‘Boring’ Protagonists Don’t Have to Mean Boring Books

The past week was a rare seven days of being way too busy with various things to write my usual Sunday literature post. So, I’m re-publishing a piece I wrote nearly eight years ago, with some revisions. Here it is:

When a key character in a novel is passive and/or modest, that spells trouble for the book — right? Not necessarily.

A seemingly boring protagonist might have emotional and intellectual depth beyond what first meets a reader’s eye. And we frequently feel empathy for a shy character, who often has a good reason for being bashful. Even if a low-key protagonist doesn’t have much dimension, more charismatic characters can pick up the slack in a Seinfeld sort of way: Jerry wasn’t always interesting on that sitcom, but his eccentric buddies Elaine, George, and Kramer certainly were.

Among the novels starring an uncharismatic character is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. We understand why Fanny Price is timid — she’s a “poor cousin” treated in a subservient way after moving into the affluent home of her uncle and aunt. Fanny also has to bear the constant gibes of another aunt — the ultra-annoying Mrs. Norris, who later inspired the name of a cat in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. And Fanny (pictured above in 1999’s Mansfield Park film) is mostly devoid of the wit Austen gave many of her characters. But she is kind and ethical, and, as the novel goes on, we realize Fanny is also wiser and smarter than we might have initially thought. Indeed, at least one edition of Mansfield Park has back-cover copy saying Fanny “was Austen’s own favorite among her heroines.” Hard to believe, but…

Lena Grove of William Faulkner’s Light in August is a different story. She shows some gumption by traveling alone to find the man who got her pregnant, but she’s mostly clueless — thinking Lucas Burch will welcome her arrival when in fact the jerk fled because he wanted no part of fatherhood. Lena dully and placidly lets events unfold, and the guy (Byron Bunch) who falls in love with her is semi-comatose as well. Much of the novel’s excitement is provided by livelier characters such as Joe Christmas, a mill worker/bootlegger haunted by his probable African-American ancestry in a racist South and by his surreptitious affair with an eccentric older woman (Joanna Burden).

Another thing that makes Light in August, Mansfield Park, and other novels with uncharismatic major characters potentially compelling is when the authors (such as Faulkner and Austen) are stellar writers. As the cliche goes, they could make a grocery list sound interesting.

Then there’s Being There, which may be better known as a movie than novel. Chance the gardener in Jerzy Kosinski’s book is a simple man who somehow gains the ill-deserved reputation as a sage of great wisdom. Chance may be boring, but the premise of the novel is not.

Another short novel, Billy Budd, features a title character who’s almost spookily passive — except for the one fateful instant when the goaded sailor lashes out. But the almost-biblical drama of the book, and Herman Melville’s superb writing, carry the reader along.

The much more recent Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver includes the indecisive Cub, who’s way too accommodating to his bossy parents despite being an adult. He’s married to the livelier, brainy Dellarobia, who wishes Cub would think for himself. Dellarobia’s frustration with her husband’s passivity is a key component of the book and its conclusion.

Then there are characters who, because of social norms, are passive in some situations but not in others. In The God of Small Things, the otherwise capable Mammachi docilely accepts physical abuse from her nasty husband Pappachi, but is later far from meek when going ballistic over her daughter Ammu’s involvement with the kind and admirable “Untouchable” Velutha. Meanwhile, Velutha has to act meekly among the people “above” him in India’s class structure, but is friendly and engaging with Ammu’s twin children Rahel and Estha, who love him in Arundhati Roy’s powerful novel.

Can you name some fictional works with protagonists or co-protagonists who are docile, shy, and/or boring?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about a whether-to-return-to-school-during-COVID debate that sparked an unfortunate lawsuit against my town’s teacher union — is here.

77 thoughts on “‘Boring’ Protagonists Don’t Have to Mean Boring Books

  1. Fanny ? Jane Austen’s preferred character ? Currently re-reading The Way We Live Now, for the Maxwell connotations,and Trollope’s autiobiography, I discovered that Trollope himself found Henrietta Carbury ‘ uninteresting’ .
    Diana Barry, elected ‘bosom friend’ of Anne of Green Gables? .Already, subtly, even at first meeting , so much fatter than Anne, whose imaginary friends were her lifeline.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Esther!

      “Fanny? Jane Austen’s preferred character?” — yes, doesn’t seem plausible.

      Diana Barry was indeed far less interesting than Anne Shirley (and Anne’s imagination), but, as you know, Diana was basically a good person and a loyal friend. That’s something… 🙂

      Trollope’s autobiography must be very interesting! Quite a life he had.

      Like

  2. A little love for Fanny Price and Mansfield Park! 🙂 I have often related to Fanny the most out of Austen’s characters, as I have been painfully shy for most of my life and I totally get it haha. I haven’t seen the movie version but I might try to get my hands on it one of these days. As for recent reads, I might toss “Miss Benson’s Beetle” into the mix here – a very unique story about a boring, middle-aged school teacher in Britain who is shy, lonely, and incredibly introverted. One of the doesn’t-stray-too-far-from-the-sidewalk types. But then she winds up on an adventure with a woman who is her complete opposite, on a remote island on the other side of the world, in pursuit of a legendary golden beetle. I put it in my top 10 reads for last year, just because the premise was so unique and the characters so lovable! 🙂 Give it a read if you’re looking for something different 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I think Lolita of Nabokov’s Lolita is terribly boring as is Zena in Wharton’s Ethan’s Frome. In the former, I get it–beauty and vitality. In the latter, ugly and sick. I quess I find bratty behavior a big yawn since brats are so one dimensional. But then why are brats like Madame Bovary and Cathy (Wuthering Heights) more multi-layered. Must have something to do with cancel culture, ha! Thanks Dave for another great post. Susi

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susi, for the excellent seriocomic comment!

      Lolita is definitely not that interesting, though that might be partly because of her young age — not a fully developed personality and intellect yet.

      And Zeena was indeed mostly one-note along with being very unkind. One certainly felt sorry for Ethan and Mattie in that riveting novella.

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      • Yeah, you’re right about Lolita, 12 years old perfect age. If she had any personality, wouldn’t fit the framework for Humbert’s grooming. And Zena “was” just one note. I mean how long ya gonna play record Zenobia? Ha. Read that Wharton based the tragic sledding accident on an actual sledding accident that happened to a girl Wharton knew.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you for the follow-up comment, Susi!

          “Lolita” was brilliantly written but kind of sick. 😦

          Interesting to hear about the origins of “Ethan Frome.” That accident must have had a big impact on Wharton.

          Like

  4. Another brilliant topic, Dave! There is definitely a difference between a character who is boring to the reader, and one who is boring to his or her fellow characters. May I submit another vote for the altogether wonderful Stoner – utterly heartbreaking in terms of how others see him and also how he sees himself. Also, what about Jane Eyre? A rather dreary character really (oh did I say that out loud?!? 🤣). The second Mrs de Winter is seen by some to be mousy and low-key in Rebecca. And how about Silas Marner, driven to lead a solitary and simple life by the actions of his peers. But perhaps I am straying with this last suggestion from the boring to the tragic….. So veering slightly back on track, there are plenty of authors who portray ordinary people magnificently – how about Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge? Or pretty much anyone in Barbara Pym’s books? Once again, Dave, you have unleashed such treasure here, thank you. 😀

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks so much, Liz! Glad you liked the post! And I appreciate your mention of various characters.

      Protagonists such as Jane Eyre and Silas Marner are interesting — not charismatic, as you rightly allude to, but having enough other qualities to not seem boring to me. In Jane’s case, she’s independent, resilient, and hardworking, and even shows flashes of fun during her happier moments. Silas is indeed put-upon, low-key, and anti-social, but is shown to have a kind heart underneath when that surprise family situation happens.

      “There is definitely a difference between a character who is boring to the reader, and one who is boring to his or her fellow characters” — terrific observation!

      Liked by 3 people

      • I am finding as I get older that I much prefer to read about apparently boring/ordinary people. As you say, Silas has wonderful hidden depths which emerge beautifully as the story progresses. I heard an author say recently that what makes a character interesting is truth – when the reader can recognise common human emotion or thought in a character then interest is immediately piqued. We can then go on to consider whether we like/dislike them, agree/disagree with their actions etc.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, Liz! Eloquently said! I also really like novels featuring “ordinary” people — so much easier to relate to, as you note. With the right author, the novel can still be extraordinary. And, as in real life, the “ordinary” characters can have extraordinary moments that can be quite compelling partly because those moments might be somewhat unexpected.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s like falling into a jewel box coming to your post and your friends, Dave:) When I read the title I immediately thought of famous English novel from the 19th century, but when I read them I may have felt more boring the rules of society that frequently forced women into these for me absolutely boring afternoon tea chats! I very much enjoyed STONER by William Stoner, because he managed to endure or bear his situation provoked by his wife.
    On the whole I am convinced that we should, from time to time, go back to what we have read or written and see in what way we, or our opinion have changed! Many thanks for all your opinions. Martina

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much for the very kind words, Martina! 🙂

      I hear you about how (real and fictional) 19th-century women were often forced into societal roles that made some of those women seem boring, or at least made their lives boring, when in fact many of them were far from boring — or would have been far from boring if allowed to use their intellect and talents more.

      Nice to hear another person today (also Sarah below) express positive feelings about “Stoner.” It’s on my to-read list. 🙂

      Last but not least, great point about how it’s nice to occasionally go back to what we’ve read and written years before to see if we feel differently!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly, that is how I have always felt it, Dave and I have often felt very sorry for these women’s lives! I wonder whether this happened, above all, in colonizer’s countries!
        I’ve told you that in the part of Switzerland, where my mother comes from was considered backward, because women didn’t have the right to vote until it was imposed on Appenzell Innerrhoden in 1990, but women there managed small businesses or had the responsibilities for their farms. I, therefore, am of the opinion that these women’s lives were more satisfactory, despite the fact that they couldn’t go to the polls or to university! By comparing the litterature I have read about China, we have on the one hand Pearl Buck’s books about farmers and on the other side maybe Wild Swans by Jung Chang, where you had to bandagge your feet or become concubine to belong to a better part of society and have a less boring life!!
        Stoner is really a book I liked very much:)
        PS
        To kill a Mocking Bird also came to my mind, where the protagonist Atticus Finch is a model of integrity, but is he not a little boring??
        A very nice evening:) Martina

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Jacob, Have I Loved by Catherine Patterson
    Louise is the heroine, and Caroline is the character that is supposed to get under your skin. She’s everybody’s favorite. She’s the prettier one, and the most talented singer in their school. Their Family had a habit of catering to her more, because she had problems with her lungs, as a baby, and nearly died. Louise has a job, but her parents make her put the money she makes towards Caroline’s music school. Throughout the book, Caroline does these things that pisses Louise off. She takes over Louise is only small source of a social life, and gets a marriage proposal from the guy that Louise likes.
    The book blurb makes Caroline out to be a full on villain. However, when I read The book, I found myself liking Caroline better. Louise had a quiet, reserved, serious personality type, and she was kind of a stiff. Overly sensitive too. She silently expected people to be a certain way, including Caroline, and when they were not, she took things so personally.
    Caroline was not the spoiled brat that I thought she would be. She had a more up beat, happy go lucky personality, and she didn’t deliberately do the things she did to piss off her sister. She had no idea that Louise was harboring so much resentment. To me, Louise didn’t become likable until the end of the book, when the sisters were adults, living separate lives that were hundreds of miles apart.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Bia, for the very interesting/very descriptive comment!

      Impressive that “Jacob Have I Loved” evokes complex and unexpected feelings about the two characters you mentioned and their relationship.

      In some ways, the dynamic of parents favoring one child over another partly because of health reasons reminds me of Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper.”

      Liked by 2 people

  7. After my recent, somewhat disparaging, comments about Fanny Price you can imagine I was VERY interested to read the comment that Austen may have made….How funny the way in which opinion is divided.

    Pooter in ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ definitely fits the boring category and intentionally so, of course, as the Grossmith brothers satirised the explosion of diaries that emerged at the time.

    Clanmother’s mention of Shakespeare made me think of Hero in ‘Much Ado about Nothing’. I have very mixed feelings about this comedy. Hero is very much in the shadow of Beatrice for the entirety of the play. I must admit to being somewhat outraged (understated Britishness!) of her treatment by the awful men on her marriage day. If that had been Beatrice I’m sure she would have stomped off, but, no, Hero is very much the martyr to the times.

    And what about Stoner in John William’s 1965 novel of the same name? A most unremarkable career, but thinking about Liz’s comment above, it was a captivating read.

    And finally, Willie Maryngton in ‘Operation Heartbreak’ by Duff Cooper – the fictionalised account of ‘Operation Mincemeat’. Poor chap. What an undistinguished career and only achieved anything when he was dead!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sarah! Yes, Fanny Price is a polarizing character in terms of what various readers think about her. Another example of why discussing literature can be so enjoyable. 🙂

      Great mentions of several other characters from several other works — none of which I’ve read, unfortunately, but you piqued my interest in all. Heck, a name such as Stoner is an example of how a person’s name can say a lot about their personality, whether low-key or not. And I need to read more Shakespeare plays; I’ve only read or seen maybe five of them. 😦

      Liked by 2 people

      • Stoner is not at all what I thought it would be. Just consulting my old buddy (Wiki) I was quite surprised to see it was written in the mid 60s. I read it just a few years ago and, remarkably, it’s one that I have some recall about! I think it will probably be called a classic at some point! In fact, my copy may well be marketed as a penguin classic, or whatever equivalent of whichever publishers!
        And dear Shakespeare. I’m very fortunate to have The Globe theatre more or less on my doorstep and go at least once a year (well, before ‘This’ happened). His comedies can be utterly baffling and despite seeing a few of them I’d be hard pushed to tell you what they are as they all contain mistaken identity and lovers ending up where they shouldn’t! That’s not to say I don’t enjoy them of course! Having said that about his comedy, I was much troubled by ‘Much Ado…’
        I think Miss Austen would be delighted (and quite rightly so) that we’re still analysing Fanny Price in such detail!

        Liked by 2 people

        • That’s high praise for “Stoner,” Sarah! It’s usually hard to recall many details of a novel read years ago.

          Ha — Wiki as a “buddy.” 😂 My buddy, too. 🙂

          Wonderful to have The Globe Theatre not far from you! I agree that it’s not always easy to grasp everything in a Shakespeare play, even as we often see the genius.

          You could be right that Jane Austen would be delighted with the divergent feelings about Fanny Price. And perhaps delighted in general with how popular her work is today. Maybe she would have preferred that level of fame in her lifetime, though maybe not — that can be a burden, too.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Yes, a little more recognition in Jane Austen’s lifetime perhaps would have been quite welcome! I like to think she would have coped with the fame – I’m sure she’d have the odd withering remark to cast about.

            Yes, and staggering I can actually remember how a book ends (please don’t ask me about any more).

            Liked by 2 people

            • Even remembering only how a read-years-ago novel ends is not a given! 🙂

              Yes, “odd withering remarks” from Jane Austen would have helped her cope with fame. It helps to have a great sense of humor, like she did.

              Liked by 2 people

  8. Great post and many fine examples here already in the comments. I remember reading Adam Bede, mentioned by Mary Jo there and initially thinking, ‘He’s the lead, Seriously?’ But ultimately you could see he’s everyman in every way. Also I saw Rebecca’s comment about Ophelia and it is very true. Talking Shakespeare I in another life i stepped into the role of Helena in Midsummer’s Night’s at 3 days notice and got the usual talk through about how upset she gets, wandering about that wood being made a fool of by the 3 lovers etc. And I thought, no way. She sets the damn thing up so can we just drop the boring bit and play that upset scene with her manipulative as hell with a ton load of guile while she sears the opposite? Beth in Little Women could be deemed the boring one. But she’s anything but And if the four girls had all been like Jo, then there would have been no story.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. When you get right down to it, Frodo isn’t exactly a firecracker, even though he is the protagonist of LOTR. Sam has more personality than he, in his down to earth way.
    I haven’t read Faulkner’s Light in August, but reading your description of it, I have to wonder how he got away naming three characters Burch, Bunch, and Burden!

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Great article … as to boring protagonist, not having to mean or be boring books. If having emotional and intellectual depth, etc., then to some extent this kind of saves my bacon. Thus and if so I’m encouraged to carry on. For if boring and protagonist should be the case, as a scribbler of the poetic medium, with sixteen books of poetry published and number seventeen in the works, I’ve been in trouble for a long time as many of the reflections in my writings do skate around with a protagonist bent and or intention. Oh please, may the gods of writing save us from the narrows, and they who have no other means of interpretation or understanding !

    Jean-Jacques

    >

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Jean-Jacques! Very true — a fictional work “having emotional and intellectual depth” can easily survive a (supposedly) boring protagonist.

      So impressive that you’re working on your 17th book of poetry!

      Liked by 2 people

  11. I’m sure there are many characters and novels which fit this cool category, but the only two off the top of my head are Eliot’s title character Adam Bede and Conrad’s Lord Jim. Thank you very much for recommending George Eliot’s work.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. What a great post, Dave!!! It is seeing the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary (which is never ordinary) You have ignited my thinking on a Sunday morning. As you know, I have a daily art calendar. Today’s featured painting is Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852). I always felt that Ophelia was pushed to the background, somehow given a bland role that showed her decline into madness. “Get thee to a nunnery” was the last straw for me. To me, Hamlet was the ordinary, lacking compassion, while Ophelia showed extraordinary courage. I think that there are others who feel the same, given the amount of art work that attempts to capture her image and personality. The other ordinary character that come to mind is Samwise (you know that I named my Siamese cat Samwise). He was a gardener who loved the earth, home and hearth. He never sought fame or riches. All he wanted to do was protect Frodo Baggins. His courage and resilience was evident throughout the trilogy. I still get teary when I read this passage by Samwise: “I know now folks in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something. That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” Always a joy to stop by, Dave!!!

    Liked by 7 people

    • Thank you, Clanmother! Loved your comment — including this memorable and accurate line: “It is seeing the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary (which is never ordinary).”

      While it’s not always the case, I think there’s often an element of sexism when a novelist or playwright puts a more interesting woman character in a lesser role than a not-as-interesting male character. Ophelia being one example, as you aptly noted.

      And Samwise of “The Lord of the Rings” is indeed a sort of “everyman” character, even as he’s one of the most memorable people in “The Lord of the Rings.”

      Liked by 5 people

    • I remember just loving Hamlet’s brand of youthful angst when I read the play the first time in 9th grade. When I read it again in college, I thought he was a self-indulgent, whiny little twit. Make up your mind already–and if you don’t want to make up you your mind, then quit going on about it!

      Liked by 6 people

      • Thank you, Martina! There is a story about how J.R.R. Tolkien chose Samwise Gamgee’s name. It appears that he may have seen the a plague commemorating a 19th century Birmingham surgeon, Joseph’s Samson Gamgee, who invented a surgical dressing. The plaque was near his childhood home so could have gone into his unconscious. J.R.R. Tolkien was very surprised to hear from the real “Sam Gamgee” in a 1956 letter, who said that he had heard that his name was in LOTR but had not read it. This is Tolkien’s response:
        “Dear Mr. Gamgee,
        It was very kind of you to write. You can imagine my astonishment when I saw your signature! I can only say, for your comfort, I hope, that the ‘Sam Gamgee’ of my story is a most heroic character, now widely beloved by many readers, even though his origins are rustic. So that perhaps you will not be displeased at the coincidence of the name of this imaginary character of supposedly many centuries ago being the same as yours.” The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: Letter 184

        There is always a great story that comes from great stories….

        Liked by 2 people

        • Oh, Rebecca, I had forgotten that Sam was Frodo’s gardener and the chief supporting character of “Lord of the Rings”, despite the fact that I have seen it as a play, but I had certainly never heard of the real Sam Gamgee! All these stories around the world make us more alive!! With this wonderful explanation I can certainly sleep well:)

          Liked by 2 people

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