How do you know your protagonist is the protagonist of your story? How can you be certain you’ve picked the right hero for the tale?
In many instances, this is a simple question to answer. Holmes is always the protagonist. The narrators of most urban fantasy novels like Harry Dresden are the protagonists. The stories follow their plights and victories. But for some stories, the question becomes more complicated.
Take romance, for example. Who is the protagonist: the hero or the heroine? In epic fantasy, the cast can become so vast and the story so complex that it’s tricky to name a single protagonist. Who, for example, is the protagonist of Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive? At first glance, it appears that he has at least three or four.
As a writer, knowing for certain which character is your protagonist is crucial.
For my current WIP (work in progress), I initially struggled to identify my protagonist because I had two very strong contesters for the lead. Though this story is speculative fiction, a little science fiction and a bit of fantasy combined, I have a similar challenge to romance novels because my lead and the romantic interest play big roles in the story, go through similar journeys, and have a crucial impact to the tale’s resolution. But this presented a problem. Trying to split focus between them would result in a diluted story and, had I written it all out, robbed the novel of impact. I had to identify my true lead and, naturally, share any insights with you, my dear readers.
In preparation for writing this post, I pulled down several books on writing so I could quote someone on what makes a protagonist or the lead of a story. To my surprise, the books I thought would contain that magic definition didn’t. The closest I found was in Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. What happened to defining one of the most important elements of fiction writing?
I then turned my search to the internet. Here’s what I found:
Dictionary.com defines a protagonist as
the leading character, hero, or heroine of a drama or other literary work.
Helpful for this discussion, isn’t it?
LiteraryDevices.net had a slightly different take:
A protagonist is the central character or leading figure in poetry, narrative, novel or any other story. A protagonist is sometimes called a “hero” by the audience or readers. The word originally came from the Greek language and in Greek drama which refers to the person who led the chorus. Later on, the word started being used as a term for the first actor in order of performance.
Iago in Othello could be identified as the protagonist of the novel because he played a central role in all the controversies of the play. The question here would be that, even though he was a central character, was he really the lead character too? Such a kind of indistinctness generally results in completely different interpretations of whether the said character is a protagonist or not.
This confirms that a lot of people argue over what truly defines a hero or, specifically, the protagonist. That, of course, makes every writer’s job so much easier. What do we do with these vague definitions? How to we apply any of this to our own storytelling?
Among all the places I looked, Orson Scott Card offered the clearest perspective on the question of who to name as the protagonist. In his How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, he makes a distinction between the main character, the protagonist or hero, and the viewpoint character. That may initially sound like it complicates the situation even more, but it actually relieves stress. Card points out that these roles do not have to be filled by the same character. Like in Holmes, Dr. Watson is the viewpoint character. In Star Wars, as Card illustrates, Luke Skywalker might be the hero/protagonist, but Darth Vader is really the main character. That means we writers don’t need to stress out that our main character isn’t the viewpoint character or of a heroic nature. We can relax at the fact that it’s acceptable to have multiple strong characters filling slightly different roles. But we still need to know who fulfills which role?
But how do we untangle this mess of absent definitions? Take a look at how Card parcels out these three roles:
Main Character: Card approaches identifying the main character by asking two simple questions: Who hurts? And who has the power and freedom to act? That person will be the driving force of the story. He will make critical decisions, and his actions will result in change. This person is not necessarily likable, admirable, or heroic in any way. The reason Darth Vader is the main character in Star Wars, despite his despicable acts, is because his choices drive the story. Everyone else reacts to him. In the end, in Return of the Jedi, he is the one who chooses how the final battle ultimately turns by deciding to save his son rather than continuing to work for evil. All that being said, it’s also totally okay and good to have your main character be naturally heroic and admirable.
Protagonist/Hero: Again, Card addresses this by asking questions: Who do we cheer for? Who do we yearn to see succeed? Antagonists, antiheroes, and villains generally are the characters who create the action because their choices result in story. Their desires and decisions force the other characters to react, but these people are not who we usually root for. Rather, we cheer for the guy who stands up to them and tries to right wrongs. We cheer for the protagonist, the hero of the story. He garners out sympathy, respect, and love. Yet he does not necessarily have to be the main character.
Viewpoint Character: This character is simply the eyes through which we see the story. They must be involved in the plot and have a vested interest in the stakes, but they don’t necessarily have to wear the cape and be the main hero fighting crime. Sometimes, readers need an alternate perspective to appreciate the main character and/or protagonist, and that’s when a different character for the point of view comes in handy.
But what about those stories with multiple strong contenders for these parts? Who fulfills which role? Let’s take a look at a couple examples.
Consider romance. Romance writers frequently use the shorthand H/h to refer to their hero and heroine. Separate from any issues with villains, these two characters are traditionally caught up in a struggle against each other, even while they fall for each other. The essence of good romance fiction is creating desire between the H/h, but denying them the ability to truly be together until the end. Other factors come into play, but when it comes down to identifying who the main character and true heroes are, we need to step outside of the typical way of thinking of romantic heroes and heroines.
If you take a look at any romance novel, you’ll notice that one of the romantic leads gets more screen time. Most often, this is the heroine, but there are exceptions when the hero becomes more prominent. Also, the problems facing one of them will become the story’s focus. Granted, their issues are linked, but the main conflict of the story centers around only one, also usually the heroine. This normally makes the heroine the actual main character. Sometimes, it also makes her the protagonist. But there are many instances where we’re really rooting for the romantic hero to swoop in and do his saving, and in that, he becomes the protagonist.
Consider another example. Epic fantasy is notorious for huge casts of characters. In a recent read I did for this blog, we looked at Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, the first novel in his The Stormlight Archive. The Way of Kings follows four separate characters, all of whom have major roles to play and all of whom don’t directly interact with few exceptions. It creates a challenge. Who is the main character? Who is the protagonist?
As Sanderson’s series is only on its second book, I’ll not attempt to venture who to name as the protagonist and main character of the series; however, the structure of the books means that each individual novel has its own main character and hero.
In The Way of Kings, Kaladin is the protagonist. His main character status is challenged by the main character statuses of Dalinar and Shallan, but he is unquestionably the protagonist. Why? Because he hurts greatly; though, other characters hurt quite a bit too. He has the greatest desire to act and make changes. Though a lowly slave, he successfully exerts his power to combat the atrocities around him. And, in the end, his choices and actions bring about the resolution of the main conflicts within the story, at least those that can be resolved in one of Sanderson’s books. Too, Kaladin possesses heroic qualities and becomes someone readers sympathize with and root for. In this story, there may be many main characters, but there is one protagonist.
So in your own stories, when you are unclear who to name as your hero, remember he does not have to be the main character. Remember Orson Scott Card’s definitions, such as they are. Who do we want to succeed? Who hurts? Who has the power and freedom to act? Use these to shift out who your story is really about, and then focus your plot on this.
Join me on Monday for the next chapter of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, where we learn more of how to create a successful story.