For every protagonist that kicks all manner of bad guy butt, there are at least five that spill things on themselves at critical moments and fumble their words beyond all comprehension. These are the unsung heroes of the literary world, because they make the rest of us feel like it’s okay to screw up. They force us to contemplate the notion that we’re not doomed to a life of total incompetence. They allow us to forgive ourselves for that time we were on a first date and elbows-deep in sweat and we called the waitress “Mom.”
Okay, so Elizabeth Bennet may never gone in for a hug when Darcy was going in for a high-five. Beowulf may not have accidentally liked someone’s Facebook picture from four years ago. But the following five human disasters did all of that and MORE, and it’s to them that we owe our eternal gratitude.
Ed Kennedy (I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak)
Ed is a verifiable walking catastrophe. He’s self-admittedly bad at cards, bad at sex, and bad at life. In fact, the only reason he gets his own story at all is because he accidentally stops a bank heist and gets hailed a hero. (And that’s just because the bank robber is pretty pathetic, as bank robbers go.) This unexpected act of valor is the catalyst that gets him roped into a mysterious mission—to help, to hurt, to right wrongs, and to occasionally serve up a slice of justice pie. If there’s anything we’ve learned from I Am the Messenger, it’s that you don’t have to be good-looking, in peak physical condition, or even halfway competent at anything in order to be a hero. When life hands Ed Kennedy a chance at greatness, he messes it up a few times before he gets it right.
Bryce Loski (Flipped, by Wendelin Van Draanen)
Bryce is like the human equivalent of mashed potatoes. He’s wishy-washy, he lacks real substance, and he falls apart at the first sight of a boa constrictor eating a chicken egg. (You know, just like mashed potatoes.) What makes Bryce even more of a dud is that he has to compete for protagonist status with Julianna Baker. The novel flip-flops between their points of view, and while Juli is off learning life lessons, saving trees, and growing disenchanted with the good-looking, blue-eyed, and melon-scented Bryce (her childhood crush), he is busy being a subpar human being. But stick with him until the food fight at the very end, because all hope is not yet lost for our fledgling heartthrob.
Regan O’Neill (Luna, by Julie Anne Peters)
The fact that Regan’s sister (Liam by day, Luna by night) is transgender is a carefully guarded secret, and it’s one Regan would take to the grave. They’ve got a conservative father (who forces Liam to do MANLY THINGS like THROWING THE BALL AROUND and NOT COOKING, APPARENTLY) to contend with, in a world that’s already not big on the idea of gender identity. Regan knows exactly how high the stakes are…so she shuts down. She flies under the radar, blends into the background, and keeps the rest of the world at bay—until she meets Chris, that is. CUE THE BOY. But is it a fairytale romance where Chris pulls her reluctantly out of her shell and shows her the world is different, everything’s beautiful, and colors are brighter if only she could just let people in? Not exactly. Events go awry, and there’s a babysitting/rave situation that spirals out of control like you wouldn’t believe.
Harry Potter (Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling)
He may be the Boy Who Lived, the Chosen One, and the Master of Death, but before all that he was just some little wizarding nerd who didn’t know a broomstick-shaped package when he saw one and decided illegally flying a car out of Muggle London was the best idea anyone ever had. He spends a lot of time disarming Death Eaters left, right, and center over the course of the series, but he also practically barfs on Cho Chang the first time he asks her out. (“Wangoballwime?” is the call to action of socially awkward nerds everywhere.)
Liz Hall (Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Zevin)
Liz dies tragically young, and what’s the first thing she does in the super cool backwards afterlife called Elsewhere? She hides on the arrival boat and refuses to leave, even at the bequest of the Captain. Let’s be real, though—Liz reacts to the news of her own untimely death the same way the rest of us would. In Elsewhere, everyone ages backwards until they’re good and ready to make the trip back to Earth—as a baby. But instead of exploring this land of wonders, Liz initially spends all her time obsessively keeping tabs on her family (in addition to the man who killed her during a hit-and-run) and trying to get back to Earth. Now, Liz is clearly not a hero (case in point: her last word before she died, far from being inspiring or memorable, was “um”). But maybe the takeaway here is not that Liz isn’t cut out to be a protagonist—maybe the takeaway is that, whether we stroll confidently toward adventure or have to be coaxed out from under the bed by a pun-happy seven-year-old in order to meet it, we’re all worthy of having our own story.