Not Your Superhero
Despite swearing off Twitter in favor of Instagram in 2014 after Rogue came out, I’ve been spending a lot more time on the bird app than I probably should these days. I’m learning new skills from watching others get into trouble, keeping up with the news, and lurking on kidlit-related debates.
Several weeks ago, a group of writers and agents posted about the active protagonist, and how editors’ preferences for a protagonist with a clear goal whose actions drive the story. In past years, I’ve written about the passive protagonist and how so many of my manuscripts have failed because of this. I wrote this essay after abandoning a middle grade novel with a passive protagonist. Later on I would write and revise multiple times a YA manuscript that came close at two publishers; its failure bears some responsibility for what will be a seven-year gap in my publishing career. (Perhaps my retrospective on those years should be titled “Mistakes Were Made.”)
In the Twitter discussion, BIPOC and other creators whom society has marginalized responded that often protagonists have little control over the world around them, and under those circumstances, survival is a legitimate goal. In the eyes of editors, survival implies passivity because the protagonist is reacting to forces larger than they are rather than trying to change those forces. Editors and agents have also rejected the desire to “belong” as too passive, not a strong enough goal to drive the story. But for disabled protagonists routinely excluded from their communities, the desire to belong, to be a part of those communities we’ve watched from afar, is at the top of the list.
Wanting to belong, to have a friend, drives Kiara’s decision in Rogue to befriend Chad even though his family is dangerous. It drives JJ’s decision to reach out to a classmate across the racial divide because he wants to start a punk-rock band even though he has no idea how bands get together. It drives Tomáš to defy his father and his country’s secret police when he pursues a friendship with a former bully now designated an enemy of the State.
While Kiara seeks to become a superhero like her favorite X-Men character, both JJ and Tomáš come to realize that they don’t need to be the leader or the Chosen One to achieve their goals or to grow as people. The individualistic Chosen One narrative is a Western capitalist construct in which there are leaders and followers, bosses and workers, winners and losers. But the band is much more than the frontman. Singers who get the glory would be nothing without composers, lyricists, guitarists, bassists, drummers, keyboardists, and so on. Families, natural and found, and communities can be protagonists, with the success of the group dependent on the actions of all the individuals within it.
With the pandemic, we are now coming to realize how much individualism has failed us. We need to look at other models of social organization and other kinds of narratives besides the “hero’s journey.” These include non-Western traditions, multiple points of view (including community stories like Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down and Light It Up), and the revolutionary narratives of people challenging oppression and marginalization. We need stories of survival and belonging, the narratives of those who have lived to fight another day, and who have come together to continue the struggle. We cannot count on superheroes and Chosen Ones to save us, and our stories need to reflect this truth.