What do many novels — great or otherwise — have in common? Words, sentences, paragraphs, and…unconventional protagonists.
Sure, there are some novels starring conformist characters, such as businessman George Babbitt of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt. But for that approach to truly work, the writing has to be outstanding — and perhaps satirical, too. Because conventional can obviously be boring, and offers a smaller canvas for the dramatic conflict most fiction needs.
Protagonists can of course be unconventional in all kinds of ways. There are the loners and/or the political rebels and/or the non-materialistic and/or the brilliant and/or the courageous and/or the jarringly evil and/or those ahead of their time and/or those possessing unusual skills and/or the people who avoid traditional gender roles and/or…etc.
There are so many unconventional characters in literature that I’ll mention/discuss only a couple dozen or so before asking for your examples.
I finished Steppenwolf last week, and its Harry Haller protagonist is definitely a misfit kind of guy. Divided personality (the human side and the supposed wolf side), very learned, keeps to himself (at least in the first part of the novel), despises conformity (yet craves a bit of it), looks down on popular culture, has pacifist views, etc. Indeed, Hermann Hesse’s gripping and at times hallucinatory novel is in part a meditation on whether a round peg like Harry can fit in the square hole of conventional life. Steppenwolf‘s Hermine character is also highly original: a lover of pleasure yet as despairing and as brainy as Harry. Indeed, the heavily symbolic book implies that Harry and Hermine are versions of each other.
One of the many reasons the Bronte sisters’ novels are so compelling is their unconventional protagonists. The title character of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is independent, self-reliant, highly principled, and has little interest in small talk, fine clothes, etc. Heathcliff and Catherine of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights are forces of nature who act much more tempestuously than the average person. Helen Huntington in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall does something few women did in her time when she leaves an abusive marriage.
A fictional Anne, the admirable Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, is about as level-headed and mature a person as one will meet in literature — and interesting to boot. She possesses even more depth than most of the other people in Austen’s memorable character gallery.
Jumping to later fiction of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, we have Hester Prynne, who maintains an almost unearthly dignity when unwed motherhood makes her a Puritan pariah in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850); the deeply unhappy, anti-establishment painter Claude Lantier in Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece (1886); and Lambert Strether, who allows himself to shed provincial Americanism when sent on a delicate mission to France in Henry James’ The Ambassadors (1903).
Also: Renee Nere, who insists on her own music hall career and questions the institution of marriage in Colette’s The Vagabond (1910); Ellen Olenska, who leads a somewhat bohemian life in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920); and Valancy Stirling, who thrillingly rebels against the narrow-minded expectations of her mother and extended family in L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle (1926).
Also: Joe Christmas, the wandering, mysterious, conflicted orphan in William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932); the unnamed, not-so-pious priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940); Winston Smith, who tries to buck the totalitarian tide in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949); and the unnamed narrator who lives an amazing and harrowing life in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952).
Also: Scout Finch, the Alabama tomboy who reads avidly and disdains dresses in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960); Molly Bolt, the fun and defiant young woman dealing with her lesbian identity and homophobia in Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973); the brainy, eccentric, obnoxious Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1980); and the enamored, obsessed Florentino Ariza in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985).
Also: Dr. Rowan Mayfair, the brilliant neurosurgeon with a troubled, supernatural family history in Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour (1990); Judy Carrier, the whip-smart, harried, insecure attorney in Lisa Scottoline’s The Vendetta Defense (2002); the gender-confused Cal/Calliope in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (2002); the super-intelligent, understandably bitter computer hacker Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005) and its sequels; and the quirky, delightful secretary Violet Brown in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (2009).
Then there’s Mark Watney, whose ingenuity and humor make that stranded astronaut such a distinctive character in Andy Weir’s The Martian (2011), which I just finished reading. (More on that book next week.)
Who are your favorite unconventional protagonists or unconventional secondary characters in literature? And, if you’d like, you could mention novels that are compelling even with protagonists of the conformist, unimaginative, docile variety!
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.