The Protagonist Problem


by Pete Richmond

The protagonist is a key to any successful story, whether book, film or TV show. What type of protagonist are we going to have? The young hero, slowly realising his powers? The grizzled veteran on one last mission? The outsider discovering a new land? The choice of protagonist is crucial to a story’s success as it is their journey that the reader follows.

Many protagonists within popular culture become icons in their own right, after all, who hasn’t heard of Luke Skywalker? But what makes a great protagonist?

A common mistake people make is assuming that the main viewpoint character is always the protagonist. Whilst this is frequently true, it is certainly not always the case. The protagonist is the character whose story we are being told, whether they are doing the telling or not.

Doyle, Arthur Conan - The Adventures of Sherlock HolmesTo illustrate this, consider Sherlock Holmes. There can be no doubt that he is the main character, the star, the protagonist. Hell, the books are even called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. But are the stories from his point of view? No. They’re the work of his tireless companion Dr Watson.

Of course, there is a lively debate around the actual protagonist for many books, especially those in our preferred genres. Take the daddy of all Epic Fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s masterpiece can be argued to have several protagonists. Is it the story of Frodo and his adventure to Mount Doom and back? Is it the story of Aragorn returning to reclaim the Throne of Gondor? Is it the story of Gandalf rising to become Gandalf the White and complete his tasks on Middle Earth? Or is it the story of Sauron and his final downfall? Ok, that last one is rarely argued as he’s more of a traditional antagonist but I like to think he could be a villainous protagonist.

The point is that many stories don’t have a clear cut protagonist, and to make matters more complicated the protagonist is not always the hero. Returning to Middle Earth, the clear hero of the tale is Sam (yes it is, don’t argue) but I wouldn’t claim he is the main character.

So what makes a great protagonist? Well, they come in all shapes and sizes and it’s almost impossible to narrow it down to any common factor. Are they heroic? Sometimes, sure. Are they the good guy? Again, usually but not always. So what is the one defining characteristic?

The protagonist is always interesting.

They are the character whose actions we follow, who makes the decisions that affect the story and whose ending we are interested in. They can be good, bad, clever, strong, weak, stupid or even dead, but they must be compelling. The reader must be invested in the outcome of their actions, or the story holds no meaning.

Writers, when you sit down to create your next masterpiece remember this. Don’t worry about who the character is, worry about why the reader should care.


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