The Happy Protagonist

by Victoria C. Anderson

I recently read Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, and will admit that I got a lot out of it. I relish the thought of being able to make my life a happier one by changing my attitude rather than my life. Changing an attitude, while I don’t want to say easier, is certainly a less obtrusive solution. It requires work on your part, but you can do it yourself. That appeals me.

But it’s also got me wondering about whether or not you could have a protagonist for a novel, or even a short story, that has this attitude. Laughs, doesn’t blame others, doesn’t look to others for approval, always follows their passion, does little things to make themselves happy, is very polite to others… I keep wondering if a character like that would be boring, or maybe insufferable in their perfection.  Of course, this is taking the ideal to an extreme. No one is like that all the time. But what if this character was? Would there still be tension enough for a good story?

Of course, as soon as I brought this up to my fiance, he said that the main character from American Beauty was a perfect example of this kind of person, and there was still tension, but the tension was in that this character’s way of seeking happiness was destructive to others. Now, I haven’t seen this movie; it wasn’t on netflix when I tried to watch it as research for this blog, so any of you who have seen it should chime in down in the comments and let me know what you think about that example. I will say, that I do see how that could work – a conflict between the character and the social environment around him. But I can’t help but think that this character wasn’t exactly using Gretchen Rubin’s attitude for happiness if his happiness was so destructive to those around him.

But on a similar note, I can see how a person at peace with herself could draw conflicts to herself because those around her are not that at peace with themselves, and find her poise and carefree nature frustrating, or are just plain jealous, or plain just don’t understand it. Actually, that description makes me think of a book I read in high school, Stargirl. So there’s that. I guess I’ve got two examples there.

The lack of tension, then, is in the character themselves, but not in the story that you create around them, because no matter what the character’s temperament, you can always find someone or something to conflict with them. And then there’s also the possibility of taking such a character and seeing how far you can stretch that happiness before it breaks, and they’re broken. But that would be a much darker story, if still an interesting thought experiment.

Does anyone else have anything else to add to this? Have you written a happy protagonist, or read about one? How was it handled?