A good protagonist cannot be dropped randomly into any story. If you write a superhuman Kryptonian into a gritty WWI story, they’ll be hilariously overpowered.* If you write a nonmagical street urchin into a story about epic dueling wizards, you’ll have a roasted protagonist before the story can get anywhere. Either characters need to be carefully selected for their role in the plot, or the plot needs to be molded around them. Let’s look at a few characters who aren’t fitting the role they need to play.
Spoiler Notice: The Last Watch and A Song of Wraiths and Ruin
1. Cavalon Mercer: The Last Watch
The Last Watch is a space opera novel about the edge of the universe imploding, creating a shockwave that annihilates everything in its path. Our protagonist* is Cavalon Mercer, a snarky and disgraced space prince with several advanced scientific degrees. At first glance, that sounds reasonable. This story is effectively about a massive natural disaster in space, so it makes sense for Cavalon to be a science guy. Maybe if he sciences hard enough, he’ll find a way to stop the universe from imploding!
The problem actually comes earlier in the book, before the natural disaster plot has taken off. Cavalon is serving on a military outpost, and his commanding officers need a way to refuel their ship’s warp engine. For some reason, they decide to ask Cavalon for help, even though he’s the newest recruit and a known troublemaker. Their justification is that he has degrees in astrophysics, mechanical engineering, and genetic engineering, so he must know how to refuel a warp engine.
That’s already suspect, and as I read it, my first thought was to ask if they had any other sources of fuel on board they could siphon from. Then Cavalon “Three Degrees” Mercer arrives and asks if they have any other sources of fuel on board they could siphon from. Wow, I had no idea my BA in English was so valuable!
Fortunately, they do have alternative fuel sources: the outpost’s missiles. Seems like that conflict is over until the commanding officer assigns Cavalon to take the missiles apart and extract the fuel. You know, because of his advanced degrees. Those totally make him qualified to take a missile apart.
For the record, no, they do not. While the academic field of mechanical engineering is related to the profession of being a mechanic, they are not the same. Someone with that degree could have learned how to take military-grade weapons apart, but it’s not part of the normal coursework. Students who major in mechanical engineering are, by default, studying to become engineers and designers, not bomb defusers.
Even weirder, the outpost has an actual mechanic on staff who is way more qualified to do this work. Her name is Lace, and she’s served with the commanding officer for years. From all accounts, Lace is a trusted officer who knows her work and is good under pressure, with years of experience working on temperamental military equipment. Sounds like exactly the person you’d want taking missiles apart to siphon off their fuel. But for some reason no one considers calling her in, as though she’s not in the novel for these chapters.
Later, we find out that Cavalon has a secret backstory where he made a bunch of explosives from scratch, so it turns out he’s actually more qualified for this job than he first appears. But as far as I can tell, his commanding officer didn’t know that,* and the backstory is revealed far too late. On the bright side, it’s an easy fix. If we’d only known about the triple-degree-holding space prince’s side adventures as a bomb maker ahead of time, then at least sending him to take missiles apart would have made sense!
2. Tom Paris: Voyager
Unlike Cavalon, Paris doesn’t start out with any ill-fitting skills. Instead, he’ll actually gain the wrong skill set over the course of the show. In the first episode, he’s a hotshot pilot, and wouldn’t you know it, Voyager just happens to have a pilot job open. Sounds great! Then, in the second episode, the officers hold a staff meeting where they decide that the holographic Doctor needs an assistant. That’s fair; you want more than one trained medic in a crisis, especially since the Doctor can’t leave sickbay yet.
But then they pick Paris as the Doctor’s new assistant. Why? Because he took two semesters of biochemistry at Starfleet Academy. This decision sets off what might be Voyager’s longest running joke: Paris trying to be the Doctor’s assistant and being bad at it.* Even in season seven, we still see Paris and the Doctor getting on each other’s nerves in sickbay. Honestly, I’m impressed by how committed the writers were to this bad idea.
Why is it a bad idea? First we have Paris’s supposed credentials. Like the last entry, Paris’s academic history doesn’t remotely qualify him to be a nurse or medic. For one thing, he took biochemistry years ago, and since then he’s mostly been a freelance pilot. How much of that knowledge is likely to have stuck? For another, Paris is supposed to be diagnosing strange viruses and treating phaser burns. Even if he had a full degree and actively used it, biochemistry is much more relevant to understanding and developing new medications than it is to frontline triage.
Another perhaps more pressing reason is that Paris is Voyager’s primary pilot. During most emergencies, he’ll be needed on the bridge to steer the ship. Even if they can spare him, that means he’ll have to trek between the bridge and sickbay anytime there’s a problem. I guess they could use the transporter, but it still sounds like a lot of effort. The transporter is also, without fail, the first system to go offline in a crisis, so that’s not a great option either.
Compounding all this is that Voyager has dozens of officers who aren’t any less qualified than Paris and who aren’t needed to fly the ship during emergencies. Samantha Wildman, for example, is a xenobiologist. I don’t know what she does when the ship isn’t encountering a new life form, but it’s probably okay for her to take a break and help the Doctor in sickbay. At least, it would cause less of a disruption than calling Paris away from his job of keeping the ship from flying into a black hole.
As if sensing my thoughts, Voyager actually does something similar for a while. In the early seasons, we see Kes step in as the Doctor’s primary assistant. The characters still talk about Paris doing it, but it’s more common to see Kes in the medical drama scenes. Then Kes leaves at the start of season four and Paris is back to being a full-time assistant in addition to being a full-time pilot. Seems like a lot of trouble just to give the Doctor someone to be sarcastic at.
3. Wolf: Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts
In the first season of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, Wolf is without a doubt the MVP of the party. She’s good at fighting and at surviving in the hostile postapocalyptic wasteland, both appropriate skills for a hardened badass with a heart of gold. In fact, she seems to be the only one on Team Good with any skills at all. Kipo is a fish out of water with no experience outside of her underground home, and while Benson is also supposed to be a survivor, he seems pretty hapless. Meanwhile, Dave the mutant bug is only a hindrance, often frustratingly so.
Then the later seasons roll around, and Wolf’s MVP status falters. Kipo’s big arc is learning to use her supernatural powers, and once she does that, she quickly outstrips Wolf as a fighter. In fact, Kipo is so powerful that none of the other characters* matter when fighting starts. The second season is also more about diplomacy than survival, so Benson comes into his own as a charisma character while Wolf’s skills wither on the vine. Even Dave becomes more useful as he starts to gain control over his unpredictable mutation cycle.
To add insult to injury, Wolf’s signature weapon is permanently destroyed. So she’s left as a fighting character who’s now worse at fighting because her cool weapon is gone, in a show where all the fighting is taken care of by another character. Eventually she gets shunted off on a backstory subplot for a while, which then requires Kipo to rescue her. There’s an interesting storyline where she briefly teams up with a former villain, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Despite being in the main cast, Wolf feels like a side character because her skills don’t match the conflicts in the later seasons.
What’s especially frustrating is that it didn’t have to be this way. It’s reasonable that Wolf’s main role in season one is to keep Kipo alive long enough for her to develop her combat abilities. Knowing that’s the plan, the logical option would be to shift Wolf’s role so she stays relevant, especially if she’s going to lose her signature weapon. It’s just depressing for a character to lose their signature weapon and not get anything to replace it, which is why Ragnarok gave Thor new lightning powers after crushing Mjolnir to dust.
What skills should Wolf have picked up to replace her now redundant fighting prowess? The most immediate answer is to make her a social character, but that would step on Benson’s toes, and he barely has enough to do as it is. Normally I’d advocate making her a tactician, but the show specifically avoids any large battles or wars where such skills would be useful. Instead, I think the best option would be to make her an infiltrator. The final season features anti-mutant humans as the bad guys, and Wolf is well known for her dislike of mutants. She’d be the perfect character to send undercover! If we’re careful, we might even be able to create some doubt over her true loyalty.
4. Malik: A Song of Wraiths and Ruin
In this debut high fantasy novel, protagonist Malik has a mission: he must kill the story’s other protagonist, Princess Karina. Malik’s not thrilled about this, but otherwise his sister will be killed by an evil spirit. A tortured hero’s gotta do what a tortured hero’s gotta do. Since Malik is a commoner, his only chance is to become a champion in Solstasia, a hugely important tournament held every 50 years. He doesn’t actually care about winning, but as long as he’s in the tournament, he gets to live in the palace, which is the only way he’ll ever get close enough to Karina to accomplish his mission.
This is a solid setup. If Malik wants to save his sister, he has to compete in Solstasia and do well enough to avoid elimination. This allows the author to include a bunch of fun, highly novel challenges that wouldn’t normally fit in such a high-stakes story. Likewise, Malik can’t devote all his time to killing Karina, as he has all these challenges to get through. That delays Malik’s plan long enough to get the love story going.
Given all that, would it surprise you to learn that Malik has powerful illusion magic? He unlocks his powers early in the novel, and it’s not long before he’s slinging spells like an archmage. The upper limit of Malik’s power is never established, but these are a few of his more notable abilities:
- Completely obscure the environment with illusory terrain
- Conjure crowds of illusory people and creatures
- Craft illusions that are 100% realistic unless touched
- Put people into a trance somehow (I do not know how this counts as an illusion)
- Turn himself invisible
Remember the Solstasia challenges that form the core of this story? Yeah, turns out they’re completely unnecessary. It doesn’t matter where Malik has to stay; he can walk into the palace and kill Karina anytime he wants. Guards and locked doors are useless, as Malik can sneak past anyone and either steal keys or just turn invisible and wait for a door to be opened. The only defense that can actually give Malik trouble is that one of Karina’s retainers is secretly also a mage, but Malik will have to deal with him regardless.
Of course, Malik is still hesitant to kill Karina because he’s not a murderer, but Solstasia itself no longer has a purpose. The only effect of competing in the challenges is that someone might realize Malik is up to something, since he often has to use his magic to win. But the story is still theoretically focused on the challenges, so Malik keeps competing in them for… some reason. His motivation is never really explored.
Beyond the challenges, Malik is clearly supposed to be an underdog in a desperate position. Giving him near-godly powers naturally sabotages that. That’s why Frodo can’t shoot lasers from his eyes and why Legendborn doesn’t start Bree off with all the powers of King Arthur. My best guess is that the author assumed illusions weren’t actually that powerful, since they can’t directly kill anyone like a lightning bolt can. But it doesn’t take a power gamer to realize how easily Malik can leverage his many abilities, and eventually he does just turn invisible so he can walk up to Karina and stab her.*
It’s too bad, because Malik has another power that would have worked much better: he can see magical spirits. This ability doesn’t let him sneak past guards or put crowds in a trance, but it does give him some warning when something bad is about to happen, which is a good ability for an underdog hero. Or I guess he could just be a level 20 illusionist. That works too.
5. Croaker: The Black Company
The first novel in a long series, The Black Company introduces us to Croaker, our main protagonist. Croaker’s a mercenary, which is par for the course as far as dark fantasy goes, but he’s not just any mercenary: he’s the company chronicler, writing down their many deeds as they fight for coin and glory. That’s an unusual job for a main character, so it gives Croaker a nice boost of novelty at the beginning. Unfortunately, it’s also the wrong job for him to have.
The Black Company isn’t a book about chronicling a mercenary company; it’s a book about all the fights said mercenary company gets into. That could still work if the story was about Croaker’s personal journey as the company battles around him, but that’s not it either. The closest Croaker has to an arc is realizing a powerful lady doesn’t match the weird fanfiction he wrote about her.* Instead, we get page upon page of battles. Sometimes these are huge battles with the whole company involved; other times they’re smaller fights with just a few characters.
Either way, Croaker has very little to do. He’s not a particularly good fighter, he’s not put on the front lines, and he has no real input on the high-level decisions. For huge stretches of the story he’s just around. Don’t worry, it gets even worse once the wizards show up. You see, it seems that just about every leader in this war is a powerful wizard, including especially badass wizards called The Ten Who Were Taken.
After a certain point, the book is much more about the Taken than the titular Black Company. Not only are the Taken exceptionally powerful, but they’re also playing complex political games against each other. Very little of that affects the Black Company, but the book still spends a lot of time on it. At a couple of points, Croaker is dragged off by the Taken on random side quests even though he has no particularly useful skills for those missions. They once justify it by saying that Croaker is a decent shot with a bow, but it seems highly unlikely that there’s no one in this elite mercenary company who’s a better archer.
The real reason Croaker goes is so the book’s close viewpoint can be where the Taken are when they do their badass dark wizard things, which usually means a magical battle that Croaker can’t possibly participate in. It leaves you wondering why he’s the main character at all.
So what would a better skill set for Croaker have looked like? He could always have been the company commander, since a good chunk of the book is focused on what the company does. If Croaker had tactical or strategic skills, he could have played a role in those decisions. Or he might have been a lower-ranked officer charged with plot-critical missions.
But for my money, Croaker should have been a wizard. The Black Company actually has a few wizards already, and slinging spells would have let Croaker participate in the Taken plots much more effectively. He could even have remained the company chronicler, as wizard magic pairs itself well with reading and writing. The only problem is that if Croaker were a wizard, it would highlight how out of control the book’s magic system is, but that’s a problem for another day.
A common refrain I hear from writers is that they want a character to start off underpowered, then gain skills or discover new powers as the story moves forward. That’s a reasonable goal, but the character still has to deal with the challenges they encounter before leveling up. That’s why writers so often deploy contrivances to get their hero through the early chapters. If a character has the right skill set for the plot, then you won’t need to add contrivances to make them do the things you need them to do.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?