Oct. 21st, 2010

In yesterday's post we discussed whether or not it's a reasonable expectation that protagonists should always be pushing the plot forward or otherwise taking decisive action in order to justify their place at the center of the book.

There were some interesting suggestions in the comments about how that expectation might have arisen among certain readers, as well as some examples of well-known protags who don't fit the derring-do mold. But I think [livejournal.com profile] megancrewe brought up an especially good point about the crucial difference between a protagonist who is too passive to hold the reader's interest, and one who is believable and sympathetic in spite of not always being proactive:
Even if there isn't anything the MC* can do to change their situation at certain points, I want to know that they want things, and will try to get those things when they can.
I think that sums up the essence of a good protagonist really well. You can have an MC who is too reluctant or self-doubting or depressed to drive the plot forward on their own for a while, but if it's clear to the reader what the MC wants, and as long as there's hope that the MC will take action to get it when they have the chance, then you've still got a story.

It's not that I think those who find quiet or reluctant protagonists frustrating don't have a right to say so. But I do think it's a mistake to take what amounts to a personal preference ("I prefer MCs who are decisive and proactive") and voice it as though it were an objective criticism with which all right-thinking readers should agree ("The MC spends more time reacting to things than she does in making things happen, and that's a fault in the book").

***

Now on to today's Unreasonable Expectation!

2. Any development which is surprising to the characters must also be surprising to the reader.

Now, to be fair, I should have said "major development", because I think we all understand that not everything that happens in the book has to be a surprise. What I'm talking about is the expectation that when some significant discovery or revelation occurs in the plot, it has to be set up in such a way that the reader will find it surprising, or the author has failed in her duty -- and I don't think that's always the case.

Don't get me wrong, I love surprises... )

All of which is to say that it may well be hasty and even unfair to criticize a book if you guess a certain "surprise" before the characters do. It may indeed be that you are more perceptive than the author gave you credit for, and that a better author would have handled that aspect more subtly and cleverly so as to surprise you. But it may also be that the author considered it only a minor revelation in relation to the rest of the plot, and wasn't expecting most readers to be surprised by it at all. The real question is, do the characters have good reason to be surprised? Are their reactions believable and satisfying, and do they contribute to the advancement of the plot? If they do, then I'm inclined to give the author a free pass -- even if I feel a little disappointed that they didn't trick me into being surprised as well.

***

But what do you think? Am I right in thinking it unreasonable to expect every twist to be surprising to the reader, or am I setting my own expectations too low?

Or if you agree with most of what I've said, can you think of some other books, movies or TV shows where a particular big revelation wasn't a surprise to you, but you found it satisfying all the same? What about books that do have a genuinely shocking twist -- without spoiling, can you give some examples for those of us who like that kind of thing?

--
* Short for Main Character.

And hey, nobody got my Big Country allusion from yesterday? Probably because I misquoted the first line of the song (it's "This time" and not "Sometimes"). But still, YOU ALL FAIL MISERABLY. (And also, I want that girl's hair, in the video. So pretty.)
I have been known to rant about my dislike of certain aspects of the LotR movies (to wit: THE ENDLESS FIGHT SCENES PLEASE OH PLEASE MAKE THEM STOP WILL THEY NEVER STOP), but that being said, I am still unreasonably excited about the prospect of a cinematic version of The Hobbit, especially one starring Martin Freeman as Bilbo, the prospect of which causes me to squee at ear-piercing volume, if only in my head.

And then I saw that they've also cast Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, and can only conclude that Christmas has come two months early this year.

Now all we need is Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of Smaug (well, he said he wanted to play the role, and he and Freeman are buds, so why not?) and my triumph will be complete.

That is, at least until I see the movie and come out ranting about the ENDLESS FIGHT SCENES PLEASE OH PLEASE MAKE THEM STOP WILL THEY NEVER STOP, but I am an optimist.
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