The Lowly Protagonist



As is wont to happen, an idea for a new story floated through my head the other day. In my defense, at least this one is related to the Griffins & Gunpowder Universe. I haven’t decided if I’m going to make this concept into a series of short stories, weave it in with one of the other planned storylines set on Zaria, or turn it into a full-fledged series of novel.

The main body of the idea was easy enough, but when I got to my protagonist, I realized something: my main character was going to be different than every other Protag I have ever created. My MC is going to be a lowly soldier.

It was then that I realized that this is a common theme in both the Sci-Fi and Fantasy that I’ve read. So maybe I’m just not well read enough, but a lot of main characters are not lowly soldiers. The closest a great deal of MCs get is to be a lower ranked officer.

There are a lot of sub-genres of Sci-Fi and Fantasy that really don’t have this problem, but military themed fantasy definitely does. The closest that a lot of the stories I have read comes to having a “lowly” protagonist is a lower-ranked officer.

So why is it so rare to have a private, or even a corporal, as a protagonist in a story. What challenges does this create? Are there any advantages to have a “grunt” as an MC?

One of the biggest problems that you run into when you write an MC as a lowly soldier is that the character has very little initiative in their activities and no control of their setting. If your story is centered around a conflict, your Main Character is going to spend most of his/her time marching/camping/digging trenches and then there’s the occasional battle. Unless you add in some personal drama, you’re going to run into the problem of having a rather boring.

Another problem is that if you limit yourself to a single character, you’re going to have a limited strategic account of the rest of the campaign. Depending on your setting, news could still be conveyed by general announcements, newspapers, or good-old-scuttlebutt, but you’re not going to be able to convey an accurate picture of the campaign without breaking some rules.

On the other hand, there are some advantages to having a protagonist that doesn’t have as much control.

You can increase the amount of tension with a lowly soldier. The character isn’t going to know what’s going on with the rest of the campaign, they’ll be nervous as they march into battle.

I think that the reason that so few writers have lowly main characters is because it’s a more difficult approach to writing, especially military fiction. Of course, I could just need to read more =D

About Joshua K Johnson

Josh is the author of The Cerberus Rebellion and The Hydra Offensive, Gunpowder Fantasy novels set in the Griffins & Gunpowder universe. He is currently working on a new novel set in the same world as well as The Centaur Incursion, Book 3 in the Ansgari Rebellion Series and Loyalty Betrayed, Book 1 in the Liberty Forged Series. He currently works full-time and has an 8-year old and a 4-year old to keep him busy.

Posted on August 6, 2013, in writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I have to agree with your analysis that the foot soldier or the grunt is severely under represented in the fantasy genre. I think that stems from the idea that reading about unimportant people just “isn’t interesting”, and its so much more gripping to read (and write) about generals and princes… They’re the ones, it seems, who get the death-or-glory charges and valiant defences and famous last stands. The grunts are just cannon fodder to rush in and get mowed down or hacked apart by the real heroes.

    To be honest, I think that concept of ‘hero’ is partly to blame for that. Doesn’t a King or Knight or whatever in their shining armour look far more heroic than some corporal trudging through the mud in worn-through boots? How ‘epic’ a charge can you have if your MC isn’t even on a big white warhorse? Tropes like that have a huge impact on fantasy, and they are – in my opinion – to blame.

    Of course, outside the fantasy genre there are a lot of works where the MC is in fact a lowly soldier… But there’s something you have to bear in mind about them. Off the top of my head, the first that I think of are “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “The Red Badge of Courage”, “Birdsong” and “The Sebastopol Sketches”. Now, if we look at all those works in a line, some of them are vastly different in subject matter and time period (American Civil War through to WWI) but one major thing they have in common is that they are all ultimately about the disillusionment and destruction and horrors of war, as opposed to the glorious, idealised image we get from the likes of “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Lord of the Rings”.

    So, I submit to you the notion that works focusing on the lowly soldier, in which much of the MC’s activity will focus on polishing boots, digging and sitting in trenches, camping, marching and occasionally running for their life, are inevitably going to be very different thematically than a work focusing on the idealised life of someone important… And the themes pushed by the former are not highly popular (or at least not well represented) in fantasy.

    That’s my take on it, anyway. In “Under a Burning Sky” I’ve been working on one plotline which is focused on a relatively low-ranking ‘private’ equivalent, and trying to develop the themes mentioned above – disillusionment, unease, horror… I suppose we shall see how the fantasy community receives such a work.

    • I think you’re right about the “Hero” complex being a major driving factor. A lowly soldier is rarely the armored knight riding to the rescue of the princess. Except for when the MC is a plumber 😉

      I may need to reconsider my idea for this new story, if only to include some more of the grinding/boring aspects of campaign life. Try to merge some of the ideas that you mentioned…

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