Storytelling

Five Tropes That Make a Protagonist Boring

Kirk standing on the god planet in Star Trek V.

In Star Trek V, Kirk's only flaw is being too resistant to mind control.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about tropes that make villains incompetent. But villains are only half of the equation. Protagonists have plenty of tropes as well, which is why Clark sent us this question:

I really liked the post on “Tropes that make your villain look incompetent.”

Have you done anything for heroes? “Tropes that make heroes boring” or something like that? I’d also love to see some posts specifically on subverting classic, painful tropes.

Keep it up, you Mythcreants.

I hadn’t written such a post at the time, but now I have and you’re reading it. While incompetence is the villain’s bugbear, boredom is the death knell of a protagonist. It’s not the only problem protagonists can have, but it’s perhaps the most serious. A protagonist must carry the audience through the story. If the main character is boring, it can damage the story beyond repair.

Given how serious the consequences are, it’s surprising how many common tropes conspire to make a protagonist boring. Learn to recognize them, lest they creep unannounced into your own stories.

1. The Protagonist Damsel

Bella has no powers in a book about fighting evil vampires, so her boyfriend gets most of the action.

It’s important make the love interest desirable, and an easy way to do that is for the love interest to be competent. Give them some sweet muscles alongside a supernatural power or two and you’re golden, right? The problem here is that it’s easy for the love interest to get so competent that they end up solving all the protagonist’s problems. This is most common with a male love interest and a female protagonist because our culture has romanticized men rescuing helpless women.

A protagonist who never does anything isn’t interesting. In fact, it often feels like the narrative accidentally got stuck on a side character. They rarely do anything on their own, always depending on the romantic interest to solve problems for them. Some stories try to balance this out by giving the protagonist damsel a secret power, but this doesn’t help. If the protagonist never demonstrates any agency, all a secret power does is turn them into a McGuffin.

How to Make It Work

The easiest way to address this trope is to make sure the love interest’s expertise can’t be used to solve the story’s main problem. If the love interest is really good at fighting, make the story about negotiating a peace treaty between hostile nations. That way the love interest can demonstrate competence, perhaps even save the protagonist from danger, but not take over the story.

2. The Know It All

Prof. Challenger is like Sherlock Holmes without the charm. He knows everything and expects everyone to praise him for it.

Some protagonists have all the answers. They notice everything, and they carry Wikipedia in their head. This trope is especially common in mystery stories, dating back to Sherlock Holmes. The Great Detective not only notices every clue, but he seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of history and current events. It’s not unusual for him to transition from describing an obscure paw print to expounding on the British occupation of India, because of course he knows about that!

While it may seem cool to imitate Doyle’s style, a protagonist with all the answers gets boring fast. Part of the story’s thrill is finding out what happens next, and that thrill disappears when the hero always knows the answer ahead of time. Even when they don’t immediately know an answer, the problem lacks tension because we know they’ll figure it out.

How to Make It Work

First, it’s helpful if your story’s point of view isn’t inside the protagonist’s head. That way you can introduce some delay between the protagonist’s realization and the audience’s finding out. That’s why Doyle created Watson and why TV shows are so fond of this trope, as TV shows aren’t in anyone’s head.

But that’s not enough on its own. You’ll also have to give your know-it-all occasional moments when they don’t  know it all. These should be plot critical and cause hardships or delays in the story. The effect will be enhanced if your protagonist is self-deprecating, joking about the mistakes and not taking herself too seriously. In the original Holmes stories, Sherlock himself often makes light of his errors, which makes him much more interesting.

3. The Perfect Hero

Sheridan’s only flaw is that he cares too much about saving the galaxy.

We’ve all heard how characters need flaws. But flaws are so flawed, and authors want their characters to be awesome, so sometimes they leave the flaws out entirely. This can result in a character who is blatantly perfect or one who has some fake flaws in an attempt to compensate. Fake flaws include things like having hair that’s “too red” or being “too devoted” to their cause of saving the world. They are phrased like flaws, but they don’t actually hinder the character in a believable way.

Characters without flaws are harder to identify with. We humans all have flaws in real life, and characters without them don’t seem real. Why should we get invested in these strange aliens without a bad habit to their name? Adding fake flaws only makes the situation worse, because boredom is now tinged with annoyance. “Oh sure, your flaw is that you’re too loyal and honest? Tell me another one.”

How to Make it Work

If you don’t want to give your protagonist any flaws, they must represent some higher ideal or cause that the audience can identify with. The cause cannot be for the protagonist’s own glory, or they’ll come across as insufferable as well as boring. It must be selfless and uplifting of others.

Picking an ideal for your protagonist is a challenge, since different sections of your audience will disagree vehemently on what constitutes a noble ideal. In general, it’s best to stick with something simple. Hope is a good bet. Some of the most popular Superman stories have the Man of Steel as a symbol of hope. Fairness is another popular option, as so often seen when Captain Picard must play the neutral arbiter of a deadly conflict.

4. The Chosen One

Wil was chosen by fate to wield the elfstones. He never did anything to earn it.

Some protagonists do not answer the call of their own volition, but because they are chosen. Who does the choosing varies from story to story, but it usually involves mystical prophecies and ancient relics. Sometimes the hero is a farm kid tapped by the gods to wield a magic sword. Sometimes they are a high school student who inherits the power to slay demons. No matter the specifics, they are a chosen one.

Despite many people considering it a cliche, the chosen one trope remains popular because it has so many cool elements. Who doesn’t love ancient prophecies and mystical weapons? But even so, being a chosen one makes a protagonist less interesting. Chosen ones start off with a deficiency of agency, because by definition they haven’t decided their own destiny. This makes it harder to care about their quest since someone else is pulling the strings. Chosen ones also have the weight of a powerful force behind them, which makes their victory seem more assured. It’s hard to get invested in a story where the outcome seems predetermined.

How to Make It Work

What if I told you there was a way to turn the chosen one’s weakness into a strength? Well, there is! All you have to do is put the chosen one at odds with the force that chose them. This happens to Aang in Avatar: The Last Airbender. All of Aang’s past lives tell him he has no choice but to kill Fire Lord Ozai, but Aang refuses. In this scenario, the protagonist must now fight against what previously gave them strength.

5. The “Cursed” Badass

In Man of Steel, Superman is very sad because his powers make him different.

Woe is the protagonist, for they must carry a great burden of shooting lasers out of their eyes. This trope arises when two-storytelling instincts collide: giving the protagonist problems, but also giving them cool abilities. Combining the two is just efficient, right? The protagonist gains the ability to run at the speed of sound, and it makes their life miserable, probably because everyone hates them out of jealousy.

This trope is boring for two reasons. First, it’s over used. From the X-Men to Frozen, it seems every other character has a protagonist whose biggest problem is that they exceed the bounds of human potential. Second, it feels incredibly disingenuous. In real life, people with high levels of ability are usually rewarded with increased status. A story about a protagonist who faces ridicule because they can walk through walls doesn’t match our experience of reality. That makes it hard to get invested in the character.

How to Make It Work

A protagonist’s problem shouldn’t come from having powers, but the problem can be related to their powers. In Teen Wolf, Scott is turned into a werewolf, which grants him a number of beneficial abilities. He’s faster, stronger, and heals better than any human, and he loves those powers. But being a werewolf also gives him a bloodlust that’s difficult to control, especially on the full moon. This gives Scott a compelling problem without making it seem like he’s somehow unfortunate for having superpowers.


Boredom is a bad trait to associate with your protagonist. When a character’s job is to carry the story on their shoulders, they must be able to hold the audience’s interest. If your protagonist uses one of these tropes, pause and consider: is the trope making your protagonist less interesting? If it is, then it’s time to either break out a subversion or cut the trope entirely.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I really like how Holmes in some of Doyle’s stories says things like ‘I hope you’ll leave that blunder of mine in when you tell the story, Watson.’ He knows Watson ‘cleans the cases up’ a little when he’s writing them down for the Strand and he wants people to see his mistakes as well as his successes.

  2. Adam Reynolds

    There are two versions of the Chosen One I have seen that do something truly interesting with the character concept, largely because it is not based on a real prophecy. In both cases it is also that the characters choose their fates, not because they are a chosen one but because they see it as a cause worth fighting for. In both cases it is also largely that they are given information that others are not, which is probably part of what makes it work.

    The first is Mass Effect, in which Shepard filled a similar role by discovering the Prothean beacon. What made it interesting is that literally any character could have found it, it is just that Shepard was the right person to do so, as a natural leader and an extremely talented soldier.

    The second is Person of Interest, in which the character Root had a similar arc to a chosen one, despite the fact that she was merely the agent of the AI that the heroes received their information from. She was the only character with direct access that received specific information as opposed to just a social security number. Her arc was also interesting in that it was about her learning to actually care for others.

    For the especially bad version, a lot of modern movies seem to do this even when it doesn’t fit. Star Trek ’09 makes it seem like Kirk is destined to by Captain of the Enterprise. Why? He has done nothing to prove himself, and the only reason the audience buys it is because of the original series.

    For another “cursed” badass, I really like Jessica Jones. Her curse doesn’t come from her powers, it comes from what her powers caused her to do when under Kilgrave’s spell and that her powers made her a target for him in the first place.

    As for Sherlock Holmes, he is also an idiot when it comes to anything not relevant to crime solving. He did not know that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around.

    • Cay Reet

      Holmes is highly specialized. He has taken care of filling his brain with all information he needs for his work. Remember that he originally lived in a time long before easy access to Google (which is where modern Sherlock differes a lot from the original). He’s not an idiot, he’s just not interested in anything he perceives as unnecessary for his life. He has filled his ‘brain attic’ (Holmes’/Doyle’s words, not mine) with information he needs to keep handy, whatever he can look up when he needs it, can stay in the ‘lumber room’ of libraries or other sources of information.

      Just as most normal people can’t deduce (technically, he’s using inductive logic, though) to save their lives, because they never devoted time to learning it, he doesn’t care about scientific facts or news not related to his work or interest (mostly music and arts and he’s always informed on when a certain concert is performed or a certain exhibition opens). It’s not that he doesn’t know which revolves around the other, he just, modernly speaking, doesn’t give a used f*ck about it. It has no impact on his life or his work – unless the revolving suddenly changed, in which case it would have a tremendous impact on all lives on earth.

      And he’s a far more sympathetic (and human) character than Challenger, despite having come from the same author.

  3. GeniusLemur

    I don’t agree with “All you have to do is put the chosen one at odds with the force that chose them,” because I’ve seen that many times in this form:
    MENTOR GUY: You’re the chosen one! You’re going to save the world!
    CHOSEN ONE: But I don’t WANNA save the world! *Pouts/whines/sulks interminably*
    ALL THE OTHER GOOD GUYS: Here, let us endlessly kiss your ass and butter you up until you agree to be the chosen one.
    CHOSEN ONE: Go ahead, but I’m still going to sit here and pout/whine/sulk. Maybe later I’ll run away.
    MENTOR GUY: No problem, we’ll just keep worshipping you until you deign to save the world, because none of us are the chosen one, so obviously there’s no chance we can do it for ourselves.

    • Julia

      I think the article states more that the hero is opposed to the chooser’s stated goal or method.
      Chooser: You must kill the bad guy to save the world!
      Chosen One: Well, I’m not going to kill the bad guy. I’m going to find another way to do this.

      Reminds me of a line from Buffy: the movie:
      Watcher: None of the other girls gave me this much trouble!
      Buffy: And where are they?!
      (The answer was dead – all the other girls had died following the Watcher’s instructions.)

      • Cay Reet

        That very successfully describes the end of Avatar – The Last Airbender (the TV series, not the movie). Aang doesn’t want to kill the Firelord, because he has been taught that life is sacred. And he doesn’t have to, because he learns a new ability: mindbending, which allows him to take the Firelord’s powers and thus makes it possible to incarcerate the man instead.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah Buffy is another example of that, with the Watcher’s Council wanting Buffy to do something one way and her telling them where to shove it.

      • GeniusLemur

        Yes, but she can tell them where to stuff it all she wants; she’s still the slayer. And most chosen ones are a matter of destiny, not some force or agenda that actually has a face; often we never learn where the prophecy came from, who said it, or why everyone expect the chosen one believes it. So you have two options if you want to rebel against it. First, you can uselessly shake your fist at fate and complain a lot. Second, you can try to avert your fate, but most of us read Oedipus Rex in High School and know how that turns out.

        • Cay Reet

          Had the oracle just stayed quiet, nothing would have happened.

  4. Sam Beringer

    Glad you gave frame work for creating an interesting Chosen One. I’ve seen too many people say “don’t do it,” but I believe that, like most tropes people disparge, it can be done well in the hands of a good writer. Granted, it’s often in the form of deconstructing or examining the trope, but still.

    • Bronze Dog

      I’m in the same boat for a lot of disparaged tropes. There are a lot of ideas and formula that get done too often or poorly (or both) that people develop a reflex response when they see it in action. For me, if someone’s giving me a recommendation for a show involving one of those tropes, I tend to ask the question “What twist did they put on it?”

  5. Elias

    Good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

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