When you’re writing fiction, your characters are some of the most important elements of your stories. And no character is more important than your protagonist. But what exactly is a protagonist, and why are they such a crucial part of your narrative?
A Protagonist Is…
The simplest definition of protagonist is “the main character of the story.” Many people think of the protagonist as the good guy or the hero of the story, but that notion is not strictly correct. The word protagonist comes from an Ancient Greek word meaning “the one who struggles first.” In other words, the definition of protagonist has nothing to do with a character’s moral compass. Several types of protagonists exist, as described below.
● The hero. This is who people classically picture as a protagonist: a hero who undertakes a journey, overcomes obstacles, and ultimately achieves their goals. This protagonist embodies courage, determination, and selflessness. The hero category encompasses characters ranging from the Iliad’s Achilles to Superman and Harry Potter.
● The antihero. Antiheroes may be reluctant protagonists or possess morally ambiguous qualities, making them complex and intriguing. Their flaws and inner conflicts are central to the story’s exploration of morality and ethics. Consider Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights or Walter White from Breaking Bad.
● The tragic protagonist. Tragedies feature protagonists who experience a downfall or an unfortunate fate. These characters may possess noble qualities, but they’re ultimately brought down by a fatal flaw or external circumstances. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth are classic tragic protagonists.
● The everyday protagonist. Not all protagonists are extraordinary heroes or antiheroes. In many works, the protagonist is an ordinary individual facing relatable challenges. Bridget Jones and Forrest Gump are regular people whose exploits can be empathized with easily.
● The false protagonist. Sometimes, writers set up a character as the protagonist only to switch the focus partway through the story. This technique is meant to disorient the reader and is often achieved when the person who seemed to be the protagonist is killed. Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones is a classic example of this.
The Protagonist’s Role in the Story
The protagonist serves several critical roles that shape the narrative and engage the audience. The following describe the function of a protagonist in a story.
To Provide Perspective
The protagonist is the character whose perspective the audience partakes in. Through their eyes, we gain insight into the story’s world, conflicts, and themes. While sharing the protagonist’s viewpoint, we identify with them and connect with their experiences.
To Experience Conflict
To propel itself, every story needs conflict. Traditionally, three types of conflict are recognized in literature: man vs. others, man vs. self, and man vs. nature. This list can be expanded and made more inclusive to reflect modern storytelling. The types of conflict we see in today’s fiction include:
● Character vs. character
● Character vs. society
● Character vs. nature
● Character vs. technology
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● Character vs. fate
● Character vs. the supernatural
● Character vs. themselves
To Drive the Plot
The protagonist’s actions and decisions regarding the conflict they face are what move the story forward. Whether the protagonist embarks on a quest, confronts challenges, or makes choices, their actions create the story’s momentum. Without a proactive protagonist, the story will feel stagnant or directionless.
To Evoke Emotion
A well-crafted protagonist elicits emotions from the audience. We may feel joy, sorrow, or anger as we witness the protagonist’s highs and lows. This emotional connection is a powerful tool storytellers use to engage their audience on a deeper level.
To Undergo (or Resist) Transformation
One of the protagonist’s most compelling aspects is their capacity (or lack thereof) for growth and change. The narrative usually revolves around the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery, transformation, or redemption – or their resistance to these things. The character’s development either way is often at the heart of the story.
To Reflect Themes
The protagonist’s experiences and challenges often mirror the story’s underlying themes. Their personal struggles may symbolize broader societal issues or universal human dilemmas. In this way, the protagonist becomes a vehicle for exploring deeper meanings.
No discussion of protagonists would be complete without also talking about antagonists. Just as protagonist doesn’t necessarily mean “good guy,” antagonist doesn’t necessarily mean “bad guy.” The words protagonist and antagonist are antonyms, meaning the protagonist and antagonist are opposing forces in the story. The protagonist works toward the story’s central goals while the antagonist works against those goals.
The antagonist may be a traditional villain, such as Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. Or they may be the exact opposite. Consider Inspector Javert in Les Misérables. He’s an outstanding, morally driven policeman who happens to be in conflict with the story’s protagonist, Jean Valjean. The antagonist doesn’t even need to be human. The sea itself provides a formidable antagonist to The Life of Pi’s protagonist as he struggles to survive.
So the protagonist isn’t always the good guy?
Not necessarily; this depends on what you mean by “good guy.” The protagonist is the main character from whose viewpoint the reader experiences the story. Think about our Les Misérables example above: Jean Valjean is a wanted criminal. Robin Hood is undoubtedly the protagonist in his own stories, but he’s also the Prince of Thieves. For a more modern example, look at Deadpool: he makes for a colorful protagonist, but few would consider him an upstanding citizen.
How do I write a strong protagonist?
This is a big question, and it’s the subject of whole classes in creative writing. One place to start is to think of your protagonist as a real person and imagine having a conversation with them. Ask them a variety of questions about themself, their life, their likes, and their dislikes. Once your protagonist seems real to you, you’ll be better able to make them seem real to your reader.
In the world of storytelling, the protagonist is indispensable. As readers, we are drawn to protagonists who resonate with our own experiences and aspirations. As writers, our goal is to craft protagonists who inspire and challenge, as well as reflecting the human condition.