Fictional Characters and the Pressure to be Exceptional

Within our own minds, we are supremely average individuals. We pass fundamental life benchmarks the same as everyone else, working, sleeping, raising families, etc. without any particular trend towards the extraordinary.

So why is it that authors like to write about exceptional characters? Or more specifically, why do authors choose to write their stories through the eyes of these “chosen” characters instead of someone else?

For example, JK Rowling choose Harry as her main point of view, but could not the events of those seven years at Hogwarts have been just as well told by Ron Weasley or Draco Malfoy? What about little Colin Creevey? Can’t the bad guy just be bad without having a prophesy guide his life? But that’s a world of magic and you can explain everything by magic. Obviously there’d be a Chosen One; it’s just the way of things in a world without rules or physics.

But what If Tris and Tobias hadn’t been Divergent? Would we have had the story from Caleb’s perspective instead? Or Christina’s? Peter’s? The factions are a crumbling dystopian society and there’s no reason any one of the citizens should have been less brain altered than any of the others. Except that Veronica Roth wrote in Tris’ luck. She made Tris a catalyst, made her the central focus of the story because it pushed the plot forward more quickly and gave it a sense of urgency. It didn’t need it, though. Their society was already collapsing from the inside and any citizen could have told that story.

And why couldn’t the Hunger Games have been told by someone like Rue instead of the exceptionally talented Katniss Everdeen? Why did it have to be the special someone, the one person who was an outsider even within her own district? Because choosing Katniss meant choosing the underdog. You rooted for her and felt for her, even as your mind glossed over the way she killed other people to protect herself. She gave the story something to focus on and rally around and only because Suzanne Collins chose her to be the star of the show.

Sometimes characters like Tris and Harry and Katniss prove to be my least favorite. Because in my mind I can’t figure out what it is that really makes them worthy of being so special in the first place, what right they have to tell the story over anyone else just because they can shoot better or think better or were marked with a scar at birth. They read like a guiding hand has just reached down from the Heaven of Authorial Intent and said, “You are special just because I said so. And you will be the catalyst for the entire plot because without you this world is stagnant and boring. So good luck.” But there’s no depth to a character who’s only motivations are vague notions of “fate” or “survival.” They just don’t seem real.

Perhaps that’s why I like distrustful narrators, the ones who tell you straight off that they’re liars and nothing special. One good example is Sutter from The Spectacular Now. The boy had a lot of charisma, but he certainly wasn’t extraordinary. He sold shirts for a living, failed school, lost his girlfriend, and drank copiously. In other words he was refreshingly average, a classic example of everyday living filling up the pages of a book. And yet we connect with him. We connect with him in a way that doesn’t make us feel strong or proud, but rather uncomfortable and maybe even a bit weak.

Maybe we prefer to read stories about Chosen Ones because we hate feeling weak in our own imaginations. It’s one thing to be average in life, but it’s another to lack power in our own minds and dreams and fictional worlds. We want to believe that we can be like Tris and Harry so we read their stories and set our minds to emulating them, to aspiring to be exceptional.

Only we’re not. We’re not all exactly like Sutter, the miserable failure, and we’re not all Chosen by fate. We’re just people. Average, everyday people who go about our lives without any particular trend towards the extraordinary.

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