Writers tend to use the terms for protagonist and main character interchangeably. In fact, if asked to define one of these terms, we would probably come right back with the other term as our quickest explanation. And why not? Both describe a story’s central character, right? Not necessarily.
This argument doesn’t even matter most of the time. Why? Because in the vast majority of stories, the protagonist will be the main character. Luke Skywalker, Anne Shirley, David Copperfield, Katniss Everdeen? All are main characters and protagonists. That’s straightforward storytelling at its best.
But not all stories are straightforward. Some stories split these roles between two very distinct characters. If yours happens to be one of those stories, then you need to make certain you understand the differences between protagonist and main character–and how you can best leverage them against each other to create an amazing tale.
What Is a Protagonist?
Let’s start with the most obvious question. If a protagonist isn’t perforce a main character, then what is he?
If we go way back to the ancient Greek, we’ll remember that protagonist simply means “player of the first part, chief actor.” This is the person who’s driving the plot. He’s making things happen. He’s the vortex at the center of the cyclone. Without him, you may have an interesting situation, great settings, and a charming supporting cast–but they’re just gonna sit there and look pretty.
The protagonist is the person who opposes and/or is opposed by the antagonist. Between them and their conflicting goals, they create the obstacles that propel the story forward.
What’s the Difference Between Protagonist and Main Character?
Obviously, the protagonist is a very dynamic fellow. After all, he’s the one who’s creating this entire story. As such, he will almost always be the person whom the story is about. He will be the one nearest the audience, perhaps even the one directly telling them his story.
Except for when he’s not.
All that personal forcefulness doesn’t mean he must be the story’s main character. Sometimes the main character–that person who is nearest the audience–won’t, in fact, be the story’s main catalyst. Although he will almost certainly be active within the plot, he may not be the one driving it. Rather, he may be simply observing the protagonist in action while the main character himself is caught up in the protagonist’s whirlpool.
In Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley wrote,
The value of separating the Main Character and Protagonist into two different characters can be seen in the motion picture, To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, the character, Atticus, (played by Gregory Peck) is clearly the Protagonist, yet the story is told through the experiences of Scout, his young daughter.
What About Narrators?
Does that mean the main character is nothing more than a narrator? Is the main character just someone who watches on the outskirts of the conflict and reports back to the reader, rather like an omniscient narrator only without the omniscience?
Not at all. In order to qualify for the title, the main character must be still be involved with the plot. He must be personally impacted by the protagonist and the main conflict.
Think about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books. The narrator Dr. Watson is obviously not the protagonist. But is he the main character? Definitely not. These stories are all Sherlock, all the time. Watson as narrator is simply a device for telling the story. In order to qualify as a main character, rather than just a narrator, he would have to represent change in some pertinent way: either by being impacted and personally changed by the protagonist Sherlock or by contributing to the progression of the plot in some obvious and integral way.
Note that the technique of separating protagonist and main character into two separate characters should never be chosen simply because the author wants the opportunity to feature the non-protagonist’s point of view. Multi-POV narratives allow you to feature the POVs of non-protagonist characters without their being the main character.
Benefits of Separating Protagonist From Main Character
Now comes the real question: why would an author want to deliberately prevent the protagonist from having a POV? Because that’s what the technique of separating protagonist and main character comes down to.
Obviously, this is a specialized technique that is only going to be appropriate for certain types of stories. But it can be extremely valuable when you understand its benefits. Consider four.
1. Create Distance From the Protagonist
Not all protagonists are going to be relatable or even likable to start off with, which means that an everyman narrator can be just the ticket for making readers comfy within the narrative, while your protagonist’s quirks unfold. The movie The Elephant Man starts out by aligning viewers with the “normal” Dr. Frederick Treves and allowing them to learn about the grotesquely deformed John Merrick through his eyes.
In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Michael Hauge noted:
The advantage of this device is to create immediate identification with the more familiar character, and then transfer that identification to the hero through the course of the film.
On the flip side, sometimes this distance from the protagonist is also useful in encouraging an air of mystery or even in enhancing the good qualities of the character. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s use of Nick Carraway as a distant narrator in The Great Gatsby allowed him to enhance Gatsby’s legendary status in ways that would have been impossible had Gatsby been the one telling the story.
Note, however, that both Frederick and Nick are not passive observers of their fantastic protagonists. They both drive the plot in their own right and are ultimately impacted by their protagonists in profound ways that change them by the end of the story.
2. Allow for Observation of the Protagonist
If you’re featuring a particularly unique protagonist, you may not be able to represent him as fully as you wish from within his own POV. Just as with humans in real life, a character will always look completely different within his own head than he will from without. Stories with multiple POVs will allow you to show your protagonist both inside and out, but some protagonists may be better served only from the more objective outside perspective of a main character.
Kathryn Magendie’s coming-of-age Appalachian novel Sweetie features the wild, young mountain girl Sweetie as the protagonist. But she is only revealed to the audience through the eyes of the “normal” main character, whose life will be forever impacted by Sweetie’s unique views and personality.
3. Create Irony
Depending on your choice of main character/narrator, you have the potential to create interesting layers of juxtaposition and irony within your story. How different might Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird have been without the filter of Scout’s child eyes viewing her protagonist father’s actions? This kind of irony is most effective when the protagonist and main character are complete but curious opposites: a child observing an adult, an adult observing a child, an animal observing its owner.
You can also stretch this irony into outright unreliability. The narrating main character may be entirely wrong in his observations of the protagonist, as in Henry James’s Daisy Miller and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.
4. Shows Effect of the Protagonist Upon the Main Character
In stories that separate protagonist and main character, the intent is usually to emphasize the effect of the protagonist’s actions upon the main character. In these instances, the protagonist acts as the impact character, which usually (although certainly not always) has him following a flat arc (in which he already understands the story’s central Truth) that impacts the main character into following a change arc (whether positive or negative).
It’s worth reiterating: this is the fundamental difference between stories that use a narrator (such as Dr. Watson) and stories that use a separate main character. If the main character’s life is not changed by the protagonist–and does not create changes within the lives of others as a result–then he is not a main character, but only an observer.
As you can see just from the titles mentioned as examples in this post, it takes a very special type of story to require the protagonist and main character to be different people. Should you be writing one of these stories, it’s crucial to understand what creates the difference between these characters and how best to take advantage of it. Experiment with the form, have fun–and you may end up writing a “very special” story yourself!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever considered writing a story in which the protagonist and main character are different people? Tell me in the comments!
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