Readers are drawn to protagonists that have special talents, good-looks, and a little humility. Are the same qualities that win over pageant judges likely to win over your readers too? While I’m not suggesting you need to swipe vaseline on your hero’s teeth for that beauty queen smile, let’s take a moment to explore how the most popular heroes stack up in these five judging categories, straight from Miss America.
1. Artistic Expression (Talent)
“It’s part of the human condition that we’re fascinated by people who can do what others can’t . . .” (The Key, Ch.2). Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and Bella Swan all have special talents that seem more like instinct.
- Harry Potter is a great wizard. The Sorting Hat says “There’s talent, oh my goodness yes…” (HP Ch.7). Even as a first year student, he can stand up to a battle with Quirrell and Voldemort. “Quirrell raised his hand to perform a deadly curse, but Harry, by instinct, reach up and grabbed Quirrell’s face– ‘AAAARGH!'” (HP Ch.16).
- Katniss Everdeen is a super-skilled survivalist. She can hunt, set traps, and find edible plants. “‘She’s excellent,’ says Peeta. ‘My father buys her squirrels. He always comments on how the arrows never pierce the body. She hits everyone in the eye.'” (HG Ch.7).
- Bella Swan’s mind is the only one that Edward can’t read: “‘Why do you think you can’t hear me?’ I asked curiously. He looked at me, his eyes enigmatic. ‘I don’t know,’ he murmured. ‘The only guess I have is that maybe your mind doesn’t work the same way the rest of theirs do.'” (TW Ch.9).
2. Presence and Poise
The hero should be the “fairest of the fair.” (Technically, this is the evening gown part of the competition.) The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth explains that mythical heroes are both sexually potent and sexually appealing. The hero needs to want somebody, and somebody has to want her.
- Harry is too young in the first book of Harry Potter to be “sexually potent.” But that doesn’t keep a little physical contact from raising the tension: “Hermione’s lip trembled, and she suddenly dashed at Harry and threw her arms around him. ‘Hermione!’” (HP Ch.16).
- Katniss is lovely in The Hunger Games: Peeta says, ‘People will help you in the arena. They’ll be tripping over each other to sponsor you.’ ‘No more than you,’ I say. Peeta rolls his eyes at Haymitch. ‘She has no idea. The effect she can have.'” (HG Ch.7).
- Edward explains that all the boys are after Bella in Twilight: “. . . ‘but you didn’t hear what every human male in this school was thinking on your first day. . . . Trust me just this once– you are the opposite of ordinary.'” (TW Ch.10).
3. Peer Respect and Leadership
How could “peer respect” possibly be judged in a pageant? But, it’s a real category. Let’s interpret it as the level of attention that the heroes receive from their peers. All three heroes, who may prefer to be wallflowers, end up as the reluctant centers of attention: everyone stares at them wherever they go.
- “As Harry stepped forward, whispers suddenly broke out like little hissing fires all over the hall. ‘Potter, did she say?’ ‘The Harry Potter?’ The last thing Harry saw before the hat dropped over his eyes was the hall full of people craning to get a good look at him.” (HP Ch.7).
- “Someone throws me a red rose. I catch it, give it a delicate sniff, and blow a kiss back in the general direction of the giver. A hundred hands reach up to catch my kiss, as if it were a real and tangible thing. ‘Katniss! Katniss!’ I can hear my name being called from all sides.” (HG Ch.5).
- Bella explains, “He gawked at me when he saw my name– not an encouraging response– and of course I flushed tomato red. But at least he sent me to an empty desk at the back without introducing me to the class. It was harder for my new classmates to stare at me in the back, but somehow, they managed.” (TW Ch.1).
4. Lifestyle and Fitness
Okay, this is the swimsuit portion of the pageant, but clearly the focus is on the contestants’ athleticism (read: super-hot beach bodies).
- Harry is great a quidditich: Professor McConagall says, “‘The boy’s a natural. I’ve never seen anything like it. Was that your first time on a broomstick, Potter?’ Harry nodded silently.” (HP Ch.9).
- Katniss can run, swim, and climb trees: “I’m fast. I can sprint faster than any of the girls in our school although a couple can beat me in distance races. But this forty-yard length, this is what I am built for.” (HG Ch.11).
- Sorry Bella, you suck at sports. It’s part of your damsel-in-distress thing. Bella explains, “It was miserable because I had to play volleyball, and the one time I didn’t cringe out of the way of the ball, I hit my teammate in the head with it.” (TW Ch.2).
Like most teenagers, our heroes aren’t able to see themselves clearly. They have no idea how beautiful or talented they are. For me, the key feature that sets a YA novel apart from an adult novel (besides age, obviously) is that the YA hero is not very self-aware, and the reader tolerates it.
- Hermione tells Harry: “‘Harry– you’re a great wizard, you know.’ ‘I’m not as good as you,’ said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.” (HP Ch.16).
- When Peeta points out that Katniss’s beauty will attract sponsors, she wonders, “What on earth does he mean? . . . I’m a tough trader. Or am I? What effect do I have? That I’m weak and needy? Is he suggesting that I got good deals because people pitied me? . . . I glower at the roll, sure he meant to insult me.” (HG Ch.7).
- Bella doesn’t understand why Edward likes her: “‘I’m absolutely ordinary– well, except for bad things like all the near-death experiences and being so clumsy that I’m almost disabled. And look at you.’ . . . His brow creased angrily for a moment, then smoothed as his eyes took on a knowing look. ‘You don’t see yourself very clearly you know.'” (TW Ch.10).
Why the pageantry works
- Fascination: We want to read about heroes who are good-looking and talented, because, let’s be honest, that’s more interesting than reading about someone plain and dull! (Ever read Henry James’s Washington Square?) We want to identify with and walk in the shoes of a character who can do things we cannot.
- Respect: The element of humility is what makes it tolerable– we don’t need the hero rubbing our face in how much better he is than us. Humility keeps the tension going, because the hero has no idea if anybody likes him or if he is good enough. And, humility gives us the chance to respect the hero: we respect Harry because he doesn’t gloat about his fame; we respect Katniss because she uses her survival skills to take care of others.
- BONUS Foreshadowing: All of these “pageant elements” serve as foreshadowing tools. Author Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story explains that foreshadowing is a “genuine get-out-of-jail-free card” for letting the hero perform spectacular tricks to survive an encounter with the villain. Our minds will accept that the hero can walk through walls to save himself just in the nick of time, as long as we saw him casually do it much earlier when the stakes weren’t so high. (WS Ch.11). If Bella were suddenly as good of a fighter as Katniss, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting for Edward to rescue her.
For more information, watch K.M. Weiland’s video lesson called “What’s your Protagonist’s ‘Special’ Trait?”
Try out these five elements on your hero, and your readers will totally buy it when his talent saves the day and he finally gets the girl. Just don’t crown him with a tiara.