Where’s all this coming from? you might well ask impatiently, a jaundiced look in your eye. Well, the other day I was rewatching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the 2012 (Sweet Earendil! Has it really been that long?) Peter Jackson film which kicked off the second round of Tolkien film trilogy mania. And I was struck by the image of Martin Freeman as Bilbo, cavorting over the New Zealand countryside, dementedly shouting, “I’m going on an adventure!”
Now, aside from the fact that those words are Jackson’s, not Tolkien’s --- and in an act of supreme self-control, I’ll refrain from a rage-rant today about jackalope upstarts rewriting the Master --- it suddenly struck me that this is a damned silly thing for a protagonist to do, especially a protagonist Tolkien (and even Jackson) have to that point been at pains to emphasize is a solid, quiet individual totally uninterested in the concept of danger, dismemberment and adventure in general. (Yes, yes, I know Jackson could be doing it for several reasons, including highlighting how fun it is to make abrupt and capricious turnarounds in a character’s nature. Or simply because he thought it’s amusing to watch. Shut up and stop interrupting. This is my soap box.)
So, then, the weighty question concerning all writers becomes (at least insofar as today’s epistle is concerned): What Drives A Protagonist? I sat down, pen in hand, and within a few seconds noted a number of reasons --- not a Compleat Lyste by any stretch, but it’ll do to begin with, as Humpty Dumpty said to Alice.
(I suppose, he admitted grudgingly, come to that, protagonists can be driven by a sense of adventure. Just not very many rational ones… you know, the ones who are okay with three square meals a day, hot baths, warm beds to snuggle up in while listening to the night rain… that kind of thing. The key word in my question is drives, which implies some sort of force creating the need for a protagonist to take action, leave a comfortable life, and embark on suicidal dragon-slaying quests accompanied by a bunch of smelly, uncouth dwarves who despoil their hosts’ dining areas with food fights.)
In no particular order, then, here are several possible Factors Which Drive Protagonists:
Curiosity. It’s simultaneously one of our race’s greatest gifts and curses. We Need to Know. We Need to Know Why. We’re insatiable in our curiosity (well, except hormonal adolescents in a hot classroom on a Friday afternoon, grumbled the retired secondary school teacher). At times, that curiosity gets us into a helluva lot of trouble, especially when we don’t bother to think of the repercussions of that curiosity. But it doesn’t seem to stop us.
Revenge. Ah, one of the oldest motivators of human behaviour, regardless of whether it’s served cold or piping hot. When we’re wronged, we are Not. Going. To. Let. That. Horrible. Other. Person. Get. Away. With. It. End of story. Even if it drags us both down into some spectacularly destructive mutual death-spiral. The problem with this drive is, obviously, it’s a pretty negative headspace to put your protagonist into --- like its close relative, Fear. Protagonists can be driven by fears --- my God, most of us are walking clumps of neuroses and fears which all too often govern our actions --- but it’s not really a very noble motivation for getting a protagonist to do something.
Duty. Which is a concept that may have fallen somewhat out of favour in our modern, narcissistic world. “I don’t really want to do this, but feel a moral obligation to start/finish this mission… quest… thing.” It’s a noble sentiment in theory, but I’d suggest that, if that’s the protagonist’s primary motivation, it’s not a great one. Doing something merely from a sense of duty implies your heart isn’t really in it, which doesn’t infuse one with a lot of optimism about possibilities of a favourable outcome.
Need to Defend Something. Person, loved one, land, city, way of life… take your pick. Whatever your little heart can imagine. This has been a primary basis for human behaviour pretty much from the get-go. As a species, we’ll do quite a lot to protect something we really like, or something, in Samwise’s words, that’s worth fighting for.
Need to Restore Something. Similar, but kind of the flipside of the previous drive. Loved one, land, city, way of life… it’s gone or been taken from the protagonist, who wants to try and bring it back. As before, humanity will go to extraordinary lengths to right a wrong, to bring about healing and restoration… it’s one of our (few) sterling qualities.
And finally… Love. We’ll go out on a treacly note. Let cynics roll their eyes and groan theatrically to their hearts’ content, ain’t no denying that love is a major driver of human behaviour --- and, I should note, there are many different types of love, the vast majority of which have absolutely nothing to do with physical attraction and sex. (Something our modern-day society seems to have forgotten in its puerile efforts to equate everything with sex. Chill out, dudes. As Freud is supposed to have said, sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.) But people will do all kinds of things for love, some honourable, some not.
So there you are. Seven-ish possible reasons to get your protagonist out of his/her armchair and leaping across the fields, shouting adventure memes. What are you standing around for? Get moving!