When the Hero is not the Protagonist

Disney's Peter Pan

Disney’s Peter Pan

My preschooler has moved back to watching Disney’s Peter Pan this week. Seeing it again (and again and again…) reminded me of something I had noticed during her last obsession with it. Specifically, I noted that Peter Pan was the hero, but was not the protagonist.

Wendy is the protagonist.

Sure, Peter Pan is who the show is about—and he certainly has many heroic adventures! But Wendy is the character who changes through the course of the story, and it is through her lens that we view the story.

In my understanding, the hero of any story is who the story is about, while the protagonist is the character who changes and whose POV we use to understand the story. In the vast majority of stories, this is the same person. But in some, as in Peter Pan, they are two distinct people.

What are the benefits of splitting these functions?

  1. Emotional anchor

When your hero doesn’t change, or is so different from the reader that the reader cannot relate to them, a separate protagonist can serve as an emotional anchor. Wendy is a typical young girl, and the viewers can latch on to her during this wild ride with a boy who never grows up and whose emotional reactions are either lacking or not what most people would feel.

  1. Point of View

A separate protagonist provides a lens through which to see the hero. Peter does not have the emotional maturity to view life as anything but an adventure. Had we been locked into his view of life, the view would have been much sound and fury signifying nothing. Wendy’s viewpoint provides us with a different angle, where we can see the often frightening events in Neverland, and also see the value of friendship and family—things Peter does not value.

  1. Acceptance of over-the-top heroes and actions

Finally, a separate protagonist gives us distance. We come to an unbelievable world and character with Wendy, who is a stranger in a strange land as well. Through her acceptance of Peter Pan and Neverland as real, we are able to suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in the adventure.

A careful watching of Peter Pan shows clearly that Wendy is our anchor. The story begins and ends with her, it follows her change, and the Disney version even hints that perhaps all the unbelievable adventure was simply a dream (the stage play does not leave this ambiguous, as the Lost Boys come home with the Darling children). Wendy is the emotional and moral compass of the show, while Peter Pan provides the swashbuckles and pixie dust.

What other stories use this split function device? Can you think of any more benefits when the hero is not the protagonist? Have you ever used it?

Voices in the Wilderness: Why Writing Matters

I wrote this post before the attack on Charlie Hedbo. In light of the events in Paris, I think reflecting on the deeper purpose of writing is more relevant than ever.

We’re all creatives here, so I know this has happened to you: two completely unrelated topics slam together in your head and create a thought that makes you go “hmm.”

Topic #1: A writer friend lamented that many writers’ conferences seemed to feature marketing over craft these days. Personally, I feel that this will rectify itself after this wave of writers who were unfamiliar with marketing ages out and a new group of writers who “grew up” with marketing doesn’t need as much guidance. But there is a definite shift away not only from craft, but often from the purpose behind our writing.

Topic #2: So many scary and violent and crazy things happening in the world. Sometimes I despair of the world I am leaving for my young child. My husband and I discussed the helplessness most average citizens feel, and how powerless most people feel to change things. How many people long for a hero they can rally behind.

Thought: Maybe if we writers reclaim our purpose we will find that we are the heroes we have been waiting for.

Every writer writes because we have something to say. In fiction, obviously, we never want to be preachy or didactic, but we all have something to say. Even those who would say they only write to entertain have a specific worldview, a specific set of values, that permeate their work even if they don’t intend it.

Writers have a long history of being the voices in the wilderness—the ones who speak out against injustice or warn of dangers in the world. Thomas Paine rallied a new nation, Rachel Carson called out an industry poisoning our world, and George Orwell sounded the alarm against a dystopian future, just to name a few.

We live in a world where we are increasingly unable to talk to each other. Forgetting international tensions, the ability to talk about almost any subject without it devolving into an insult-laden screaming match is a lost art in America. Both sides cannot even hear each other, let alone consider a point of view different from their own.

But fiction writers are in the unique position of being between the two sides. We don’t argue—we present a story. A story of a person who may or may not be like the reader in their views, in their lives. This character takes a journey, and the reader goes with them.

The reader learns what the character learns. The reader gets to see a different perspective without being berated or told they are wrong. The reader gets to see what life is like for a person or community they have no experience with. They are presented with information, then left to make up their own minds about what to do with that information. There are studies that show fiction readers grow in empathy the more they read. In other words, reading opens readers’ minds and hearts to people and ideas outside themselves.

So it occurred to me that we writers might be the heroes this world needs to begin hearing each other again. To begin to realize that our differences are largely manufactured for political reasons. To realize the basic humanity in the “other.”

Perhaps one writer will change the world. Perhaps it will be our collective voices that change the future. But one thing is certain: we all have something to say that people need to hear. We have a reason for writing. We have a purpose.

We are the voices in the wilderness.

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Fallen Heroes

Twenty-five years ago today, the seven Challenger astronauts lost their lives in the pursuit of knowledge. Other people, like Martin Luther King, Jr., have given their lives standing for principles and speaking for the oppressed. Still others give their lives protecting other people—our police, firefighters, and military. These people, and others like them, are undeniably heroes. But in every person’s life, there are personal, private heroes—people who profoundly influenced their lives. My best friend Donna was one such person.

Donna made me laugh. She was just funny. We would laugh until we cried, until we could barely breathe. It wasn’t that she told a good joke—it was never anything I could explain to people and make them laugh, too. It was how she said what she said, and the timing with which she delivered her skewering deadpan sarcasm. I miss the laughter.

Donna could talk with the best of them (I have phone bills to prove it), but she could also listen. One of her gifts was to make you feel like you were the most important person to her at that moment. She could be hosting a party (something she did often), but when she spoke to you, you had her full attention. When it was just us alone, we could talk about anything—she never judged, never made me feel like my opinion or beliefs were irrelevant. She heard what I really meant, even if I couldn’t find the right words, and she always responded from her heart—a heart that was more generous than I can fathom.

Donna was a writer, and we grew as writers together. Would I have been a writer without her in my life? Certainly. I wrote before I ever met her. But I would not have come as far in my craft as fast as I did without her support and her passion. As many writers know, having a community of writing friends can rekindle the flame when you hit a rough patch. The solidarity of having a best friend who understood completely and shared the excitement of finding just the right word, or finishing a chapter, or hitting upon the perfect title was a tremendous boon.

Donna taught me how to be a true friend. Her loyalty was fierce. She never gave up on a friend and she never walked away from a friend in need. If she was your friend, it was for life. She put her friends ahead of herself. She listened. She consoled. She laughed. She accepted you for you, no questions asked, no demands made.

The final two lessons I learned from her came at the end of her life. I watched her face death at age 32 with dignity, with pride, and with a stubborn determination that this would not be her legacy. She once said to me, “I am not just my cancer.” While those around her raged at the unfairness of it all (and I know she did, too, from time to time), she told me “I’m so lucky, to have all these people that love me.” While those around her tried so desperately to hide their tears, she cracked jokes. While those around her worried endlessly for her comfort and prayed for her health, she worried about all of us. About who would take care of her husband when she died. About how he would cope. About how we would all cope. I promised her we would all take care of each other, and we have. We all learned that lesson well.

The last lesson was simply this: life is short; live it every day. Even before she was sick, Donna lived her life fully. After she got sick, she still found the joy in life. That lesson seems so obvious, but it is so hard to remember. I have to be reminded of it often.

Today is a day we remember Challenger’s fallen heroes. Today, also remember the heroes who have touched you in your life. Count your blessings. Find the joy.

Life is short.

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