I’ll start this with a disclaimer. I am not a teenage girl and have never been a teenage girl. when I was much, much younger, I dated a couple, but claim no great insight into the mind and passions of the teenage girl, so I can say that my views on the topic I’m about to discuss are biased by that fact. Nothing misogynistic here: I just understand what it’s like being a teen boy more than what it’s like being a teen girl.
Perhaps the most important thing a writer can create is a compelling protagonist. They are (usually) the subject of the story being told and it is by association with them that we see and experience the events the writer wishes to unfold. So, the writer must present to us a character that is someone whom we can understand their motives, that we will applaud (or condemn) their actions and that drives the story forward, usually through their actions. Generally, this person is a hero or heroine, embodying all of the traits we wish to possess and the opportunities we would like to experience.
However, not every protagonist is a hero or innately heroic. Take for instance Dexter from Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Darkly. He’s not traditionally heroic and noble. He is traditionally psychopathic and homicidal. Few of us -we can only hope- can truly understand him on any fundamental level. We can perhaps comprehend his vigilante tendencies, but all type of association or emotional rapport ends there. He’s a monster and few of us want to be monsters. Nonetheless, Dexter is a compelling character and even though we share no commonalities with him, we are still intrigued and affected by him.
So, clearly, not all great protagonists are ‘heroes’, per se. Not all of them have to be. So, with that in mind, I want to discuss two protagonists from series that have had a huge impact on the literary world yet have been portrayed is less than heroic ways. Both inspire millions of readers -for better or worse- yet one is (what I would call) the perfect character, whereas the other is the epitome of an anti-protagonist. Obviously, I am referring to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Stephanie Meyer’s Isabella Swan.
I’m not going to be critiquing either Rowling or Meyer in this post. This is not about whether I think they are good writers or not. Clearly they are popular writers and that speaks to their influence, regardless of my thoughts. My only caveat to that would be that I consider the effect and power of a main character to be a direct reference to the skill of the writer. So, in that respect, I suppose I will be commenting on each writer’s skill in making a good main character.
First, let’s look at Harry Potter. Orphaned at birth by Voldemort -a malevolent and power hungry Dark Wizard- Harry has grown up in the abusive and negligent home of his aunt and uncle, the Dursley’s. When he begins his journey, he is barely 11 and by all accounts a relatively humble and unremarkable wizard, his only claim to fame being that he didn’t die at Voldemort’s hands as a baby. Through the next six years, he finds himself becoming gradually more embroiled in Voldemort’s second rise to power. As such, he often fumbles into dire situations through no desire of his own (but occasionally through his own mistakes or volition) and is usually aided by those wiser and more knowledgeable than he. In the end, the various political and social mechanisms of his world propel him on a quest to defeat the Dark Wizard and essentially save the world from his tyranny. In general, Harry could be described as being herded through life by fate, politics and the tactics of others but rarely by his own hand.
On its face, these books are the tale of a very reluctant hero. Harry rarely seeks the troubles that find him, except through the normal thirst to know and to explore of any young boy. As is mentioned by several of the characters, Harry is not exceptionally intelligent (his friend Hermione is the book-smart character), nor the most world-wise (Ron and Harry’s parade of adult friends fill that role), but he has an abundance of spunk, courage and determination. I think it’s this combination of being an ordinary kid thrust into extraordinary circumstances and coping the best he can that compels us as readers.
Most of us can understand Harry, can put ourselves in his shoes and usually would have done the exact same thing. We see him grow as a person, as a wizard and as a young man. He begins to deal with issues most of us will never have to deal with and should be eternally grateful for not experiencing. What we see is a true ‘hero’s journey’ from impotent child to resolute, self-empowered young man. Harry is the hero most of us could envision having been.
By contrast we have Isabella “Bella” Swan, the ersatz heroine of the Twilight series. Like Harry who inspired and entertained a generation of pre-teens and post-teens (the latter Harry Potter books are dark, brooding adult fare), Bella has become something of an avatar for a legion of swooning emo teenage girls. Isabella is likewise transported from her familiar world into new and discomforting circumstances. Living with her father, she meets a handsome young boy with an affinity for body glitter and a thirst for human blood, specifically her blood. She finds him dreamy; he finds her delicious like a steak.
Thus begins four books of anti-feminist, passive-aggressive character building. At best, Edward – as well as his whole family, plus nearly every other single character she encounters- treats Bella as a prize or a treasure, to be protected and cherished. At worst, she is treated as something to be avoided, a temptation Edward needs avoid, because she is just so delicious smelling. While it could be said that Meyer is trying to (not-so) subtly ramp up the romantic and sexual tension between her two characters, all she really does it rob Bella of any sense of self-worth. Bella’s ego is divorced from her own merits and instead coupled to how much other people cherish and desire her. Bella is an object, be it filigreed egg or filet mignon; she is just something to be coveted or consumed.
The sad thing is that this could have worked to produce wonderful tension and drama, if only Bella was actually a character with any innate sense of depth. She could have rebelled against Edward’s antiquarian and chauvinistic tendencies, been insulted by Jacob Black’s primal lust for her and aghast at his borderline pedophilic love for her daughter. She could have been a smitten girl who was in love with a disco vampire but then transcended her emo nature to become a truly empowered woman.
Instead, she is a caricature of a teenage girl: a fumbling, clumsy, angst-ridden damsel-in-distress. Edward and Jacob are perpetually saving her; from other vampires, from other werewolves, from her own independence and self-actualization, it would seem. She makes decisions, but they rarely seem to be in her own self-interest and are always –ALWAYS– coupled with her longing to be with Edward. She lives her life in these books to be with a man-in-a-boy’s-body who never sees her as a strong, vibrant woman (which she -of course- is not) but often with disdain or with diminution. She’s never an equal, worthy of his eternal love and adoration. She’s always just a beautiful fragile flower who could not possibly protect herself or be trusted to decide her own fate.
And she never disproves this opinion. She is everything he says she is: clumsy, emotionally dependent and immature. While it can and has been said this is a snapshot of the emotional life of teenage girl, the difference is that hopefully the girl becomes a woman. Hopefully she would learn that she doesn’t need a man, even a spangled, statuesque one, to derive self-worth. She can -and should- be a power in her own right, even if mortal and therefore physically fragile. Bella never ‘comes of age’; she never grows as a character; she never takes command of her life and therefore the story. She is simply a living, breathing set-piece; as important as the city of Forks, but not very much more lively. She’s moved around at the whim of others and is pathetic enough to imagine that this is her soul’s desire.
That is where our two protagonists differ. Harry is unwillingly thrust into a destiny that he does not want and cannot handle by himself, yet matures into a man who assumes a measured control of his life and of the fates of those around him. He dies inside as those he loves die and assuming responsibility ceases to be an object in the story evolving around him and becomes the catalyst of it.
Bella on the other hand willingly thrusts herself into a life that she then subsequently relinquishes all control over. She metaphorically jumps into a roaring river and then is content to float down the rapids on her back, relying on those around her to save her from the rocks and the brambles, but never charting her own course. Eventually, the reader is so disgusted by how pathetic and passive she is that we wish she would just float right into the jaws of a bear or an alligator. At least then the crunch would inspire in us a visceral thrill.
I imagine that when you write a book, you want people to empathize with the characters in your story. You are telling a tale about that person (and perhaps those of his or her friends as well) and it’s important that the reader wants to continue hearing about that person and their tale. Failing that, people stop caring about the tale you are telling them. There’s nothing horrible about Stephanie Meyer’s prose. It’s not intricate nor robust, but it’s not intended to be. it’s written for teens and like Rowling, the words and phrases used aimed at that audience. But Harry is such a wonderful character and Bella such a pathetic passive-aggressive that it’s almost painful to plod through Twilight, let alone the other three books, whereas all six years of Harry’s life fly by in a breeze. We thrill to Harry Potter in our hearts because we want to experience all he experiences. We would willingly endure his pains to rejoice in his victories in real life. For Bella: some might get the same emotional and erotic thrill from BDSM fiction. It is not love Meyer is writing about; it’s submission and domination. That might appeal to some people, but there’s nothing heroic about it…