Monday, June 4, 2012

Writing Advice: What Is A Protagonist? (Part 1)

And more importantly, how do you write a good one?

The first thing to note is that the protagonist of a story is not always the same as the viewpoint character, or even the main character. They can, of course, be the same character (like in The Hunger Games), but not always. Often these three terms are confused and defined synonymously, but there is a subtle difference between them.

The veiwpoint character is the one who is telling the story, regardless of whether it is told in first-person or third-person, while the main character is the character the story is focussed on. In the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson narrates the story, making him the viewpoint character, while Holmes is the main character. In George Orwell's Animal Farm, there is no viewpoint character at all - the POV is omniscient, as if the author is narrating the story - and the main character is Napoleon.

The protagonist, however, differs in one significant way: it is the character who possesses the most willpower. He must have a strong and conscious desire, more prominent than any other character's, that drives him to act throughout the story - although, sometimes, the desire causes the protagonist to be inactive.

In the Greek tragedy, Antigone, by Sophocles, the main character of the story is Creon, the King of the city Thebes, as it focusses on his downfall. The protagonist, however, is his niece, Antigone, who desires to bury her deceased and treasonous brother (thus showing his memory respect). As it happens, Creon is also the antagonist of the story, because he is the one who gets in the protagonist's way.

So. I'm glad we have that sorted.

One thing to remember about writing a protagonist is that he must always have the capacity to pursue, and then obtain, his object of desire. He does't have to reach his goal, but he must be able to. The reason for this is that a reader will not connect with a character who doesn't have any chance of succeeding, because no-one wants to believe that their own desires are unachievable. We carry hope until the end. In this way, a character with impossible goals is not empathetic. And, plus, why would we waste our time on someone who is literally hopeless?

This, among many others, is one reason why I dislike Holden from The Catcher in the Rye. His desire is impossible: to cling onto his childhood forever and help others to do the same. While this goal shows insight into his character, it frustrates me in terms of story, because he would never actually to be able to achieve it. And even if he could, he probably wouldn't do anything about it (because, hey, it's Holden Caulfield).

In short, a protagonist differs from other characters because he or she has a desire that is achievable prominent in the development of the story.

Stay tuned for part two. ... (Oh, and you may have noticed that I am posting again after a much-too-long hiatus. I know, I'm awesome.)


  1. Great definition and inspiration!

  2. Yes, thank you for sharing. It's true that a lot of people think of them as the same thing--which is probably why it's so interesting when someone changes their usual relation. The POV of the antagonist, an unreliable narrator, or a secondary character becoming the main character are not done as often, and it's a fun surprise when you realize you've been following the villain, or been lied to, or paid attention to the wrong person the whole time!

    1. Exactly! It's cool, isn't it? These are the kind of stories that we remember, simply because of the unique way the protagonist was written. I would love to try writing from the POV of the antagonist in the future :)


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