Have you ever read a novel where the protagonist was generic and indistinct, but it wasn’t a bad thing? Maybe you felt that this even worked to the novel’s advantage.
Would you say that Harry Potter, the character, is a terribly interesting individual? Is he replete with quirks that distinguish his personality from yours? If not, is that to the books’ detriment? Maybe it’s because you care less about what Harry thinks or does and more about what is happening around him. This makes it easier to meld your identity with the hero’s and experience the story directly from his perspective, even in third-person narration.
It’s not like A Catcher in the Rye, where the interest in the book lies overwhelmingly with the character who is talking to you… and what passes for a plot in the book is less of a concern. What I’m thinking of are the novels that you don’t merely want a window into: you want them to surround you, and the only thing to impede that would be a distinct protagonist.
Twilight. Everybody knows those books aren’t about Bella. Talk to the fans—nobody gives a flippity fuck about Bella. They don’t even want to be Bella—but they want to be in her situation. A protagonist as weakly drawn as she is makes it easier for the reader to supplant her and take on her role as they read, which, among other things, means having a gorgeous, super-powered, alluringly dangerous boyfriend who rescues you from everything (and though I could be wrong on this, readers who don’t find Edward appealing have little reason to enjoy these books). If Bella were a more well-rounded and distinguished character I don’t think the Twilight series would have as many fans as it does.
Now, I encountered the personality vacuum once again in The Magicians. Lev Grossman may or may not be aware that he’s employing it—I can’t decide. But it’s there, and it functions just as it does in the Harry Potter books, with the hero, Quentin, being unremarkable and me not minding that. But eventually it breaks down: at one point, Quentin, filled with both the ennui of his idle post-graduate existence and vanity of his new Manhattan party-life, becomes an insufferable piss-ant. He becomes conceited, superficial, obnoxious in conversation with his friends, and worst of all he cheats on his terrific girlfriend. All of this would not be an issue in a different book and would be overpowered by the fact that it’s an interesting character development, but Lev, you don’t understand: I am Quentin now, and I don’t want to be a piss-ant.
This feeling later passes as Quentin’s ordeal leaves him emotionally shaken by the end of the book. He’s finally sympathetic again, but in his newly rounded characterization he’s forever spliced from me, and I’m not sure if I like that as much as when I experienced The Magicians without the middleman.
So a vanilla protagonist, I think, benefits the reading experience in special cases—chiefly the ones where the draw of the book is the World the author has created, one that the reader would find thrilling to inhabit.
But the effect must remain consistent, the hero must remain nonunique, or else it’ll produce the slight shock of separation in the reader somewhere along the way.
Either that or I could be really weird.