When it comes to writing fiction, it certainly goes without saying that (nine times out of ten), your book needs a protagonist. The protagonist is the main character in your story, of which the vast majority of the story covers. They are the ones whose journey you follow, support them, cheer for them – even cry for them when danger comes for them. In short, they are the ones who hook you into the story.
So in short, they are the good guys, right? Not necessarily...
I mean, yes. Generally, the protagonist is the hero of the story, fighting an antagonist, which is the villain. However, let’s look at the definition of both protagonist and hero and look at their meanings a little closer. These are the meanings taken from Wikipedia.
A protagonist...is the main character (the central or primary personal figure) of a literary, theatrical, cinematic, or musical narrative, who enters conflict because of the antagonist. The audience is intended to most identify with the protagonist.
A hero (heroine for a female)... refers to characters who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self sacrifice—that is, heroism—for some greater good of all humanity. This definition originally referred to martial courage or excellence but extended to more general moral excellence.
So, a protagonist is the one whose story you follow and a hero/heroine is someone that does heroic actions. But that does not mean that they are one and the same. Therefore, the protagonist is NOT the same as a hero!
Now first of all, I should start by saying that there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a central character that is a good person. After all, heroes are generally considered to have a moral and ethical message to the people of the world – they are what inspire us to do good with our lives and rise above our normal human characteristics to achieve great things. However, in this writers' opinion, I don’t believe that, in real life, you can characterise people as heroes and villains in the traditional sense. Because human beings are just as capable of acts of cruelty as much as they are bravery. And people who are normally kind and caring can show acts of selfishness and malice on occasion, just as much as people that are wicked and cruel can show acts of kindness on occasion.
Personally, I like to think that the ideas of heroes and villains represents the mortal battles that we have to go through everyday – be good to people and you will end up doing well, do bad and you’ll end up paying the price. But, as we know, real life doesn’t always work that way. But I’m getting off topic somehow.
So, as I said previously, the protagonist doesn’t have to be a hero. In fact, the popular character type these days is the anti-hero archetype. These are the types of characters that defy a lot of heroic characteristics – and usually have darker and more sinister reasons for their actions. A common mistake is that anti-heroes are villains, but this is actually not always true. A hero will always fight for the greater good and the sake of humanity – an anti-hero will often fight for themselves and do things because they want to (usually out of revenge or some other personal vendetta). This doesn’t mean that they can’t become heroes in their own right, but they are not really in it for others – just themselves.
One character that I think perfectly captures the elements of both hero AND anti-hero is Jack Bauer from 24. He is a protagonist that is both a hero AND anti-hero. Hero in the sense that he will fight to protect his country and his loved ones – anti-hero because the way he goes about it is somewhat questionable. He’s not above torture or murder to get the information he needs and will sometimes even put innocents in danger to achieve his goals. But Jack is a pragmatist and will often go the best route to resolve a situation – which means he has to make some pretty hard choices! We both cheer and revile him because he will do what it takes to save the day. But he’s not a completely emotionless monster and at times (such as the end of series 3) we see how much his choices affect his mental state.
So as you can see, a protagonist doesn’t have to be a full on hero, they can have some villainous tendencies and the audience will still cheer for them. But, what if we went to the OTHER end of the scale. What if your protagonist WAS a villain?
In a lot of dramas/films, such as Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, The Godfather films and Scarface, the main character is an absolute monster. An utterly despicable human being that has very little morals and does a lot of evil actions – but, because they are the central character, you follow their story and actually get a deeper insight into their character and thought process. So even if you don’t agree with their actions, you can still appreciate why they do what they do because of the life they lead.
I’ve mentioned the character of Tony Soprano from The Soprano’s many times, but again I’m going to use him as an example for this – I think he is perfect for this trope (I would also mention Walter White from Breaking Bad, but as I’ve only just started watching that show, I don’t really think I can go into his character as much as I hoped). As I’ve said, Tony Soprano is a villain, plain and simple. A mob boss, he is sociopathic and extremely violent – able to snap at the smallest provocation and hurt and kill anyone that crosses him. But at the same time, he is also a caring family man (despite his adultery) that does genuinely want to provide for his family. It’s that mix of loving father and violent mobster that makes him one of the most complex and fascinating characters in fiction. You don’t want to support him, but you do anyway. And anyone who has seen The Soprano’s knows that Tony is NOT the most wicked character in there. Just goes to show that, with the right amount of thought process, a character can be utterly wicked and monstrous, yet the audience will follow them.
However, there is a danger to creating these characters – and a trap that I myself have fallen into with one of my first novels. If you make your central characters TOO monstrous, the audience will end up hating and not caring what happens to them. Remember, a protagonist is someone that the audience has to follow and support. If you don’t give them anything they can latch onto, then they won’t care for them and end up despising them. Bottom line – even monsters needs to have something that makes them appealing to the audience.
One final type of protagonist I’d like to mention is to what I like to call the “Don Quixote Hero”. These are the types of hero you’ve probably seen in every situation comedy out there. They are neither heroes nor villains – but rather failures, people that go from one failure to the next without any real hope of redemption. These are the types of characters I think we can relate to most, because not everyone can achieve their dreams and goals and we’ve all felt like losers at one times or another. We can support and sympathise with these characters because they all have hopes and dreams, but never achieve them.
For this, I choose David Brent from The Office. What a fantastic character this guy is! Many people see him as a monster, but I don’t agree. He’s harmless at heart, despite the fact he is utterly selfish and self-centred, often making up big stories to make himself better and convincing himself that he is the centre of attention – when in reality no one really cares for him. I actually feel really sorry for David Brent. All he wants is to be popular – something we can all relate to – and he’ll go to any lengths to get that. No matter what he does to look cool, it just ends up isolating him from his colleagues further. And let’s be honest, who HASN’T told bold stories at one point or another in an attempt to be popular with people?
I hope this will help give some insight into the protagonist idea. Just because your protagonist is the main character, doesn’t mean they necessarily have to be the hero. And even if your main character is the hero, that doesn’t mean that they have to be sugar and spice and all things nice. If you read my books, you’ll see that my “heroic” characters aren’t always as nice as they put themselves out to be and even my main heroines can snap on occasion.
The idea is to make your protagonist someone for the audience to follow – and if you can give them many layers of characteristics that will help in this, then it will definitely make them stand out a lot more.
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