Jon had an excellent post the other day about some specific poor role models in movies and stories that have been popular. That post opens up a whole area of discussion regarding the nature of protagonists. The folks over at Writing Excuses discussed this several years ago (and maybe more recently, but I haven’t listened that far yet…) in this podcast. Go take a listen and then come back.
Did ya listen? If not, I’ll forgive you, but you might not be up to speed with the rest of us who have listened to it. I won’t reiterate all that Brandon, Howard, and Dan had to say about this subject, but in a nutshell, protagonists are generally the central figures of the story, regardless of what kind of role they actually play (may be hero, antihero, or something else entirely). They are the character around whom the action revolves.
Often the protagonist is the hero, and this makes sense because we like to be able to cheer the main character on toward victory, and share in the victory vicariously (hm, there’s a musing worth exploring right there….). However, there are also some great examples of classic stories where the protagonist was not the hero, such as in Lord of the Rings. While Frodo certainly plays an important role in the story, willingly sacrificing himself for the greater good, in the end it is Sam who supports him, drives him, rescues him, and even literally carries him to the goal, while Aragorn is the one who wins the war that keeps Sauron distracted, and (SPOILER WARNING) Gollum is the one who actually brings about the destruction of the ring. And lest we forget him, Fatty Bolger managed to deceive the ringwraiths for a short time, giving the four other hobbits a head start in their flight to Rivendell.
The way I think of it is this: the protagonist is the central figure of the story, and the one who undergoes change. The hero is the one who overcomes. Your protagonist could be one who both changes and overcomes, thus being the hero-protagonist.
But as Jon pointed out in his post, occasionally you have protagonists that don’t, as he put it “protag”. The story focuses on the character, the action flows around the character, but that character mostly just floats along, occasionally screwing things up for everyone else, and ends with the happy ending without having learned anything, done anything, overcome anything, or been anything interesting. What do we call those characters? Are they still protagonists?
I think they are, just not very good ones. And I think you could assign to them that extra label of “load” (Loadtagonist?). All they are is a burden to the rest of the characters in the story, and frankly, a burden to the story itself. Which in many ways makes the story unentertaining, uninteresting, and nigh unreadable.
Sure, there are still going to be lots of popular stories where the main character is a Load. Twilight is, of course, a perfect example. But what does that say about the readership? Does it suggest that perhaps the attraction of such a story is that it feeds the base instinct of a person to just sit back and selfishly let other people make life happen for them? After all, many
teenage girls people who love Twilight say they relate well to Bella, and that’s why they love the story. To what exactly are they relating well? The dull, flat affect, the mumbling/muttering/murmuring and whininess, or the submissiveness in the face of a domineering boyfriend?
I don’t mean to pick on Twilight too much. I know it has a lot of popularity, and there may be some merits to the story…. Uh…… I’m at a loss here for an example. But the point is, what makes a protagonist interesting and worth reading about is the ability to change, to grow, to become something more at the end of the story. A Load doesn’t do this. So if you want your protagonist to be something other than a total Load, ask some questions:
- What factors are influencing my protagonist? What pressures are there to change?
- How is my protagonist responding to these influences and pressures?
- What sacrifices are being asked of my protagonist? What will he/she/it have to give up to achieve his/her/its goals?
- How has my protagonist’s way of thinking changed since the beginning of the story? How is his/her/its thinking better, or worse?
- How are the other characters better off, or worse off, for knowing my protagonist?
- Does my protagonist deserve a happy ending?
I think that question is especially critical – did the protagonist do enough, change enough, go through enough to reach the point where the reader wants that person to have a happy ending? Whether you give the protagonist a happy ending or not, they need to deserve it by the end of the story. Or, on the opposite side of it, if your protagonist is an anti-hero, they need to deserve a horrible end, so that whether they get their comeuppance or not, the reader feels strongly about it.
As a final word, I think it should be noted that this is really about depth of character, and depth of character starts with you, the author, knowing your character well. Don’t just slap a name and a description on a cardboard cutout and move that cutout through the story. Start by instilling depth in your protagonists – know their history, their likes and dislikes, their deeply held personal beliefs and their motivating factors. Know what they do before they go to bed and first thing when they get up in the morning, and more importantly, why they do these things. Whether you write these things into the story or not, the depth you achieve by knowing them at the outset will shine through in your story, and keep your protagonist from being a total Load.