Character Types: Protagonists, Main Characters, and Heroes
How are they different, and why does it matter?
November 20, 2018
B. C. Marine, CAO Authors 4 Authors Publishing
A couple weeks ago, we talked about the difference between villains and antagonists. Now let’s look at their opposites: protagonists, main characters, and heroes. First, let’s define these character types.
This is simply the character whose eyes the story is told through. A story can have multiple main characters, although most have only one or two. They can sometimes be called a point-of-view character. In a story with several point-of-view characters, the main character or characters are the ones whose view is shown for most of the scenes.
Protagonists are like the immortals from Highlander—in any story, there can be only one. This singular character is the one whose actions and key decisions drive the plot. Their choices move the story forward. A protagonist must act; they must affect either their world or themself.
There are many definitions for heroes, but for our purposes, they are the opposite of a villain: someone of good intent who seeks to save or better their world.
Aren’t those the same thing?
They can be, but no, not really. Many stories have separate protagonists and main characters, and neither are necessarily heroes. Much like villain antagonists, it’s easy to find heroic protagonists who are also main characters: Robin Hood, Batman, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter.
However, those examples don’t tell us much. The importance in knowing the difference between the three is best demonstrated by looking at stories with separate protagonists, main characters, and heroes.
Holmes & Watson
One of the most well-known pairings of a separate protagonist and main character is Sherlock Holmes and his companion Dr. Watson. Holmes is the protagonist; he is the master detective, and his journey to solve the mystery drives the plot. But Dr. Watson is the main character; it is through his eyes only that we see Holmes, and his observations color the narrative.
By observing Sherlock Holmes from the outside, both the mystery to be solved and the almost mythical intrigue around his intellect are preserved. Using a different main character can be ideal for mysterious or larger-than-life protagonists because of the distance created between the protagonist and the audience.
The Count of Monte Cristo has Edmond Dantes as both the protagonist and main character, but by the definition we’re using, he isn’t a hero. His goal is revenge; he seeks to destroy the lives of everyone who betrayed him.
Anti-heroes or even villain protagonists can make for rich storytelling. In some cases, the protagonist learns to be a better person, and in others, the story may ultimately be about the protagonist’s downfall.
For readers, knowing who the protagonist is and who the main character is will tell you whose story you’re reading and who’s telling it. When someone else is telling the protagonist’s story, there’s usually a reason why. Think about what you see differently from that character’s perspective.
For writers, identifying your protagonist is vital to clear storytelling. Most writers know their main character well because that’s the voice they’ve chosen to write in. But the protagonist can be less obvious, and misidentifying the protagonist can derail an entire story. Since the protagonist’s actions drive the plot from one act to another, planning the story around the wrong character’s actions can ruin the pace of an otherwise good story as important points like the climax happen too early or too late.
Only one protagonist?
But what about the other important characters who matter to the plot? To find out, join us next week as we discuss deuteragonists.
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