After a brief digression in which the panellists mused on whether it should be spelled "Plonka" or "Plonker", they settled down to the topic in hand.
The panel wasn't quite what I expected. I thought the thrust of the discussion would be on how to avoid writing the plonker character, but in fact it was on the advantages of having such a protag and what you could do with one. My notes are a bit sketchy on this panel so I can't attribute a particular comment to a particular panellist, but I'll jot down the points covered, as they occurred.
Getting the ball rolling Juliet made the following points:
The plonker has potential to learn and grow and develop, like the simple hero of the traditional folk tale. This can be a good thing, but beware of crossing the line and making your protag into an annoying git. Have a protag who is the guy off the street rather than the omni-competent hero.
At this point Juliet also posed the question, "In fantasy novels, why don't wizards rule the world?" Usually it's because they're such terribly nice chaps, but this isn't totally plausible. Surely there would be one...?
The omni-competent character can be boring to write and read because they have no journey to go on.
On the other hand, beware of the passive plonker, the guy to whom things happen but who does nothing to drive the plot.
And another reminder to avoid the plonker the reader just wants to slap. *g*
At this point the concept of the semi-plonker was introduced, that is the person who is very very good at one thing, but is hopeless outside their field of competence. (Jack Aubrey was mentioned as an example of this.)
In English fiction there is a very strong tradition of plonker as underdog, but to create a successful plonker hero, your protag must have redeeming features. They must be a sympathetic plonker.
Again the panel came back to the fact that the person with furthest to go makes for the most interesting narrative journey.
At this point there was a slight digression to consider the female plonker. Could a man get away with writing a female plonker? (On the lines of a Bridget Jones character.) The consensus was "Probably not" though currently there are lots of successful examples of men writing highly competent female protags.
Also at this point the panel wondered whether the hopeless, gawky, adolescent plonker who grows and develops to become the hero isn't almost a cliché. [Or perhaps we could call it a trope? *g*]
The plonker mustn't be confused with the anti-hero. Plonkers as heroes have a venerable history, taking in such classic characters as Don Quixote. Also someone suggested "plonker as disguise" in the form of Claudius, who seemed so ineffectual that his enemies overlooked him, so he survived to triumph.
The idea of the incompetent plonker villain was floated, but the panel doubted that this could be made to work. [Anyone want to take up the challenge? *g*]
When creating a plonker hero, he must be plausible and you mustn't have the plot hinge on someone behaving stupidly. Stupidity as plot resolution was considered most unsatisfactory.
So far the plonker under discussion has been young and thus naive and ignorant rather than stupid. Whether the older plonker could be made to work (other than in comedy) seemed to remain a moot point.
Juliet then mentioned the Yiddish "schlemiel" (who is stupid) and "schlemozzel" (merely unfortunate) as variants on this theme. [Have guessed at spelling, so is no doubt wrong.] The unfortunate probably has more story mileage than the stupid.
With a recent rec.arts.sf.composition debate in mind, I asked whether the panel thought that there was a UK or European versus US difference in whether a plonker made an acceptable protag. From rasfc, I had very much got the feeling that the Americans preferred the competent hero to the bumbler. The panel also thought that the US likes success and the UK does have a tendency to want to cut down to size anyone who appears to be too successful (tall poppy syndrome). On the other hand, if I remember correctly, Juliet did include wotsisname, the lad in Edding's Belgariad as an example of the young plonker who develops with the story. So perhaps the rasfcians were not typical of the average US fantasy reader.
Finally the panel discussed another example of the adult plonker, the person promoted beyond their level of competence, in line with the Peter principle. The image of the serene swan, with the frantically paddling feet was conjured at this point. To be successful as hero, though, the writer has to avoid making them a figure of fun and keep them sympathetic.
[Here endeth my notes on that panel.]
Lots of food for thought there, I thought and a very enjoyable panel. Juliet McKenna always seems to have sensible and interesting things to say. Likewise her fellow panellists were amusing and thought provoking, by turns.