When one thinks of science fiction and fantasy protagonists, one thinks of figures like Morgaine (Gate of Ivrel), Essun (The Fifth Season), Cordelia Naismith (Shards of Honor), Beatrice Clayborn (The Midnight Bargain) and Anna Tromedlov (Hench). A casual glance suggests these are generally women, which only makes sense. The majority of fiction readers are women and of course they want relatable characters.
However, it’s entirely possible to write a book with a strong male protagonist at its centre (“strong” as in striking, resolute, and/or determined, not as being able to dead-lift surprising amounts of weight, of course—assessing male characters purely in physical terms would be offensively reductive). Consider these five recent examples:
Witchmark by C. L. Polk (2017)
Neither a lamentable childhood nor a brutal war managed to kill Doctor Singer. Singer hopes his dramatic past will remain just that—past—which should allow him to concentrate on healing people. His efforts to play good Samaritan have unfortunate consequences when Singer tries to save the life of dying journalist Nick Elliott. Before he dies, the dying man as much as calls Singer a witch in the hearing of one Tristan Hunter.
The laws of Singer’s homeland, Aeland, are very clear where witches are concerned. Known witches are dispatched to asylums upon detection. Should Hunter reveal what he heard, Singer’s career as a doctor and life as a free man would be over. However, Hunter is not from Aeland and has no reason to expose Singer. What Hunter would like is to discover who killed Elliott and why. This is a matter with which Singer can aid Hunter… although the consequences of their quest may be as calamitous as being exposed as a witch.
King of the Rising by Kacen Callender (2020)
Loren Jannik would seem to be favoured by fortune. He has one of the most powerful magical gifts or “krafts”: the ability to copy other people’s magic. His people look to him as a leader. This is not, however, the boon it might seem. His people were invaded and enslaved by the Fjern in centuries past, and the Fjern have a policy of murdering every one of Jannik’s people who display kraft (strong or weak) as well as any Islander who displays, as Jannik does, rebellious tendencies. Jannik’s other useful knack—that of surviving certain death—is well documented. It has been tested so frequently.
Eventually Fjern arrogance facilitates wide-spread slave uprisings. For the moment, Jannik and those he leads are free. And yet…the uprising hasn’t extended to distant islands; the Fjern’s military forces are numerically superior to the rebels; and Jannik’s leadership is questioned by those who feel they should be in charge.
It seems as if Jannik’s gift for surviving no-win situations may be very helpful in the immediate future.
The Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (2020)
Born physically disabled and non-verbal, Pheris would have been exposed or smothered at birth save for mercy born out of spite. Her mother sees that he is spared so that Pheris can be a living embarrassment to Pheris’ grandfather Baron Erondites. As a child, Pheris realized there were more dangerous alternatives than being considered beneath contempt. He therefore concealed just how intelligent he is.
To the Baron, Pheris is an expendable chip, suitable for handing over to High King Gen to serve as a hostage/attendant. Gen is more insightful than the Baron. Perceiving that Pheris is actually quite smart, Gen sees to Pheris’ education. Ensconced at court, Pheris is given a front row seat to Peninsular politics and the final struggle that will either see the Peninsula united in defence or consumed by the vast Mede Empire.
A Broken Darkness by Premee Mohamed (2021)
In the year and a half since wunderkind Johnny Chambers and her best friend Nick Prasad saved the world from the Dimensional Anomaly, Nick has painstakingly reconstructed his life without Johnny. Not because Johnny died. Johnny is alive and well, something hundreds of millions of victims of the Anomaly cannot say. Rather, it’s because of what Nick learned about Johnny, including but not limited to Johnny’s role in facilitating the invasion of our world by Cosmic Horrors.
Said horrors were vanquished in the traditional manner. They should not be able to try another attack until the next time the Stars are Right. However, the outbreaks of body-warping horrors suggest that despite the Stars being Wrong, humanity’s enemies are somehow infiltrating our reality. For humanity to survive, some defence must be found and for that to happen, Nick is going to have to accept the unthinkable: rekindling his alliance with Johnny.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell (2021)
Prince Kiem understands full well why his grandmother the Emperor has never trusted the prince with any task of importance. The prince himself would admit he can be irresponsible, impulsive, and just a bit dim. But he’s alive and available for a strategic marriage. He is ordered to marry the fiancé of his dead cousin Taam: Count Jainan.
The marriage symbolizes the bond between Kiem’s country of Iskat and Jainan’s Thea. It matters little which high-ranking Iskatian marries Jainan. There’s just one hitch: both Iskat and Jainan would really like to know who murdered Taam. If they don’t find out, there might be another alliance-disrupting murder.
Of course, I could have chosen other examples. There are literally dozens of books that feature strong male protagonists! You may have your own favourite examples. Feel free to mention them in the comments.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviewsand the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.