A bit of a debate about which character is actually the protagonist…
Got a comment in a critique last year about Aiden Teige being “the protagonist, obviously” in my novel-in-progress. After I finished my WTF?? reaction, I asked the critiquer to explain what had led him to that conclusion.
“[Teige]… I forgot who he was at first, but there are a lot of names. But he sounds like a sci-fi good guy, the protagonist, obviously.”
What made you decide so soon that he’s the protagonist? (Please answer – I need to understand how readers interpret what I’ve written.)
The nameless critiquer:
Well, a few things. Teige is a strong, clean name. It //sounds// good, and it’s a nice golden color for me. He thinks the paperwork is a waste of time, but he’s still doing it, so he’s following the rules. He’s //not// speaking he’s mind, but rather, behaving. He’s polite. And compared to [Marleah]’s part, he seems much more innocent, and compared to Marcus’ part, he sounds much nicer and somewhat caring.
I’m looking into his character as an English major, however, and I doubt the average reader would catch any of that right off the bat.
Imagine me rolling my eyes at this point… Even an English major shouldn’t assume that Teige is the protagonist of this novel unless they’ve been taught by a long string of incompetent professors who still follow the Shakespearean-ish tradition the main character is always the one of the highest social rank. (In that case, it’d be a toss-up between two characters, neither of whom is Teige, depending on how social rank is measured.) And the reasoning here is ridiculous: He’s obviously the protagonist because he follows the rules and doesn’t speak his mind and is always polite? Is that not a description of a character who is a very bad choice for protagonist, unless something happens in the course of the story to shake them out of their go-with-the-flow behavior?
After a bit more discussion (argument), the critiquer basically told me that I was wrong to think that the novel was not about Teige. Again, imagine me rolling my eyes. Here’s a good general rule to follow: When in doubt, assume the author of a story knows more about the characters than any reader does.
Y’know, I can respect a reader’s synesthetic interpretations of words, including names, that I use in my stories. I have what I sometimes call ‘borderline synesthesia,’ not so much a cross-wiring of senses as an intense cross-referencing of associations. Nevertheless, I do things like spell the name of one character Grey rather than Gray (and gods help you if you insist that I do otherwise!) because it has a more appropriate shape and texture. So saying that the name Teige has a ‘nice golden color’ makes sense. I would accept that as reason to think Teige is one of the ‘good guys’ in the story. What does not make sense is insisting that the ‘color’ of his name means he’s the protagonist even though he doesn’t act like one (and even though the author of the novel says this isn’t the protagonist) nor fulfill that role in the story.