Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Lit: Even More Questions
“What makes a great protagonist in these stories?”
The short answer is that in dystopian/post-apocalyptic stories, generally the protagonist is living within the society; he or she is not an outsider to the situation. This is probably because having to endure such a society gives deeper motivation to a character wanting to dismantle it. But I am sure this precept is broken in some dystopian story somewhere, right?
The long answer?
What makes a good protagonist in any story is also true for dystopia and post-apocalyptic stories. The protagonist needs to want something. Or need something. And we need to want them to get that something.
But. We don’t need to LIKE the protagonist. We don’t need to want to buy her a beer or sit down and play cards with her or want to have his babies or tuck him into bed and sing him a lullabye or whatever. We just need to be FASCINATED when he/she comes on the page.
Let’s go back to The Source of All Things That Matter: The Walking Dead television show.
Let’s take Merle Dixon, as played by Michael Rooker.
Merle Dixon is racist, cruel, impulsive and selfish. He’s a convicted criminal, a drug dealer and addict, and a military veteran. He’s been in juvenile reform institutions and prison and he can cut your throat or kill you without blinking. He also knows his Bible. His mother died when he was a teenager and he was a victim of his father’s physical abuse until he left home. He’s a man built for a lawless world and he’s terrifying in the way that he cottons to physical brutality.
You also cannot take your eyes off him when he comes on screen. He makes you FASCINATE. You’re not sure what he’ll do or say next and that is why he is such a great character.
Now, Merle’s not the protagonist in The Walking Dead, but he’s got everything you want in a protagonist. Some people might argue that your main character should be someone who elicits sympathy and empathy from the reader. But I maintain that while I don’t want to cuddle up with Merle Dixon, I do have sympathy for him. He is broken and unable to connect and I felt for him, being so far gone that he cannot find his way back. You get the sense he wants to fix himself, that he wants to be close to his brother. You can see that he knows it’ll be a long route to becoming a man of honor and he’s never been a man with the patience for such things. You know he feels hopeless and beyond redemption; you know it but you still want to see him teeter on the edge of doing the moral thing.
The notion of honor is also worth noting when we’re talking about dystopian or post-apocalyptic protagonists. There is a streak of idealism and impracticality that runs through the heroes and heroines of these stories and the reason for this is fairly obvious: of course it’s more level-headed to conform and go along with the way things are than the try to foment revolution and smash the state.
Idealism is a luxury that is not often present in the suppressive and hand-to-mouth existences found in these stories; this kind of thinking marks the hero/heroine as a kind of unicorn, someone who will pull the sword from the stone and fix things for the better. You could see Merle Dixon as a kind reluctant hero, then, or at least a hero who is “refusing the call” to fight for Good, or being blind to the injustice, due to ignorance or fear, perhaps.
Merle Dixon also is the Governor’s top man when it comes to dirty work. Merle can see the Governor is a piece of shit of a human being, but he doesn’t just fly in his face and kill him in defiance. He recognizes the power and charisma of the Governor; he sees himself in the Governor and knows what he’s dealing with. Instead of disobeying him, he bides his time, continues with his mission, continues doing what the Governor asks. Because the Governor asks him to be violent and cruel and Merle excels at both of those things. And Merle owes him a debt, too; when the Governor found Merle, handless and near death, he took Merle in and gave him aid. This is a stew of complications and conflicting desires and this is what we want to cook our protagonists’ stories in.
Okay, now I am done babbling about that; I have another post on Fiction Lessons from The Walking Dead on Teen Librarian Toolbox, if you enjoy such things. I could clearly talk about The Walking Dead all day. But that is what Twitter is for, right?