James N. Frey, the author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel, writes: ‘Even if he is plain, dull and boring, he’ll be more extraordinary in his plainness, dullness and boringness than his real-life counterparts.’

Quite often, the book goes off on a tangent where Adams builds a piece of the world that might not have any relevance to the plot. For example, he goes on to explain why any society capable of flying instantly around the universe does not need to build anything. Because, if the universe is infinite, then those things already exist in abundance. For example, there must be a planet where mattresses grow on trees, so why make them?

Without Arthur, the abnormal becomes normal.

Arthur’s job as a writing device is to keep the reader in a head space that makes the strangeness of his world funny rather than just an absurdist experimental novel.

In this case, the contrast creates meaning for the reader.

This makes Arthur unique, in that, while he is the main character, his role is not to move the plot forward, but rather to be the foreground against which the plot happens.

For example, Earth being destroyed is a serious matter, but it becomes funny because the only man left alive is an Englishman in his bathrobe, holding a towel, asking polite questions to the aliens who destroyed Earth.

3. Quentin Coldwater

Quentin Coldwater - 3 Truly Odd Protagonists

1. Who is Quentin Coldwater?

Quentin Coldwater is the protagonist of The Magicians by Lev Grossman

He is a clinically-depressed, American version of Harry Potter. But, in contrast to the perfect Potter, Quentin is just average. He is not the chosen one, and besides, being a magician is not special.

He barely even makes it into the magic university, Brakebills, only making the cut as part of a quota.

Lev Grossman’s Coldwater is as exciting as his name suggests.

He, unlike our previous protagonists, is neither interesting nor is he endearing. He’s neither dumb nor a genius. He’s not cool but not pathetic. Not rich or poor. Just boringly average.

2. What Are His Flaws?

He is someone you might forget to invite to a party. He is even someone you might forget exists. So, why does he work as a protagonist?

He’s like the anti-everyman. Someone who is merely average, but not someone you, or anyone, would want to be. He is the kind of character spawned by a generation gradually being assimilated into the internet.

The only thing he has is magic. Without magic, he would be a depressed youth likely to slit his emo writs before his 28th birthday.

But, like we all secretly hope it will for us, the universe throws him a bone. He gets magic and crazily interesting people to be around.

It’s a story of small, slow personal growth punctuated with everyday tragic circumstances, while the fate of the world sometimes hangs in the balance in the background.

3. Why Do We Like Him?

Quentin Coldwater speaks to the people who hate the action in action-adventures. Who love the slow scenes where characters you have come to love have ordinary conversations about the small things that get them out of bed every day.

“Most people are blind to magic. They move through a blank and empty world. They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they die.” ~Dean Fogg

What draws us to this otherwise verdant green wet blanket of a character?

Somehow, it has become my most anticipated TV show of the year and has not ever disappointed.

It hits home with my generation. We seem to exist in a time when the world has been killed by our parents and grandparents, and all we have to look forward to is the slow death of the planet. We are the generation that sees no point in owning a house or having children, because we sincerely don’t see a future worth living in.

To us, the inertia of the death race we find our civilisation facing can only be stopped by magic. So, we look to something other than the logic that has failed us for our escapism.

“We have reached the point where ignorance and neglect are the best we can hope for in a ruler.” ~Lev Grossman, The Magicians

This is the sentiment that rules the current head space of counter-culture fiction. Hopefully, we are wrong about this.  

4. What Writers Can Learn From Him

Quentin shows us that a character can develop over time. He starts out almost as a blank slate who develops into a person you learn to like. By contrast, I loved Eliot the moment I saw him and he continues to be the most interesting character in the book or series.

This is a useful tool for a writer trying to say something about their world and the people in it without distracting readers with a flamboyant protagonist.

Writing a flawed character is an exercise in creating a world they don’t fit into. As such, all these characters are products of our own world and its norms and values.

The most important thing for a writer to bear in mind is that these flawed people work only as long as they continue not to fit in. They may find a group of people who accept them, but it should never be the world at large.

The End

What disappointing stories they would be if Coldwater, Holmes, and Dent were simply stories of strange men becoming slowly more normal and boring.

Contrast allows us to see the world around us. Contrasting your world with your protagonist shows us the truth of what the world is really like.

If you liked this post, read:

  1. 3 Dastardly Different Villains & Why We Love To Hate Them
  2. 3 Super Sidekicks & What They Do For Your Story

TOP TIP: Use our Character Creation Kit to help you create great characters for your stories.

by Christopher Luke Dean (Life is a horrific trek to an eldritch void, reading is our only escape.)

Christopher writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisLukeDean

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. Is Game Of Thrones Worth Your Time?
  2. Mary Sues & Why They Might Make The Best Protagonists
  3. Harry Potter And The Not Very Good Writing
  4. 3 Things Authors Of The Golden Age Of Sci-Fi & Fantasy Did Better
  5. What J. K. Rowling & Other Bestselling Authors Know About Setting

Things to read or watch herein contained:

  1. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  2. Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
  3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

[Top Tip: Learn how to write fantasy. Buy The Fantasy Workbook]

Posted on: 3rd May 2019