Things that just don’t work for me: ineffectual protagonists

So, Shannon Hale’s THE GOOSE GIRL.

Goose Girl

This was recommended to me by any number of people. I just finished listening to it last night. And I liked it. I really did. But.

The thing is, Hale’s story keeps closely to the original Brothers Grimm fairy tale. This plot requires a somewhat helpless heroine, which would be a problem to overcome right there. But then where there are departures from the original plot, they make the “helpless heroine” problem worse, not better.

A small but very important difference is that in the original fairy tale, when the lady-in-waiting forces the princess to switch places with her, the princess actually takes an oath not to tell anybody the truth. In Hale’s version, the princess (Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, love the name!!!) doesn’t take such an oath, and so when she vacillates and hesitates and wavers and never tells the king what happened even though she has several difference chances to do so, it is hard to excuse her.

Yes, Ani is shy and tongue-tied. We get that. That is well established beforehand. Even so, when push comes to shove and she’s right there in front of the king and she looses her nerve, I couldn’t help but feel like, Really? Are you serious? And then she spends about a year not doing anything effective. She doesn’t save her horse Falada — which is true to the fairy tale, but really? You let your enemies kill your horse? Seriously? She runs away, she is saved by strangers, she runs away again and hides and is caught and is saved again by strangers and in all this time she does nothing whatsoever to foil the bad guys (other than hide and survive). She finds out her maid, the false princess, is planning to start a war and destroy her home country in order to cover up her treachery, and does absolutely nothing about this for months — months! — while her enemy’s plans go forward.

It’s true that when she does eventually tell the king the truth, naturally at the very last moment, he doesn’t believe her. But that requires the king to be a total idiot, so much so that my suspension of disbelief stumbled hard. He is not presented earlier in the story as a fool, so it seem obvious that if Ani had told him the truth right at the beginning, he would have investigated — just her hair would have been plenty to require an investigation! — proof would in fact have been easy to come by, and poof, the story would be much shorter and less tense. Her horse wouldn’t have been killed, her enemies would have been defeated, and everybody would have lived happily ever after with no need for geese.

I did have other problems with the story, like why include the animal speaking anyway since that was never important? What about her mother’s handkerchief? But basically I was bothered by the Ani’s helplessness.

I have had this exact problem with other stories that I ought to have loved. The one that comes to mind is another fairy tale retelling: WILDWOOD DANCING by Juliet Marillier, an author I love, btw.


I fell so in love with Marillier’s writing in DAUGHTER OF THE FOREST, which is a very beautiful retelling of The Seven Swans. I loved the sequels, too. But WILDWOOD DANCING (The Twelve Dancing Princesses) was ruined for me by the complete ineffectual handwringing helplessness of the protagonist, Jena. When Jena’s cousin Cezar begins to take over everything Jena loves, no one but Jena sees what he’s doing and where it will lead. Jena sees all this clearly, and does nothing at all to stop him. For months and months, she frets and worries and agonizes and completely fails to do anything whatsoever that is in any way useful.

Of course the reader knows that at the end, Jena will suddenly step up and do something heroic. But three hundred and fifty pages of helpless inefficacy is so terribly, terribly frustrating to read about. If you’re the protagonist, then it’s your job to to do something clever to foil the bad guys. Then other stuff goes wrong and gives you another problem to solve. But it is not okay to just stand there and bewail whatever evil is happening right before your eyes and do nothing to stop it.

I mean, can you imagine Miles Vorkosigan just sitting there for months while the bad guys stomp around doing anything they want and having everything their way? It is to laugh, right?

Is it possible that some readers feel that passivity and helplessness can be attractive and sympathetic? In SFF, ineffectuality seems to me to be strictly a thing for the occasional female protagonist. Outside SFF, I can think of passive male protagonists. I think the romantic antihero as exemplified by Young Werther is passive and helpless in a very similar way — and even more frustrating to read about without the SFF setting.

Anyway, SFF or not, I’m pretty sure there is nothing at all a writer can do to make me like an ineffectual protagonist.

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4 thoughts on “Things that just don’t work for me: ineffectual protagonists”

  1. As one of those who’ve recommended it, I’m sorry you didn’t like it. Now I’m wondering why Ani’s passivity didn’t bug me when I will happily bash other hapless main characters.

    … I think it was the fairy tale – I knew the story, and the writing captured that fairy/folk tale feel, so it seemed to fit, as well as (perhaps) childhood deep remembrances of hapless fairy tale princesses. I do love Hale’s prose and and naming.
    It’s the same reason I remain fond of Meredith Ann Pierce’s DARKANGEL – that folktale feel, as well as the imagery. But Pierce’s protaganists are somewhat… dim.

    and I think Hale captured the real behavior of people who’ve been beaten down, even if not physically, so as to have NO self-confidence. Ani needed the time to develop some sense of her own competency and confidence, and to develop friends who’d believe her.

    For the animal speaking, didn’t the critters save her more than once?

  2. Well, I didn’t *dislike* it. The writing was good . . . and I liked all the day-to-day details . . . but, yeah, there you go. I could believe in Ani’s hesitance, but I still found it frustrating and annoying. I am also starting to really believe that anything that would bug me a little if I were reading is going to bother me A LOT if I’m listening, because everything is slowed down so much.

    And sure, the geese were around when she was attacked, for example, but I can’t think of any particular situation that would have been significantly different if she had just liked animals and not been able to talk to them.

  3. Sometimes this works okay for me–if the fact that the protagonist isn’t given enough credit/ability/backup/cultural something I’m failing to put into words is part of the point of the book. Sophie Hatter, for instance, spends most of Howl cleaning and complaining about things, but I’m far from annoyed with her. However, other times it falls really, really flat. And I’ll admit that Goose Girl is a book I loved but haven’t gone back to re-read because I suspect I would not love it quite as much.

    Book of A Thousand Days, on the other hand! I love that one and it’s held up pretty well.

  4. Now, I liked Howl’s Moving Castle just fine, both book and movie. Sophie did not seem passive to me, perhaps because she kind of took over the castle or something? Or more likely because she just does not have a passive type of personality.

    I just looked up Book of A Thousand Days and it does sound really good. So far I’ve listened to two of Hale’s books, liked both, but also had problems with both. I think I will try *reading* the Book of A Thousand Days and see if I don’t like it better.

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