What is a Protagonist Anyway?

Posted: July 17, 2015 in On Writing
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The protagonist is the main character of the story. It is the person that, by acting, or in many cases reacting, to events, drives the action of the story.

Protagonist is a Moral Free Designation

The protagonist of the story is the main character, that’s it. They can be good, evil, moral, immoral, or amoral. Patrick Bateman is the protagonist character of AMERICAN PSYCHO, even if he is an unhinged lunatic. Maleficient, even though she is the antagonist in SLEEPING BEAUTY, is the protagonist for her own story. It doesn’t matter what their motivation is, so long as it is their action driving the plot, then that’s your protagonist.

If you were to write a story from Darth Vader’s perspective, Darth Vader would then be your protagonist, with the rebels (and possibly the emperor) being designated the antagonists.

Your Narrator Isn’t Always the Protagonist

It is easy to think that your narrator, especially when writing from a first person perspective, is the protagonist. This, however, is not always the case. The iconic example is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories, which are told from the perspective of his friend, Dr. John Watson. Watson, however, is not the driving force behind those stories, even though he does take an active role. Rather, he is the chronicler of Holmes’ exploits.

So when looking at your own story, is your narrator the main character? Or is someone else making the decisions, developing as a character, and driving your story forward?

What If You Have More Than One Protagonist?

So what if you have more than one main character? What if your characters trade off narration duties, especially when perspective flips? Well, then you have the case of the deuteragonist. The deuteragonist may not get the same “screen time” or page count of the protagonist, but their story is as integral to the whole. While the story of Lord of the Rings is very much Frodo’s story, Sam’s story takes up a good deal of the plot as well. And yes, Aragorn ends up being a triagonist in this case, as his story, while important, is sublimed into the background of Frodo and Sam’s quest.

Sometimes the Protagonist Isn’t Who We Think It Is

Sometimes as writer’s we employ a bit of sleight of hand. We start off with a story, lulling you into a sense that the character who is currently front and center is the focus of the story. Surprise! They die a quarter of the way through the book. Wait? What happened? The writer was using the time-honored technique of the Decoy Protagonist. Huh? Why would they do that?

Lots of reasons really.

Maybe the simple answer is that the author never wants you to get comfortable around the characters, never wants you, the reader, to feel safe. If the “main” character dies part way through, well then who is safe at the end of the day? The sense of danger and of suspense is heightened when the reader doesn’t know who is going to survive and who’s just more meat for the grinder.

And Sometimes the Protagonist Lies

Think about stories you might tell about yourself. Do you drag every fact into the light? Are you always objectively telling the exact truth? If you and someone else tell the same story, do all the facts line up precisely? Probably not. Think about that from your perspective as a writer. You, as the author, need to know what happened. The character? Not so much. Their own prejudices and biases color their actions and thoughts, and you need to be aware of that. Sometimes your protagonist will lie, or even simply be mistaken. As the writer you need to be willing to take those chances, while still being true to the story you want to tell.

Now go ahead and watch THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Think about who told the story. Now, what parts of the story hold true? How much of it is a fabrication? How can you use this in your own stories?

  1. PD says:

    Beautifully written, as ever. I’m currently writing a first-person short where the protagonist for the most part appears to be a wonderful man, hard done by and oblivious to it. Then comes the twist. When the reader is full of love and support for the character, I’m going to reveal him for who he really is. Mwah-ah-ah!

    • Thanks. I’ve run into other writers who seem to think “bad guy” automatically equals antagonist, even where that character was the main character of the piece.
      I always worry with these kind of pieces that I am coming off as too heavy handed, so I’m glad to hear you liked it.

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