13.1: Hero, Protagonist, Main Character

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard

2018 is our Year of Character, and we kick it off with a quick exploration of the differences between heroes, protagonists, and main characters. Beginning with addressing the question “wait, aren’t they all the same person?” Because that’s the elephant in the room. Or maybe it’s three elephants. Or two. Sometimes there’s no elephant, and if you look carefully you can see an elephant-shaped hole, which is probably more like a negative number of elephants.

Liner Notes: We referenced The Hollywood Formula, which was introduced to us by Lou Anders in Episode 6.18. We also keep saying “protag” as a verb, which to us means “doing proactive protagonist things.” Howard may have made up this word, but its true provenance has been lost to the mists of anxiety of influence.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson. For audio quality purposes the studio contained zero elephants.



Tell a story with three characters—hero, protagonist, and main character. Tell it three times, once for each of those in which they are the POV character.

Emerald Circus, by Jane Yolen

35 thoughts on “13.1: Hero, Protagonist, Main Character”

  1. Gang,
    Looking forward to learning about the anti-heroes. Interesting delineation among the three. I think I’ve often used the word ‘protagonist’ in my daily speech to mean ‘main character’, and like Mary says, I think that there is some Venn Diagram stuff going on there. Thanks for the cast.

  2. Thank you. I always learn so much from your podcasts. Last year I listened and learned and tried to apply. This year I’m going to do the homework too. I wonder if you know any online writing groups that complete your homework tasks and meet to discuss the outcome?

  3. This was a great podcast! For the first time I’m going to try and do the homework, I might have difficulty with the protagonist vs. main character but wish me luck!

  4. Slightly disappointed no one referenced Snow Crash in this podcast. I kept waiting for a “The protagonist isn’t always the the main character, or a hero. Unless of course the main character is Hiro Protagonist,” joke :)

    1. The joke works better in writing, because of the spelling of Hiro. Also, the joke would confuse anyone new to the domain by conflating the terms just as we’re establishing differentiation. Yes, these are things that ran through my head when I decided to eschew any mention of SNOW CRASH.

      Oh, wait. Is your post itself an attempt to tell the joke? If so, the delivery is slightly disappointing…

  5. It occures to me that Final Fantasy XII is one of the few video games that has a separate main charater, hero and protagnist.

    1. In most video games the player is, by default, the main character, and by virtue of needing to be awesome (for game play) the hero. The nature of game writing often means, however, that the player character is never particularly protagonist-ish (protaggy? Protagonistic?) in that they’re not the one advancing the story. They’re just running on the rails left by somebody else.

      The secret to making the player feel like a protagonist lies in hiding the rails. Because until we make some *huge* breakthroughs in game development, there are going to be rails.

      In BORDERLANDS: THE PRE-SEQUEL I think that the player character is our MC, and that Handsome Jack is our (tragically flawed, as it happens) protagonist. He sets the story in motion, and he is the one with all the life-changing moments around which the plot turns. Whether or not the PC is the hero depends on how the player feels about Lilith’s activities in Act II and Act III…

      1. I think we must be playing different types of games, for every time video game are meantioned on Writing ExcusesI am always go “wait what, that’s not…” I do mostly play JRPGs and they do have the main charaters being protaggy.

        1. My experience with JRPGs (vicarious, through my kids who like them) is that they’re playing a really well-written manga. It’s very satisfying from a story point of view, but the decision tree doesn’t branch any further than it does in Mass Effect, or Dishonored.

          The point here is that even though the player character can be written as a protagonist (and written quite well!), the PLAYER doesn’t get to be the protagonist because they don’t get to make the decisions that move the story forward. They watch the decisions get made during cut-scenes.

          That said, DISHONORED does an excellent job of compromising in this regard, because the abilities you employ and the way you use them directly effects the flavor of the world in which the story is unfolding. The story still doesn’t get driven forward by the player, but the game-play decisions are incredibly significant.

      2. In quite a few video games (and more than a few books, movies, etc), it almost seems like it’s the antagonist(s) setting things in motion and driving the story forward.

        1. @KWG – YES! This is extremely common. The inciting incident is very often something the Antagonist laid at the Protagonist’s feet, saying “react to this.”

          1. Even with video games, I think there can be a difference in “feel”.

            Using two games I’ve played as examples:

            Dragon Age: Origins — it felt more like the Warden responded with so proactivity and had a hand in driving the story forward because they were working to defeat the Blight.

            Dragon Age 2 — it felt more like Hawke was playing catchup and responding event after event to things that others had done as it all unfolded, in a largely reactive manner.

            The difference between “there’s an arsonist on the loose, I’m going to try to catch them” and “wow I’m really busy putting out all these fires”.

  6. This was a very interesting look at the differences between those character roles! It made me think a little about my Paul Twister stories. Paul is obviously the main character, by virtue of being the first-person narrator, and he does a lot (though not all) of the protagging, but his biggest skill is being smart and knowing a lot of stuff. He’s good at planning (sometimes; his plans tend to either work really well or fail disastrously) and coordinating stuff, and he generally leaves most of the heroism (and especially the credit for it, deserved or not) to his companions. I actually had one reader compare him to Caiphas Cain in that regard.

    So it was really cool to see you guys break down the distinctions and analyze how each role can work differently. If this is how it starts off, I’m really looking forward to the rest of the season! :D

  7. Great episode. I am looking forward to a year focused on character, and I am happy that I have finally caught up (at least from season 10) so I can listen as they are published.

  8. I admit I’m a little confused with the definitions, a little…

    Protagonist makes sense to me, because of course the person who makes things happen will be the opposite of the antagonist (which literally means something that interferes with or inhibits another thing). But at another point the Protagonist is referred to as “the character who changes the most”? Those two definitions don’t necessarily line up. If we look at the prologue of Steelheart, as the first example off the top of my head, the character who changes the most expressly changes because of the actions of other characters – he sits and watches something happen, and as a result he realigns his entire life’s goals. “Character that changes the most” and “Character that makes things happen” make a ton of sense as definitions that deserve names, but they can’t both be “protagonist.”

    Main character, too, confuses me a bit. Is this the perspective character? The narrator? What about third-person omniscient, does that mean that there’s no main character, or is there just a different main character each paragraph?

    Hero… oddly enough makes the most sense to me as an isolated entity. Look at the Hobbit movies, or half the anime out there. Bilbo is the protagonist, but he doesn’t do much cool stuff. Does that mean that Legolas/Thorin/that guy who looks like Orlando Bloom but isn’t/etc are the heroes? Or look at One Punch Man. Saitama does all the cool stuff, but doesn’t often drive the story forward – he just reacts to things, and the story often focuses on the people around him.

    But Hero, here, also seems pretty action-centric. Is there no hero in pure romance novels? Or is the hero the person who has the most badass kisses? In a slice-of-life story, heroic actions are possible, but certainly aren’t a given. Yet even so, we often refer to characters as the “hero of the story!” It seems weird to me to define “hero” such that entire genres don’t have heroes. Ever.

    I’m thinking that I probably just misunderstood a few things – there’s only so much info you can get from a 15-minute podcast – but it’s something I’ve put quite a bit of thought into lately. And I don’t mean to be cruel or over-critical. I’ve been a listener for… geez, almost 4 years now, and this is the first time I’ve felt it important to speak up.

    What’s true is that character, especially focal character, is a concept that has a ton of nuance, and I love that this episode has gotten me to think so deeply about it. It’s the sort of thing I love discussing, I just want to know if I’m starting from the same point as everyone else.

    1. Mary said the protagonist drives the story forward. This is a very good and useful definition. My definition is less useful, especially as I worded it, so let’s consider it differently. In a story where there is a central character arc, the protagonist is often the one who gets that arc, usually aligned with the bit where they drive the story forward. It’s entirely possible that they do NOT get the arc, in which case we can split semantic hairs about who gets to be the protagonist, but the key distinction is that “driving the story” and “having the central arc” do not have to be the same person.

      In the Hobbit movies I would argue that Bilbo is our Main Character and our Protagonist. Heroic action is all over the place, and Bilbo is certainly one of the many characters who takes it, but let’s take a step back and ask ourselves why any of this matters…

      1) If you’re writing a story and it stalls, whose job is it to move the story forward? (Besides yours. It’s always your job, yes.)
      2) If you’re writing a story and characters seem unmotivated, or “plot-motivated,” which of them is supposed to be motivated by the events of the story?
      3) If the ending is unsatisfying, which of the characters is supposed to be doing the satisfying bits that are missing?

      In short, dissecting something successful is useful, but for writers it is only useful insofar as we’re able to apply the dissection to some surgery on our own work.

      1. In short, dissecting something successful is useful, but for writers it is only useful insofar as we’re able to apply the dissection to some surgery on our own work.

        You being the one saying this suddenly has me imagining Neeka practicing her horrifying arts on a body of literature-in-progress. It’s a somewhat disturbing mental image.

      2. Ah, thanks, that’s really helpful!

        A big motivation for me behind asking was because I wanted to be sure on the nomenclature going forward – if this entire season is about character, it’s nice to know WHICH of the distinctions people are talking about.

        But I guess I did sorta miss the forest for the trees here. I was so hung up on naming that the idea of using it for story didn’t really occur to me, even though my current project is this super-experimental “side-character perspective only” thing where we go in-depth into the guy who tells Luke that his tauntaun will never make it past the first marker (so to speak). Having it stated that way is actually really helpful.

        And I really like that last comment you made there about “which character is supposed to be doing the satisfying bits,” which I think was supposed to refer to which character is the hero? Because by that definition, you can still have heroes in romance etc, where even though there are no explosions or “cool things,” you can still have heroes in terms of people who make (or enable) the big romantic gestures.

        In a way, the guy who starts the slow clap in romcoms is, in a way, the real hero. And that makes me feel validated inside.

  9. Hello, This was my first time listening to this podcast and Brandon said something early on regarding sympathy. In his definition I was confused because I attributed his definition more towards empathy. As a writer, do you have a hard time distinguishing between sympathy and empathy in regards to feelings towards characters? Or do you feel in most cases they are one in the same?

    1. Re: sympathy and empathy, let me state up front that while they’re distinct, many people treat the words as synonyms. Argh.

      Sympathy is feeling bad for someone.
      Empathy is feeling bad AS someone.

      Sympathy is knowing that they feel bad, and understanding why.
      Empathy is understanding it so well that you’re feeling the same thing they’re feeling.

      When we say “sympathetic characters” we’re saying something altogether different: “this is a character that the reader likes.” Not necessary a character the reader IS like, or FEELS like, but those help a lot, and are probably why the terminology has evolved in this way.

      tl;dr – we’ve made a right mess of these pathos words. A pathetic mess, even.

  10. And here it comes! Season 13, with plenty of character! The original foursome, Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard, kick off the new season with a look at heroes, protagonists, and main characters! (Cue music track: I need a hero! He’s gotta be strong…) What’s the difference, and where do they come together? Do you need all of them? How about those sliders, competency, proactivity, and sympathy… or was that likability and admirability? Don’t forget the plucky sidekicks! And plenty of emotional beats… read all about it, in the transcript now available in the archives and over here


    a white knight on a fiery steed… I need a hero!

  11. Question for the Q&A episode: How do you write something that has a main charcter, but not much in the way of either a protagonist or a hero, and still make it interesting? Say, the first portion of Moby-Dick, which happens to be fresh in my mind since I’m rereading it, and in which Ishmael just sits around describing stuff and not much else happens?

  12. “Has a main character, but neither a protagonist nor a hero” (using the W.E. definitions) might be a good way of expressing some of the complaints often directed (fairly or not) at a lot of “literary fiction”.

  13. While we’re on the subject, is anyone else a bit weirded out when they hear Howard on the podcast talking about some guy named Tay-gone?

    I always figured that, like so many other characters from the early days of the strip, he had a meaningful name, that it was a subtle nod to his role as pro-tagon-ist, and pronounced accordingly!

    1. In my head it’s always been pronounced “Tag-on” or “Ta-gon” — neither of which has a long “a” sound — which while I never considered it, does sound a lot like that middle part of “protagonist” now that you mention it.

  14. Nice! Eye opener. I always thought of those as the same thing which also got me confused in pointing out the one person in many cases.

    Coincidentally I also just ran into a movie review of Big Trouble in Little China where this is put to question, even though the distinction wasn’t made. It had me going: “I know this. I know this!” Jack Burton is clearly the main character and Wang Chi is the protagonist. I’d have to watch it again to see who the hero is — it’s been a while — but I’m guessing that would also be Jack Burton, however oafish it comes about.

    Looking forward to all the character podcasts.

  15. @ Howard,

    You’ve mentioned your outlining spreadsheets before, and in this episode. Have you ever posted an example? If not, is this something you’d be willing to share? From something already published, I mean, so that we could compare the finished story to what’s in the outline?

    Completely understand if this is something you’d rather not share.

    Thank you.

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