Tuesday, April 8, 2014


So here's a question that, if you're an author, you don't want your readers to have to ask - who's the main character?

I've referred to Soltan Gris as a Villain Protagonist before, but I'm not so sure that's the best word for him.  He's certainly a villain, and for seven and a half books Gris is our viewpoint character, but that's not quite the same thing.  To Kill a Mockingbird is told from Scout's point of view, but is really about her father Atticus.  Part of the reason the Michael Bay Transformers movies are hated is because the hero is a robotic truck, yet the camera tends to stick to Shia LeBeouf, who as a human is somewhat out of place in a story named after robots that can change into vehicles.

More than that, protagonists are supposed to do things, and antagonists are supposed to stop them.  But Gris spends huge chunks of the series very much not doing anything, or at least anything related to the plot.  When his superiors leave enough death threats, or if Gris runs out of other things to do, occasionally he does his job of trying to stop Heller.  Technically, the antagonist is defined as someone who opposes the protagonist, so in theory we could have a criminal protagonist opposed by a law-enforcing antagonist.  But I think a better definition is that the protagonist is trying to accomplish something - dump a ring in a volcano, blow up the tyrant's superweapon - while the antagonist is an obstacle to that.  The protagonist generally seeks to alter the status quo, the antagonist to preserve it.

You could still have a villain protagonist under this definition, such as that Dexter fella, who as I understand is trying to sate his homicidal tendencies by killing other bad guys, while the heroic antagonist police try to stop his vigilantism.  But Gris, who is definitely a villain, is trying to preserve the starting situation on Earth and in the Confederacy.  The actions he takes are aimed at stopping Heller's disruptions.  Or have nothing at all to do with Heller or the plot.  It's about a 50-50 spread, I think. 

So by this Gris would be the Villain Antagonist who just happens to be a viewpoint character, but while Gris is clearly a villain, is he really the villain?  The very notion is laughable - Gris is an incompetent underling of the power-mad, and regular mad, Lombar Hisst.  This might not be so bad, since the Big Bad's chief henchman is often cooler than the story's main villain, as seen with Darth Vader.  Except Gris isn't that guy either, he's constantly threatened by other Apparatus enforcers, and just as subordinate to Rockecenter when he's on Earth.  Gris doesn't even accomplish much of anything, either.  All his anti-Heller efforts are thwarted, and his biggest impact on the plot is when he brings Krak to Earth in a panic and ships Madison and Teenie off to Voltar in another panic.  Hell, Gris spends part of Book One broke and starving to death.  More than that, Gris can't be the story's principal villain because he's stopped eight books into it, and spends the rest of the story in a jail cell.  Arguably the Madison-Teenie team is the story's biggest bad, since it allows Lombar his near-victory and in fact comes to manipulate him along with everyone else.  Maybe Mission Earth's true villains are psychology and PR in general.

All this to say, Gris is only a mid-grade villain on the bad guys' totem pole, and doesn't do enough to be labeled the principal protagonist or antagonist.  So maybe Heller's the main character then, since most of the story is about trying to stop him.

Except Heller's not in half the story.  Gris is the POV character for seven and a half books, and frequently loses interest in observing Heller for weeks at a time, getting lost in the woods or sidetracked by a belly dancer or whoring it up in Turkey or rehabilitating lesbians in New York and so forth.  Heller has his time to shine in the latter half of Disaster, but only shows up for a few chapters during Villainy Victorious, which is mainly about Madison, and only about a third of The Doomed Planet, which is also split between Madison and Monte Pennwell.  Heller is of course intended to be the story's "good guy," and it's his efforts that fix everything for the happy ending, but while he's probably the protagonist, it feels strange to label him the main character, especially since even if the POV is on him, we barely get to hear his thoughts or feelings.

And that's another important aspect of the main character - we're supposed to emphasize with him or her, root for them.  But Gris is utterly unlikeable, and as just mentioned Heller is aloof and distant even when the camera's aimed right over his shoulder.  The only way anyone could root for Gris is when Heller's giving one of his obnoxious speeches about what's wrong with Earth, but Heller is just as hard to identify with, for reasons I'll get into more when I focus on his character or lack thereof.  So if I don't want Gris to win, but never develop an attachment for Heller, who am I supposed to focus on?  What's my stake in the story?

I guess it's sort of impressive that Hubbard managed to create a story that's largely about a low-ranking bureaucrat's occasional half-assed attempts to stop a stunt man who shows up for a few action scenes but otherwise sits the books out.  Way to break literary conventions, dude.

Back to the summation

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