Can We Finally Say Goodbye to the Power-mad Protagonist?

Who craves power, why, and should we continue to give it to them? Such questions will be foremost in readers’ minds for many years to come, and we writers will have a role in providing the answers.

I love a power-hungry, mad protagonist who hurtles the plot King-Leer-style to tragic ruin, or who clamps down with Mordor-like control as they stamp out good and corrupt the week.

That is, I love that sort of thing in a good book. Not so much in real life.

And yet real life is eclipsing fiction when it comes to evil villains these days.

Republicans are terrified that the President-Elect will usher in some horrible Orwellian Socialism while flooding their Norman Rockwell towns with rampaging foreign gangs. Democrats already realized their worst fears with the rise of a heartless Cleptocracy and a villain who by turns was both bungling and strangely adept at hurting people while stuffing his pockets.

What motivated him? The question of motive is important because we all share the urge to understand the actions of the main characters in our story. And our heroes—I do hope there are some in this story!—need insight into the enemy in order to defeat him.

Yes, him. We aren’t quite done talking about him yet. In fact, a lengthy new piece in Politico Magazine dissects President Trump’s wounded psyche in detail. Senior staff writer Michael Kruse delves into the “harsh particulars of his loveless upbringing” and concludes that his unique combination of vulnerabilities means that affirmation and attention are never enough to fill the psychological void within him. Sounds rather Freudian to blame his mother and father. Or chalk it up to psychopathy, but the point is that he’s an evil Energizer Bunny who just keeps on going in the wrong direction until someone stops him. Hopefully, eighty-one million voters and the Electoral College have done the trick.

The idea that the power-hungry are not only trying to fill their own pockets but also fill an insatiable psychological void is excellent, at least for us novelists. It makes for multidimensional bad guys! I feel like the last four years have encouraged me to think about my evil protagonists’ backstories in greater detail than ever before.

I’ve also given thought to why we elevate real-life power-grabbers to be our leaders—an error we make again and again. Maybe the fault lies not in how we imagine our villains but in how we develop our heroes or fail to. We love those rare stories of selfless heroes—Gandhi, Dr. King, Mother Teresa—and while they were no doubt complex characters with a host of motivations, they let their better angels dominate.

I do hope the National narrative will now take a turn away from its obsessive focus on a bottomless-pit-of-a-leader and toward more wholesome leading characters. For my very small part, I’m going to try to do this in my writing. I feel an almost bottomless need for good, kind, relatively selfless lead characters who struggle to overcome their flaws instead of leading us like lemmings over the yawning cliffs of their wounded psyches.

Hopefully, we will see such a healthy turn in the narrative told in our daily headlines as well!

Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and other young adult novels.

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