Lucinda Elliot

The Vexed Issue of Protagonists and Main Characters

T2C._Carton_the_the_young_seamstress_before_going_to_the_guillotine_(John_McLenan).jpegI’ve been reading a bit about protagonists recently.
I have to say, that while I should have learnt a lot, in some ways I’m none the wiser. Lets start with the ‘Wickipedia’ definition:

The protagonist (from πρωταγωνιστής (protagonistes), meaning “player of the first part, chief actor”) or main character is a novel or drama’s central or primary personal figure, who comes into conflict with an opposing major character or force (called the antagonist).[ The reader is intended to mostly identify with the protagonist…
The terms protagonist and main character are variously explained and depending on the source, may denote different concepts. In fiction, the story of the protagonist can be told from the perspective of a different character (who may also but not necessarily, be the narraotor). An example would be a narrator who relates the fate of several protagonists – perhaps as prominent figures recalled in a biographical perspective.
Sometimes, antagonists and protagonists may overlap, depending on what their ultimate objectives are considered to be. Often, the protagonist in a narrative is also the same person as the focal character though the two terms are distinct. Excitement and intrigue alone is what the audience feels toward a focal character, while a sense of empathy about the character’s objectives and emotions is what the audience feels toward the protagonist. Although the protagonist is often referred to as the “good guy”, it is entirely possible for a story’s protagonist to be the clear villain, or antihero, of the piece.
The principal opponent of the protagonist is a character known as the antagonist, who represents or creates obstacles that the protagonist must overcome. As with protagonists, there may be more than one antagonist in a story. The antagonist may be the story’s hero; for example, where the protagonist is a criminal, the antagonist could be a law enforcement agent that tries to capture him.
Sometimes, a work will offer a particular character as the protagonist, only to dispose of that character unexpectedly, as a dramatic device. Such a character is called a false protagonist. Marion in Alfred Hitchcock’s Pscyho 1960) is a famous example.
When the work contains subplots, these may have different protagonists from the main plot. In some novels, the protagonists may be impossible to identify, because multiple plots in the novel do not permit clear identification of one as the main plot, such as in…Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace depicting fifteen major characters involved in or affected by a war.

I may be particularly obtuse, but all this didn’t seem to gell with the punchy advice given on an interesting blog Advanced Fiction Writing by ‘America’s Mad Professor of Fiction Writing’.
A follower asks:
Can your novel have more than one protagonist? If so, can they be enemies? Is doing that a no-no, a may-be, or a why-not?

Randy sez: You can do anything you want in a novel. However, you can’t make a publisher buy your book and you can’t make readers care. Those pesky publishers will buy what they think the public will buy. And the public will only buy books they like.
Here’s the thing: Readers want to know who to root for. When you give them two people to root for, you cut the emotional impact in half.
This is a case where 1 + 1 = 1/2.
When you give your reader two people to root for, and they’re enemies, then things are even worse. Now your reader is confused. Is it good that the bomb blew up Reginald’s helicopter, or is it bad? Is it bad that Reginald wasn’t in it, or is it good?
This is a case where 1 – 1 = 0.
It’s like trying to drive with your foot jammed down hard on both the gas and the brakes.
If you’re reading a novel or watching a movie, you want to root for one character or at least one group of characters who are all on the same side. Treat your reader like you want to be treated. Choose one protagonist. Choose one antagonist. Make them duke it out. Make them keep duking until there’s a clear winner.
The alternative is to have no readers and get no publishing contracts.

Oh, dear. Doesn’t sound good. We’d better avoid that at all costs. Certainly, this is about as succinct as could be, and seems to bear out what I’ve heard on the grapevine, that there is a trend towards readers, following the influence of fairly simple YA plots, not wanting the ‘big picture’ and multiple POV’s of classic novels, where sometimes exactly who was the protagonist wasn’t at all clear.

For instance, on these, I’m sure I don’t know who is the protagonist of Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Is it Dr Manette? He, a slightly unbalanced middle aged man, is hardly the ideal type of hero, whatever his moral qualities of magnanimity and courage. Neither does he act very decisively in the main part of the story.But is the colourless Charles Darnay – who as one critic comments, only comes to life when he’s on trial and in danger of being executed – the protagonist? Again, it’s hard to believe that Dickens intended the protagonist to be the drunken, debauched and hopeless Sidney Carton (why he is so hopeless is never made clear to the reader). As we may be sure it is not the female lead, Lucie Manette, who is if anything even more insipid than Charles Darnay, we are left with a puzzle.

Hamlet is an obvious protagonist, and one who has multiple antagonists, including the weaknesses in his own personality. I admit that I seem to be unusual in finding him decidedly unsympathetic; perhaps it’s partly because the play was one of the set texts at ‘A’ level, but for a Shakespeare geek I never have been able to appreciate this great work properly through my resentment of Hamlet’s foul treatment of Ophelia, followed by his hysterical behaviour at her graveside. On the whole, my sympathies were for some reason with the treacherous Laertes.

There is the whole question of the fact that a protagonist does not have to be admirable, though surely this main character has to generate interest if not sympathy, or nobody would bother continuing with the story.
For instance, another website comments on a disgusting protagonist, Humbert Humbert from Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita (as I’ve never been able to bring myself to read this, I have to rely on a quote from a site of literary criticism here): –

Humbert Humbert is an example of a truly despicable protagonist, as well as an unreliable narrator. The middle-aged literature professor tells the story of his obsession with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, with whom he becomes sexually involved after the death of her mother. Knowing that he will be judged harshly for his actions, Humbert Humbert appeals to the empathy of his readers, though Nabakov makes no such attempt to portray him as a likeable character. He is a relatively unusual protagonist for whom the audience has almost no sympathy.

I seem to be floundering into deeper and murkier waters here; hopefully, few people would be likely to wish to write such a novel from the point of view of the abuser these days, and would also hopefully have great difficulty getting it accepted by publishers or allowed on self publishing sites if they did; but that is quoted to show how varying are the views about what constitutes the protagonist of a novel…

Yuk, all this is so convoluted, and for once, I can’t quote James N Frey for the simple reason that my notes on his excellent works on writing novels don’t have any reference to creating protagonists; I must have mislaid that bit…

Finally (sorry, everyone for a blog post as long and indecisive as one of Hamlets soliloquies, and less philosophically intriguing) I liked this advice on this website: –
The protagonist can also be called the hero or main character, but these terms are imprecise, and for some stories, plainly false. The protagonist of Macbeth, for example, is clearly not a hero. Nick Carraway is the main character of The Great Gatsby but he is not the protagonist.My favorite definition of the protagonist is from Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop:
The protagonist is the character whose fate matters most to the story.
The protagonist centers the story. She defines the plot and moves it forward. Her fate determines whether the story is a tragedy or comedy.
You may not know who your protagonist is until you are halfway through writing your novel. You may think your protagonist is one character, only to find out your villain is actually your protagonist. You do not need to know who your protagonist is before you begin writing, but as you look at your work in progress, ask “Whose future is most important to this story, to the other characters in this story? Whose future is most important to me?” If you can answer these questions, you have found your protagonist.
How to Characterize a Protagonist
How do you make a protagonist more interesting? How do you bring depth to the protagonist’s personality?
The best way to characterize the protagonist is through an antagonist. An antagonist, or villain, is not necessarily evil or “the bad guy.” Instead, the antagonist is the protagonist’s opposite, their shadow or mirror.
The human mind loves to compare. It especially loves to compare people, and by characterizing your antagonist, you naturally create a comparison that characterizes your protagonist.
Here’s a trick:…The stronger you make the antagonist, the better your protagonist will look when he wins. The more you increase the values of your antagonist, the more interesting your protagonist becomes.
Is There Only One Protagonist?
While there is usually only one protagonist in a story, this isn’t always true. In romantic comedies and “buddy stories,” there can be two protagonists. For example, in Romeo and Juliet it is the fate of both characters, not just one of them, that matters to the story. Same with Lethal Weapon and The Odd Couple.
I love stories with multiple viewpoint characters… which have multiple characters who could be protagonists, but while the stories begin with several possible protagonists, by the end, the author has led you to just one or two.
The Most Important Requirement for the Protagonist
This is the single most important element of your protagonist, and thus one of the most important of your novel as a whole. If your protagonist fails to do this, your story will fail. Seriously.
Your protagonist must choose.
A character who does not choose her own fate, and thus suffer the consequences of her choice, is not a protagonist. She is, at best, a background character.
Donald Miller says story is, “A character who wants something and is willing to go through conflict to get it.” If your character does not want something enough to choose to go through conflict to get it, your reader will walk away disappointed.
Your protagonist may reject the choice at first. She may debate back and forth between which option to choose. She may spend a hundred pages waffling. This can actually be a good thing. Choice is hard! However, she must choose.
Readers will bear with a protagonist who isn’t very likable. They will endure selfishness, pride, and even cowardice in a character. However, readers will not endure a protagonist who does not decide.

I think that’s enough for me on this, at lest for today, and I haven’t even explored the concept of the anti-hero(ine), the false protagonist, the issue of multiple points of view and all the rest of it.
(Exit, burbling of definitions and literary theory…)

6 Responses

  1. Interesting post, Lucinda. I’m always a little wary of prescriptive, one-size-fits-all advice; it’s deadly to creativity. I agree that the trend in literature in recent years has generally been toward greater simplicity – but trends are there to be bucked. The question for us is whether we’re brave enough to buck them! 🙂

    1. Very true, Mari, I was only half serious as ever, and I so agree that trends are there to be bucked. I don’t have no choice; in one at least of my completed ones I’ve got two protagonists…Also, if readers hate a story where the protagonist isn’t clear, it does seem a bit odd to me that some of the classics where that’s the case are still very popular. I suppose some would say, they only overlook that because it’s a classic and would hate it in something written today. but I wonder…

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