Writing Excuses 13.1: Hero, Protagonist, Main Character
Key Points: Hero, Protagonist, Main Character? A Venn diagram? Main character, aka narrator, relates the story. Protagonist takes action, and undergoes the most change. Hero saves the day. Emotional beats and character arc go with protagonist, while heroic action goes with the hero. Don’t forget the maintagonist! Whose eyes do we see the story through? The main character! Who takes action to move the story forward? The protagonist. And who gets to do all the cool stuff? THE HERO! Some stories, grimdark and antiheroes, do not have heroes. Some don’t even have protagonists. Sympathetic? The reader wants to be like that, or feels like they have experienced that. Likable, on the other hand, is active, doing heroic acts or protagging! Or show someone liking them. Heros are admirable. Plucky sidekicks are likable too. These roles are structural functions, as well as whatever you are doing with character sliders. Antagonists stand in the way, are obstacles, while protagonists go over the obstacles. Audiences like characters who are proactive. Knowing the different roles lets you combine or split them to serve the story. Letting someone else step up can add depth to a story. Knowing the roles also can help you see what’s wrong when a story is broken or not working.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode One.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Hero, Protagonist, Main Character.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And I don’t know which one I am.
[Brandon] Ha ha! I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m the hero!
[Howard] I’m the protagonist?
[Howard] I doubt I’m going to undergo the most change during this episode…
[Howard] Oh, I don’t know about that.
[Brandon] Welcome to Season 13 of Writing Excuses. This is our first episode. We’re going to be talking about character all season long.
[Brandon] I wanted to start with kind of a defining episode, where we talk about the differences between a hero, a protagonist, and a main character. Are there differences? If so, what are some of the distinctions in your mind?
[Mary] There are differences, although they can overlap. It’s one of those Venn diagram thingies. One of the prime examples that people often offer as a way to distinguish them is The Great Gatsby. The main character, who is the narrator, is not the protagonist. He’s not the one taking the action, he’s not the hero of the story, he’s not the one who’s saving the day. He is relating the events of the story.
[Brandon] Excellent. Yeah, that happens a lot. For instance, Howard often uses a narrator that is diff… Like, it’s…
[Howard] Yeah, my narrator isn’t even… He isn’t even one of those three. What I will do very often is have the protagonist… The person who is undergoing the most change is someone who is different from the person who takes the heroic action, which as often as not, is Sgt. Schlock. I think it was book 16 where I actually decided that for the last arc of the book, Schlock was going to have both. He was going to be the protagonist and he was going to take heroic action. As I wrote it, I realized, “Oh. This does feel different. He’s…” Because when you pair up heroic action with character change, you get… And we’ve talked about this with the Hollywood formula before. You want to have these emotional beats happening as closely as possible. When the emotional resolution, the character arc resolution for the protagonist is absolutely synchronized with the heroic action of the story’s hero, main-tag… Hero, protagonist, main character are all the same person.
[Mary] Although I’m going to use main-tagonist…
[Brandon] Give us a quick definition, then, of main character.
[Howard] To me, the main character is the person through whose eyes we are seeing the story.
[Brandon] Okay. And protagonist? Quick definition.
[Mary] The protagonist is the character who is taking the action to move the story forward.
[Brandon] And hero?
[Dan] The person who gets to do all the cool stuff.
[Brandon] Okay. Awesome.
[Mary] I think it’s quite possible to have a story that does not have a hero. Grimdark is a really good example. There are a lot of protagonists in grimdark.
[Brandon] We’ll do an entire episode on antiheroes, in both the literary definition and the modern definition, and things like that. So, yeah. I think you’re absolutely right. There are lots of stories without heroes. Are there stories without protagonists?
[Mary] Yes, but most of them don’t make it out of the slush pile.
[Dan] There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury.
[Mary] No, there’s…
[Dan] That is the classic answer to every weird, nonstandard structure.
[Mary] Also, actually, there’s not even a main character in that one, either.
[Brandon] I would say…
[Mary] They’re Made Out Of Meat, also. There’s no protagonist in that.
[Brandon] In a lot of classic… Which again, we’ll have a whole episode on this, but a lot of classic antihero fiction, like Mme. Bovary, I would argue there isn’t a protagonist or a hero, there’s just a main character. That was like the whole movement was built around let’s not have anyone protag or do anything heroic…
[Brandon] But still have a story about them. So, yeah.
[Brandon] What makes a character, then, sympathetic versus likable? Are those synonyms to you, or are they different? If so, how?
[Mary] So this is something that I think we covered in a previous episode where we talk about your slider theory? So I’m going to throw that one back at you, Brandon.
[Brandon] Okay. I would say that yes, they can be different. I feel like, at least for me, this is my own weird definition, right? Sympathy is built out of wanting to be in the person’s shoes or naturally feeling you’re in their shoes. There’s kind of two polar opposites in some ways. Sympathy is either, “Oh, I’ve felt like that all the time,” or this sort of, “Oh, I kind of want to be there.” It’s this emotion… It’s either, it’s the sort of I want to be Superman, I can see myself being this person and being awesome, or, I naturally see myself in that person’s shoes. So sympathy is that sort of relatability, which doesn’t have to be likable. You often… A lot of horror is built around making you feel sympathy for something that is horrifying. Where you say, “Oh, I could see myself being this terrible murderer,” or, “I can see this fear that this character is having, I’ve felt that before myself. I don’t like that, but… At the same time, I can see myself in those shoes.” Likability, then, for me, for a character is more related to protagging, perhaps. Maybe sympathy is more related to main charactering, and likability is often they are taking active steps to do heroic or protagonistic sorts of things.
[Mary] I think that actually something that you just said triggered it for me, that really when we’re talking about a hero, a hero is not just likable or sympathetic, they are admirable.
[Mary] That’s one of the, I think, things that will define a hero versus someone who is a protagonist or a main character or an antihero. That a hero is someone who is admirable. That you look up to. That has some sort of noble feature.
[Howard] This whole discussion brushes up against the arguments for readerly and writerly interpretations of our work. I lean on the readerly side, which is that I will write characters as sympathetic and as likable as I know how, but I don’t know what experiences you are bringing into my book. It may be that my characters are completely unsympathetic, and you hate them, because you don’t see yourself, you see someone who you don’t like. I can’t control that. I only bring that up, because as we aim for this, with our heroes and our protagonists, it is not universal.
[Dan] Okay. I want to drill into this more. Because Brandon just surprised me by defining likability primarily as a mover. Someone who advances the story and takes action. That seems weird to me, but I can’t think of any counterexamples.
[Brandon] I think it’s just… Maybe I hit that too strong. Oft… I was going back to the Save the Cat philosophy from Hollywood, the whole idea… You want to make someone likable? You show them doing something, being nice to somebody, doing something either heroic or just simply kind. I do think that makes likable, but for me, there’s another big way to make someone likable, and that is to just show someone liking them. You can have someone who doesn’t protag… Sorry, listeners, to use that as a verb. Howard did it once, and I’ve never been able to stop.
[Brandon] You can have a character…
[Mary] [garbled Stick to] your made up verbs.
[Brandon] Who doesn’t protag…
[Brandon] Who just sits there and makes jokes about other people, but people like them…
[Brandon] So they’re very likable anyway.
[Howard] See, I am the protagonist.
[Mary] You can be the plucky sidekick and still be likable.
[Howard] Good thing… Yeah, that’s a good point.
[Dan] Maybe this is getting too far afield from a discussion of main characters, but I’m… Like, all of the examples I’m coming up with of likable characters… The ones popping into my head tend to be villains. Maybe that says something about me…
[Dan] But, for example, Capt. Barbossa from the Pirates movies. He is incredibly likable. You love that guy. You would want to hang out with him, if he were not like evil. But he’s not being nice to people. He’s not performing those kinds of things…
[Brandon] He’s not sympathetic.
[Mary] So this is where the term protagonist… I think it is important to remember that it is a term of art, and what it is talking about is the way we are presenting the character to the reader. Because the way that entire… The way that that entire film is structured, is to present him as an antagonist. He’s not presented as a protagonist. So in a way, all of this stuff… As much as you can move the sliders around, a lot of it has to do with how you are presenting it to the reader, and the structural function that the character is serving. Because one of the things he’s doing, and we will be talking about antagonists later, but defining by opposites… One of the things he’s doing is he’s standing in the way. He is serving as an obstacle. A protagonist serves as the person who get you over the obstacle.
[Dan] Well, I think there’s also something to be said for the fact that he and other villains tend to be very active. They advance the story…
[Brandon] Right. That’s one of the things…
[Dan] Because they’re the ones creating the problems in the first place.
[Brandon] That grabs readers is… We talked about in the sliding scales thing I talked about, is being proactive. Going out and getting what you want is very attractive to us as an audience.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which I’m actually going to do. I am going to promote The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen. This is one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. It’s been years since I read something as good as this. If you haven’t read any Jane Yolen, Jane has this remarkable ability to take a story you’re familiar with, like Oz, or King Arthur, or a fairytale, and tell it from the perspective of someone completely unexpected and turn the story on its head in a really cool way. I just love her writing style. I’ve loved it for years, and this collection is amazing. It contains two Nebula award-winning stories by Jane. For an example, one of the stories that’s very good, and I believe one of her Nebula award winners in it, is about a little girl who’s being told the story of Peter Pan, and gets really mad that Wendy has to clean the house, while the boys get to go fight pirates. So she travels to Never Never land to organize a revolt among the women to strive for women’s rights so the girls get to go fight pirates too. It’s that sort of story collection. It’s just delightful. It’s poignant at times, it’s hilarious at times. You will love it. It’s out as of November 2017, so… You guys, it’s been out a few months, and I think you should all go read it.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead, and let me throw another question at you. What do you gain by splitting this up rather than… By thinking of heroes separate from protagonists separate from main characters? What advantages as a writer do you gain, because I think most people would just conflate the three, if you ask your average person on the street, “What’s the difference?” They’d be like, “I’ve never thought about that before.” What do writers get? Why would we do this?
[Howard] I gain the ability to retain focus for the story on a larger story. Because we have a sense of… When we’re looking at the hero, when we’re looking at the protagonist, when we’re looking at our main character, we have a sense that we are supposed to devote a lot of our reading attention to that character, and I don’t have to have… If they’re all one person, I don’t have to create an extremely unlikely series of coincidences to have them be in all of the different places that action is happening.
[Brandon] I also think you gain the ability to say, “Well, I want to write a character who’s… In another story, might be the side character, but I want to make them the main character and tell some really interesting stories.” Like, I promoted that short story collection for this one specifically because that’s what she does. She tells the Oz story from one of the farmhand’s viewpoints. Things like this. Where the main character is the one who’s been a hero all along, and it makes for really interesting stories.
[Dan] Well, I think that you can do that within a novel. Here’s my main character, but for this scene, or for this plot line, this other person is going to step up. They’re going to be the one who changes, or they’re going to be the one who does some cool sacrifice. That can add a lot of depth to the story as a whole.
[Mary] For me, I think the thing… The reason it is useful to understand what all three things are, is that they are… They all do different functions within the structure of a story. You can have one character who embodies all three structural roles, or you can split them, so it is three different characters, or you can choose to only use one attribute. Like, there’s absolutely no reason that you have to have a hero in a story. You can absolutely also tell a story with a protagonist, but without a main character, if you’re doing omniscient. But if you understand what the character is doing, and what the function is they are serving, it also helps you understand when the story is broken, why it isn’t working. Because the character is not fulfilling the structural role that you need filled in that story.
[Dan] That’s exactly the trouble that I ran into with my book Extreme Makeover, which doesn’t really have a main character. It has a protagonist, and I couldn’t get the plot arc to work. It wasn’t until I realized that exact thing, like you were just saying, and went back and said, “Oh. I don’t have a main character. How can I make this plot work without one?” That fixed all the problems.
[Howard] In my outlining spreadsheet, the one that I built for Schlock Mercenary book 18, which is called Mandatory Failure, which feels a lot like I’m setting myself up for disaster. But in that outlining tool, one of the first things that I established was this is my protagonist for this story. It’s not a protagonist I’ve used before. One of the columns is devoted to that character’s arc. Because now that I know that, I know that there are emotional beats that have to be appearing in the protagonist’s emotional beat column. If they’re not there, I mean, I can just look at the spreadsheet and say, “Oh. My outline’s broken. There’s a piece missing, because the person who supposed to be doing this, isn’t doing it.”
[Mary] I’m glad that you mentioned that, because I was thinking about the fact that you can have a protagonist change mid-story. That… And this is, again, one of the places where if you don’t understand what the characters are… What each of these structural roles are doing, you can run into problems. Where you switch points of view, and you have a different main character for this scene, but the other character’s still doing the protagging, which will make your main character often feel pointless and without any… They have no real reason to be there, except to report. A lot of times, if you recognize that, you’re like, “Oh, okay. So I have to step this character up and give them some actions. What actions can they take, because I actually need them in this scene to function as a protagonist? Whereas in other scenes, they are functioning as a sidekick.”
[Brandon] All right. I think we’re going to wrap it up here. I actually have a bit of homework for you guys. One of my favorite storytelling methods, and we’ve given some homework like this before, but I really love it. It’s when you tell the same story from multiple viewpoints. So I want you to design for yourself a story that has three characters in it. One who is the hero of that scene, one who is the protagonist, one who is the main character. Try to make this a short scene. Then I want you to write the same story three times. Once through the eyes of the person doing heroic action, once through the eyes of the person being the protagonist who is moving the story along, and once through the eyes of the main character. That’s going to be very hard to do, because naturally, you’re going to be whoever’s eyes we’re through is going to be the main character for that moment. But I want to give you this challenge, and see if you can pull it off and make it happen. So this has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.