Protagonist and Main Character— Same Person? The Answer May Transform Your Story!

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.

In short, the protagonist is the catalytic force at the story’s center.

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.

Dr Watson SHerlock Martin Freeman

Sherlock (2010-17), BBC One

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.

Elephant Man Anthony Hopkins John Hurt

The Elephant Man (1980), Paramount Pictures.

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.

Great Gatsby Nick Carraway Tobey Maguire Leonardo DiCaprio

The Great Gatsby (2013), Warner Bros.

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.

Sweetie Kathryn MagendieKathryn 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.

Daisy Miller Henry James Fight Club Chuck Palahniuk

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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I very much enjoyed this post, but I have a question. You list Luke as both the main character and the protagonist of the Star Wars films. Could you please explain this? I’ve always viewed Darth Vader as the protagonist of the films, so I’m curious. 🙂

  2. Neat article. I agree that the differentiantion is an important one. … It’s one I’ve been using in the novel I’m currently working on. I’ve been having some difficulty trying to figure out just how close/far I should be from my non-main character protagonist.

    I’m going to quibble with you on a small point though. You say that Dr. Watson counts as a narrator not a non-protagonist mian character because:
    A main character’s life must be changed by the protagist.
    The main character must himself have a role in the plot.
    (Did I follow you correctly there?)

    But Dr. Watson DOES in fact fit those qualifications. His life is enormously impacted by Sherlock Holmes – the protagonist – and he does often fulfil a secondary plot role. There are exceptions, in a few of the stories he does act only as an observer (though even there he is still ‘impacted’) but just off the top of my head I will point out ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ and “The Adeventure of the Dying Detective’. In both, he actually played a very important role in the investigation. This is not uncomon.
    So – Dr. Watson does in fact fit those qualifications.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I had a feeling I’d hear a quibble on that. 😉 And I do agree there are some minor exceptions in some of the stories, in which Watson does take on a more active role than that of merely being Holmes’s (often unwitting) tool in the investigation. But taken as a whole, his presence in the series is decidedly that of a passive observer. (And, of course, I’m referring to Watson as he appears in the stories, not in the movies or TV shows.)

      • I’m glad you qualified that you were using the Sherlock Holmes stories as the basis for your examples and not the TV shows. Most of the TV shows portray Watson as a bumbling idiot, which really irks me! Poor Nigel Bruce! I don’t watch those old episodes anymore because they’re way too painful!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, and honestly in all of the adaptations I’ve ever seen Watson *isn’t* in any sense the narrator or the main character. From the more objective viewpoint of the film, he’s the sidekick/main relationship character.

  3. Hi KM,
    Thanks for this timely post. My story has a “collective consciousness” based entity that is the stories protagonist, with two Main Characters, and this isn’t revealed fully until the final chapters. You’ve given me clearer understanding (as all of your posts) of this relationship, and will help in revision tremendously.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s excellent! Sounds like a tricky premise, so any illumination is always a good thing. All the best with it!

  4. Interesting article. I hadn’t considered splitting the protagonist and the main character before, but now I have some ideas floating around my brain.

  5. I’ve always thought this relationship works well in The Shawshank Redemption. Andy is the protagonist but we see it all through Main Character Red’s eyes. It’s why we can have the final 20-odd minutes of the film without Andy being present. And he is changed by Andy.

  6. Katie, thanks for posting this article and for the Dramatica mention! I wish more people knew about this amazing theory of story.

    Another way I (and Dramatica) view the MC separate from the Protagonist is that the MC will often give us a very PERSONAL view of the story’s problem. While the Protagonist will drive the momentum of the story forward (as you mentioned).

    Terrific example with “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It’s through the MC’s (Scout’s) POV that we see the story’s problem in a very particular light. In this case, we see what it FEELS LIKE to see prejudice through the eyes of Scout. Contrast that POV with Atticus and you have a good starting towards a well rounded story argument.

    I’m glad you wrote about this topic, as it doesn’t seem a very popular choice in today’s fiction. But like you pointed out, it can really add a powerful dynamic and make a story “very special.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Dramatica is wonderful. The book is ridiculously dense, but well worth the read for anyone interested in story theory.

  7. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Which raises the important point that if we’re going to split the protagonist and main character into separate people, then *both* definitely have to have a lot at stake within the story.

  8. I’ve never deliberately written a story in which the main character and protagonist were two different people, but I think I have written one. I’m wondering if this is the reason I’ve never been satisfied with it.

    Basically, the female lead is retreating from a terrible situation and has accepted a position house-sitting in the north woods.

    In the middle of a blizzard, the male lead comes stumbling through the storm after wrecking his car. He’s on the run from someone seeking his life after he uncovered the pursuer’s crimes.

    The story is told first person by the female lead and I’ve always been bothered by the realization that she’s pretty much just a narrator until the end, when she has to decide whether to try to rescue the male lead or let him deal with the antagonist on his own.

    The story is a mystery/cozy mystery.

    Is the female lead the main character or a narrator?

    Is the male lead “just” the male lead or the protagonist?

    If I have a main character/protagonist separation, can it be made to work with a mystery or do I need to change POV to the male lead? Or make the female lead be the one whose life is threatened?

    It sounds like you may have inadvertently put your finger on my problem with this story. If so, thanks! All I need to do is figure out what to do with the new information!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The trick to evolving a character such as your female lead from passive narrator to observant main character is to make sure her narrative approach to the male protagonist brings something to the table. It needs to be about more than just reporting on the male–which could be done just as well from his own POV. What is she offering in insight or dramatic irony>

  9. Eve Harris says

    Wow, thanks for the insightful post. When writing this kind of stories, do we structure the story based on the protagonist’s journey or the main character’s?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s a balancing act to be sure. In most instances, the protagonist is going to be following a flat arc, which allows him to be the impact character in the main character’s change arc. So, short answer: the MC still carries the bulk of the personal change. For example, consider how Gatsby drives the plot, but Nick is the one who changes.

      • This (non-MC protagonist’s flat arc) is good news for me, since my collective protagonist probably won’t change.

        I think in Volume I the collective protagonist will be the employers, and in Volume II it will be the housemaids.

        I must take care to make the MC/narrator change both times. Maybe his sympathies will shift according to which side of the story he’s listening to. Finally he gives up in the realization that you can’t help everybody–or in the humbling realization that he’ll never figure it out.

        But if you change twice, you end up more or less where you began. Are there two equal and opposite Lies for him to overcome?

        I wonder what Lies are taught as part of a psychology curriculum?

        • Well here’s a partial answer to my last question

          All about the Nazi/CIA/Fascist roots of the psychology industry, amd its purpose to keep us docile while living under an unjust system.

          Conceivably when MC listens to the employers, they don’t change but each housemaid individually does; and when MC listens to one of the housemaids, he doesn’t change but his employer does.

          Question: suppose it is unclear whether the POV person is a narrator or an MC — is that a problem?

          • I bet the answer is: it’s ok as long as SOMEBODY changes. And not just any change: somebody must stop believing a Lie.

            Or maybe … Someone starts believing a Lie ?!?!?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Both work. But you’re right, the change is the key.

      • Eve Harris says

        Ok, so for example, the protag is the one who opens a dimensional gate in part 1, and first plot point happens when MC jumps into the portal to save her. The protag gets captured when they investigate a suspiciously techy diamond mine in the medieval kingdom in part 2. Then the second plot point happens when the MC sneaks in to the royal palace and discovers that the king is one of their ex-boss, a brilliant scientist who resigned from the company last year, whose research about dimensional gate they picked up.

        In other words, the MC still needs to be actively making decisions and doing things to achieve his goal. It’s just that his decisions/actions are influenced/driven by the protag’s decisions/actions? So the MC should not be passive at all?

  10. I think maybe I have a narrator and a series of protagonists.

    If an antagonist can be, not a person, but a force of nature, or a collection of persons, then can a protagonist also be a collection of persons, when the MC is a narrator? For example, the MC observes (and reports on) conflicts between housemaids and their employers. All the housemaids are more or less equivalent (they have the same motivations, beliefs, opinions, etc), and all the employers are more or less equivalent. I suppose that means if they stop believing a Lie, then the whole group of them would have to stop believing it at the same time. (If one of them stops believing the Lie but the others don’t, then we have a protagonist “leaving the herd”.)

    Ok, what if neither of those groups changes (flat arc?) Then the MC has to change, as a result of witnessing this conflict (or the rest of the world has to change, which doesn’t happen here).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like an interesting experiment. Makes me wonder what Shirley Jackson’s famous village-as-a-protag story “The Lottery” would have been like with an MC narrator.

  11. Oh, I needed this! I’ve been working with my first draft, having all sorts of plot issues, but this, this cleated things up considerably! My MC and protagonist are not the same character! Thank you for the revelation!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ta-da! It’s kind of like writing a novel that has a split personality. Challenging–but always interesting.

  12. Who believes the Lie? Who’s got the Ghost (the backstory wound)? Who changes?

  13. In my murder mystery, the main character is the killer, and the protagonist is the woman who is the best friend of the most recent victim. She’s the one driving the investigation in a dangerous direction. But my killer MC is falling in love with her. I hadn’t quite understood this split between MC and protagonist, so this post has helped quite a bit! (The plot has a lot of deception in it. The killer did not actually murder this particular victim–though she was next on his schedule! He’s there to figure out who dunnit and why.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s a very intriguing way to use this technique!

      • Further complications in MC vs Protagonist area: I have several chapters WRITTEN BY my protagonist, who is an unreliable narrator–and the MC in those chapters. She wrote them to deceive the main MC (and of course the readers, too!)

  14. As usual a mind blowing post. I’ve learned so much since discovering your site. I don’t quite understand the difference but will pay attention while reading and watching films and now I want to read Dramatica.

    A few books that comes to mind, where this might apply is THE BOOK THEIF and ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. Perhaps I’m wrong.

    My MC is a male but there is also an important female. Both their POVs are 3rd close. The MC is betrayed by everyone and learns only in the end. The antagonist is the girl’s boyfriend who sets up the MC and forces the female MC into a choice which makes her seem weak. She gives up love for financial security.

    The reader and the MC discover this in the end, but the main female character never learns of the set up.

  15. Great post. Sometimes when we write this kind of stories we are not sure who is who (main character and protagonist). Now I understand it a bit better. It makes me think of Peter-pan. Although Wendy is not a narrator the story follows Wendy being her the main character with changing arc. and Peter-pan being the protagonist with flat arc that influences her. Do you think that analysis is right?

  16. This post gave me goosebumps. It perfectly describes the characters in a trilogy I just published, “The Silent Tempest”: Caleb is the protagonist, while Telai is the main character. They both share roughly equal screen time, but it is Telai’s perspective that determines the outcome of the events triggered by Caleb’s actions.

    Brilliant article, thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I love it when that happens: when the logic comes together on something you already instinctively understood. Glad you enjoyed the piece!

  17. A MC who is not the “protagonist” or “first actor” would be the SECOND actor. So, what is the Greek word for second actor?


    And third is the Tritagonist. The Protagonist was invented by the poet Thespis, the Deuteragonist (enabling dialogue) by Aeschylus and the Tritagonist (traditionally the cause of the action) by Sophocles.

  18. I’m really glad you offered up this post. I don’t know how you do it but you always seem to find the right topic at the right time for me to either clarify a thought I’d been needing confirmation for, or struggling over. My protagonist and my MC ( in one of my two timelines at least) are definitely separate entities in my current work in progress. I just didn’t realize it by definition until this post, so thank you for the clarity!

    I’ve always pictured it as a “two sides” of the same coin sort of thing. My protag is the one living in the lie, burying and focusing on her goals, yada yada, and my MC is living with the truth, but keeping it undercover for her and his own plot-related reasons. In my Key Event, my protag puts my MC in a situation where her “goal” which is still lie based, but has the underlying hint of her true desire for the truth, forces him to reevaluate his original lie-based reactions and make decisions to follow the ever-impeded truth related path that brings things together in the end.

    I have been debating whether I need to use both of their POVS in revising this Key Event chapter to establish that, or if (in trying to maintain a little of the mystery of my protags motives) the MC’s POV outweighs.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most of the time, the dual protag/MC technique works best when the protag doesn’t receive a POV. Otherwise, he becomes an MC in his own right–which at least somewhat negates the power of the non-protag MC.

  19. I suppose, for extra apparent-breaking-of-all-the-rules, the roles playes by the various characters can change from scene to scene?

    By the way, what is the relationship between scenes and chapters?

  20. So would that mean that in Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, Gabriel Oak is the protagonist while Bathsheba Everdene is the main character? Because the story kinda revolves around her but I still feel that Gabriel is the real protagonist because he’s the person who contributes most to the plot. I hope you’ve read that book. It’s one of my personal favourites.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Based on the book (not the movies–which I haven’t seen), I would actually say that Gabriel is the MC, while Bathsheba is the protag. It’s been a bit since I’ve read it, but I recall her being the real mover and shaker, while Gabriel stood back and observed.

  21. Hi! Great article! I was just listening to an old podcast over on Writing Excuses about the same thing.

    I’ve discovered that my protagonist is Jireh, God in the medieval world that I am writing. My main character is Atarah, who fulfills a lot of plot devices that I could explain all day.

    Thanks for clearing that up for me!

    So, question: What do you do to thaw a (non-romantic) relationship between two characters?

    My main character, Atarah, has been kidnapped by the prince. He wants her to do something for him– in fact, he wants it so desperately he is willing to threaten her brother’s life to get her to fulfill it.
    Atarah doesn’t see the full story behind it.
    How can I get her to come to respect this prince? He is a leader, a man worthy of being a king… but I can’t get Atarah to get past hating him for what he did to their family.


    • Sounds like “Beauty and the Beast.” Look at versions of that story.

      Sounds like the problem of trying to make a character sympathetic (just to another character, not to the reader). Look for writers’ tips on hjow to do that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Chemistry between characters works in the largely the same manner regardless whether the relationship is romantic or not (sex appeal being the only major difference). It’s basically just a question of putting yourself into these characters’ shoes and figuring out how you would react in this situation. What would it take for *you* to respect this man?

    • Oh, also, look at Robert Cialdini’s Six Principles of Influence

  22. Thank you for this great article.

    I think the quote on Atticus and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird pretty much sums up the way I’ve separated the protagonist and the main character. And, when I think about it, I usually do separate the protagonist from the main character. It seems to come naturally to me when I write.

    Thank you, once again.


  23. Hi again 🙂 So I’ve been thinking a lot about what you mentioned the other day in regards to

    “Most of the time, the dual protag/MC technique works best when the protag doesn’t receive a POV. Otherwise, he becomes an MC in his own right–which at least somewhat negates the power of the non-protag MC.”

    I am in a situation in my Key Event where the protag is taking action to bring about a change of mind in the mind of my MC. It is a mostly lie driven motivation, with undertones of the truth she’s really yearning for and going to find later in the story through the outcome of this event. I start the chapter with my Main Characters POV, and then half way through the chapter, I scene break and I feel no tether to the writing of the next scene from the MC’s POV. So logic dictates that I would go into my protag’s POV here. I am wondering if there is something wrong in my logic based on what you said here? 🙂

    • First you say “feel” and then you say “logic” so I don’t follow. “Logic” to me would be based on the facts in the story, what’s going on in the story.

      Check the articles on Scene Structure (scene=goal, conflict, disaster, followed by sequel=reaction, dilemma, decision which drives the goal in the next scene).

      • Hi Rod,

        I sure did use feel and logic about it! 🙂 Because I’m describing that I feel something is missing, and what logic dictates that means. The goal is the Protags the Reaction belongs to the MC. I am torn here because it is so intertwined between the two of them in this moment, and no combination I’ve tried has thus far worked. Keep asking myself who has the most at stake here, and in many ways it is the MC, while the Protag is the one taking the risk in the action she’s taking to bring about her goal.

        • Oh, I see. I feel your logic. 😉 Yes it is based on facts after all, just YOUR facts, not the story’s facts.

          So the Protag’s goal is to spread the Lie to the MC? And conflict is the MC doesn’t want the Lie? Goal achieved, or not?

          Then reaction, I suppose the Protag’s reaction to success or failure, dilemma what to do next (what are Protag’s choices?), then decision (Protag chooses next goal)

          • Or do they switch roles? Does MC react, have a dilemma, decide on MC’s next goal? Surely MC can’t decide on Protag’s next goal?

            Switch both roles and POV at the same time?

        • Can you tell me what combinations you’ve tried?

          Because there are only so many combinations, and when I see what is being combined, maybe I can make a complete list.

          The MC has more at stake, to gain or to lose?

          So the Protag is taking the risk (of loss), trying to fool or delude the MC with the Lie, so the MC has more at stake in the sense of gaining? losing? something

        • In a nutshell, the Protag’s goal is to change the MC’s mind on a choice/decision established in the Hook and the MC’s first POV chapter. The goal is lie-driven, because she’s trying to prove something that isn’t true with this action, but of course it’s the grain of truth within the action that brings the change of mind to the MC, not the lie itself (because he’s living with the truth while she’s living with the lie) and propels the story forward.

          The goal/want she’s chasing here is plot-related. The Need is subplot related.

          I hope that makes sense.

          • OK, so the MC made a “good” decision early on, and Protag (motivated by an overall Want) is now trying to change that to a “bad” decision, by feeding the MC a Lie with a grain of truth, and the MC bites because of the grain.

            (I am reminded of “An angel wearing sandals came down from the sky and gave me golden plates with scriptures written on them, and here are the sandals!”).

            Is this sub-Need related to the grain of truth?

            And the question of the moment is whether to change POV? I don’t remember any articles on POV; what determines that?

          • Okay so what would ultimately be gained here is shared between the two of them. What would be lost is more in the MC’s conscious mind because he’s living with the truth and knows what he’d lose while the Protag is deluding herself and what she has to lose is this false sense of closure the lie brings her

          • I thought the general POV rule is Who has the most to lose or gain in a scene.

          • So, the end of the Lie experienced as a “loss”

          • The Protag’s POV would surely be more interesting: Fear of “loss” of the Lie; fear of the Truth. What apparently terrible thing would happen?

            I’d sketch it out both ways. Not in detail, just in summary form.

          • I am reminded of the early days of quantum mechanics. The physics world had just become convinced that energy is not continuous but comes in discrete units, and the same with spin. Then an experiment showed that electrons have a 1/2 unit of spin. This was resisted on the grounds that next we would accept a 1/4 unit of spin, and so on, and soon we’d be back to everything being continuous!

            As it turns out, the electron’s spin is either +1/2 or -1/2 (i.e. clockwise or counterclockwise), so the CHANGE in spin is always 1 unit.

    • Right! And it’s what the MC didn’t want to risk.

      • Ah, wait, the MC? Not the Protag? didn’t want to risk loss of the Lie? Because it would endanger the relationship?

      • All right…

        So in the Hook the Protag gets an offer that is supposed to be awesome for her, which ultimately involves the MC whom she has been on the outs with. The MC decides to pull back because he doesn’t want risk everything that does inevitably come to the surface destroying this opportunity for her. The Protag sees it as an affront on her lie in a nutshell and does this thing (grain of truth and all) that inspires him to see it as an opportunity to change things between them and aspects of his life through all of this. She sees it as her means for full closure.

        • And through these opposing mindsets and goals, conflict arises that eventually causes the change within the protag.

          • So I think the question is: what’s more important if it’s known by the reader through subtext and her POV that she’s doing this for the purposes of continuing her self-delusion. The change in the MC or … seeing her internal conflict in action I suppose. Sounds like it’s weighted toward the MC stated like that.

          • So the MC almost sees it as a truth with a grain of lie?

            Or, the MC (correctly) sees that the grain of truth will ultimately convert the Protag, while the Protag (falsely) sees that the lie will convert the MC?

            “What would be lost is more in the MC’s conscious mind because he’s living with the truth and knows what he’d lose while the Protag is deluding herself and what she has to lose is this false sense of closure the lie brings her”

            So part of the Protag’s delusion is that … a gain of the truth would be a loss of the lie … I can’t figure it out now!

            Yes, the Protag’s POV will be more interesting because then we can see the delusion at work

          • Must the change in the MC and the internal conflict in the Protag happen at the same time? Can we not see BOTH?

    • Haha! Feel my pain. But my idea was ultimately just to split the chapter between the two of them. In short, a scene that brings him into this moment, and then the next scene from her – ‘pitching her goal’ as it were.

      • I just got the sense that maybe this was bad form from a response I got from our host on this thread 🙂 Which is why I posted the question.

        • Please tell me what that response was. Maybe that bullet misses this target.

          Also please review the posts on Structuring Your Scene (and sequel).

          And maybe you can help me: What Lie, what false belief, drives the emotion “can’t stand” as in “I can’t stand to watch boxing because someone’s being abused” or “I can’t stand what other people do in their bedrooms” (eg the old anti-sodomy laws) or “I’m against bullying and I decide what bullying looks like and I say you are bullying that person and I insist you must stop it right now!”

          • I’m inclined to say deep disgust/revulsion.

          • Hmmm… lemme ponder that a bit…

          • Are we talking a lie as in ‘I firmly believe this and I won’t change my mind no matter what evidence or other beliefs you present me with to sway me otherwise?’

          • A Lie, in our host’s sense, as in “his Lie” that driver’s the character’s Want, but is finally discarded in favor of the Truth just before the Climax.

          • Well in your “I decide what bullying looks like” example, it could be willful ignorance. Or a deep seeded disgust based on past history maybe?

          • So, yes. Usually created by trauma (Backstory Wound, or the character’s Ghost) and held unconsciously.

            My MC wants to help people whether they want/need to be helped or not. And he thinks his version of help is the one that is needed and ought to be imposed. Basic do-gooder/control-freak attitude.

            This came out of the requirements of the story, because somebody has to change, somebody has to give up a Lie, and none of the other characters will, so by process of elimination it’s the MC, and what I described is the only kind of Lie that fits.

          • OK, let’s go with both of those, willful ignorance and deep seeded disgust, both based on past history.

            What false belief creates or perpetuates those?

            What “moment of enlightenment” (in a dream, in the nuthouse, after talking to the other “nuts”) will end that Lie?

          • Sounds really interesting. Perhaps especially if one of these people who won’t accept your MC’s help, helps bring about a change in your MC.

          • Hmm….well I think that depends on the character’s wound. For example, if the MC believes what he’s doing negates his own need for help or whatever for any possible harm done to him in the past.

          • I must deduce what the wound is.

            Yes the MC changes after his “help” doesn’t help anybody. There are employers and housemaids, and MC doesn’t like the way the employers treat the housemaids, but the housemaids aren’t complaining. The employers aren’t about to change. The housemaids don’t harbor a Lie. The employers probably harbor a Lie, but the MC doesn’t have the power to persuade them. So the only person left who can change, and who can harbor a Lie, is the MC.

            That’s good, the MC is deflecting his attention from his own need for help. That’s particularly good since the MC is a psychologist!

          • Sounds good to me! Hope that helped 🙂

          • If anything else occurs to you, please let me know.

            I’m sort of backing into the design of the MC. Maybe that’s normal.

          • Oh trust me, I’ve been there, which is why I’m where I am with the first act of my story. Course correcting for all the dynamics I’ve changed heheh. I would love to hear more if you were willing divulge 🙂 Though perhaps….not on a thread… hehehe

          • Well if you want to give me an email address, I will tell you more. Create a new one if you like.

            “his own need for help” creates the next problem: why does he need help?

          • my email addy is 🙂

        • Katie said that scenes are structural whereas chapters are arbitrary.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like maybe you guys have worked this out already, but let me just chime in here in response to Amanda’s original question. First of all: no hard and fast rule here about staying out of the protag’s POV. If that’s what your gut is dictating, then that’s a feeling that’s definitely worth paying attention to.

      But my next consideration would be whether or not the protag’s POV is featured throughout. If this is his only POV scene, then I would definitely reconsider it. Arbitrary POV choices (versus ones that are maintained consistently throughout the novel) always have the potential to endanger the narrative’s cohesion.

      • Hi Katie,

        Thank you for responding 🙂

        I didn’t even think about that point because my protag is my protag and I follow her POV like you would expect to follow a protag from the beginning. It’s a multi-pov story and chapter wise, the POVs have been split 50-50 between my protag and my MC in the first act. My concern is that — though we get a view on him plenty throughout the novel, we’ve gotten more the MC’s view on the protag than the protag’s view on the MC so far. Aside from subtext of course, which I’m plenty confident with up until the Key Event. But the reader gets context for the protag’s lie throughout her chapters so I don’t feel like I need to dwell on that in the Protag’s internal landscape in this moment.

        Because it is directly effecting the MC’s goals and decisions I’m inclined to continue to follow him and only him in this moment. And let the subtext and the protag’s actions speak for themselves until things begin to change at and after the first plot point.

        I’m just hoping that makes sense 🙂

      • Dear K.M.

        First, I have to say… thank you very much! 🙂 I love your blog (vlog), and ever since I started following it – it completely transformed my story. Every Wednesday a new YouTube video inspires me for writing another paragraph, scene, or even the whole chaper.

        However, regarding your second point in this comment, I have to give an example at which I personally think choosing a “one time POV” scenes proved to be the best possible choice.

        I am currently writing a novella with 15000 words limit, and right after the first chapter, my main character disappears (Inciting event). I chose an MC POV for the first chapter only, and a closely related character (who also gets introduced in the first chapter) in the remaining of the story (together with “breadcrumbs” of the MC POV in form of the short paragraphs of her voice records as the story gets unfolded).

        The reason why I chose this change in POV, and an example that kept on popping on my mind was a TV series “Cold Case”. I loved it, and one thing that made it different was the initial POV of the victim whose story we do not know. It made viewers care infinitely more about the success of the detective Lilly Rush solving the case. Without the victim, there would be no plot and he/she is reappearing throughout the episode in short flashbacks of suspects, friends, and relatives so I guess we basically can call a victim the MC of the episode.

        The main POV is without a doubt one of the protagonist Lilly Rush with only short inserts of the POVs of the characters involved in the MCs destiny and although we don’t really get the taste of the MC POV after the start of the episode it still makes the story so much better because it makes us care about both Protagonist and MC at a level which could not be reached if the story would feature only the POV of detective Rush. Interestingly, in this series most of the POVs are appearing only once or twice during the episode, and still they make perfect sense because when combined with the protagonist’s POV and the MC POV from the first scene, they also serve the “show vs. tell” purpose in the story of the MC destiny – in this case they propel the story to a whole new level.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I’m so glad you’re enjoying the videos!

          It’s definitely important to realize that every “rule” is made to be broken. Bottom line: if a technique works, it works. Even if it maybe isn’t ideal from an overall artistic perspective, if it brings functionality to the story, that may be worth enough in itself.

          That said, consistency is my golden standard in well-wrought POVs. The tightest, most cohesive stories are those with an iron grip on their POVs. One-time POVs almost inevitably end up messing with that consistency (which, again, isn’t to say the risk isn’t sometimes worth the gain). I also would caution against using TV as a guide for POV usage, since POV is treated very differently in film and especially within TV, which is arguably the most forgiving of visual storytelling media.

          So… not saying your choice for your story was in any way wrong. Just offering some things to chew on.

          • Hello again,

            Thank you for responding!

            I do get your point, and it is something I have been chewing on since I started writing the novella. To make a long story short ( in this case literally 😉 ), this story went from one POV to two POVs, to one POV (again) and at the end to this intermediate version.

            The protagonist is at the start of his arc a contagonist to the MC (although both think they are taking the best possible choice). When the second (MC) POV is not present, some actions might seem irrational due to the lack of the emotional backstory. Both of them suffered trauma and they should be emotionally closed up. Although, to some degree, subtext could transfer emotions without the more direct dialog it could not achieve a high enough level of connection with the MC in the first chapter.

            One could argue I should simply write a novel with two (consistent) POVs instead of forcing it to be a novella. I thought about this option and, eventually, gave up on the idea for three reasons.

            1. My aim would be to publish the story in one of the on-line science fiction magazines. Several online magazines have a word limit of 15000 max. (others even less).

            2. Word limit forces me to be both creative and cautious with phrasing.

            3. I wrote my first manuscript when I was 16, only to realize my country is too small (4 million total population!) to be marketable. After polishing my English writing skills (still some work there, as you probably noticed 😉 ), writing stories only for myself, and in the middle of a Science Ph.D. – I finally have a feeling I am far enough to write a solid Sci-Fi story and try to publish it. 12 years of practice went by, so I do want to be a bit adventurous with storytelling (not necessarily meaning I would succeed).

            I guess I will keep the story this way until the beta/CP evaluation stage. If my CPs and betas will not like the way I used the MC POV, but will like both characters and the story, I will try to expand it into a full double-POV novel.

            Actually, my biggest fear is that the first chapter could misrepresent the story. I am working hard on making both voices equally interesting. I guess I will find out soon enough…

            In the meantime, I will stay tuned! 🙂

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            We’re all striving toward perfect storytelling. But when we’re down and dirty in the actual battleground of *writing* a story, the execution is rarely that straightforward. Sometimes we have to sacrifice “perfect” storytelling for “practical” storytelling. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s always good to be aware (as you definitely seem to be) of what kind of a trade we’re making.

  24. What a thought-provoking post! Thanks for all the examples of protagonists versus main characters (and for listing Darth Vader as a contagonist – that feels so much more appropriate than antagonist). So on the note of suggesting other stories that might have separate protags and MCs: does Lord of the Rings qualify? Frodo is definitely the protagonist and a main character, but I would consider Aragorn to be the other main character. Aragorn’s arc is just as dramatic as Frodo’s, but he wouldn’t really have a story without the protagonist (Frodo) inheriting the Ring and thus getting the ball rolling with Sauron.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think that’s a fair deduction. There are a *lot* of main characters throughout the series, but Aragorn would be a prominent one.

  25. Must the roles be occupied by the same characters throughout the story?

    My MC visits other characters and listens to their stories. During these interviews, I think he corresponds to Shawshank’s Red, as the one who is changed. (Except he’s not telling a story that he remembers, he’s listening to someone else’s story.) But the action is driven by the characters he’s interviewing.

    BUT between interviews, MC is the protagonist. First he reacts to the stories (e.g. by going to the pub) and later he acts (by going to the police).

    I understand the “sequel” to be his emotional reaction and his thinking about what he’s hearing, which sets up the “next scene” in the pub or in the police station.

    So during interview scenes, MC’s “goal” is listen, “conflict” is difference in opinion between himself and interviewee, “disaster” is he’s frightened by what he hears; and the interviewed character also has a goal, conflict and disaster (or success).

    Then in the “sequel” after an interview, MC’s “reaction” is fright, “dilemma” is whether to go to the pub or to the police, and “decision” is pub before the Midpoint and police afterward.

    Then each pub visit is a “scene.” MC’s “goal” is to get drunk and tell the barmaid what’s going on, “conflict” is he’s not sure she will believe him, “disaster” is the barmaid doesn’t believe him.

    Then each police visit is a “scene.” MC’s “goal”

    Then after each pub or police visit is a “sequel” where MC’s “reaction” is frustration that nobody believes him, “dilemma” is whether to go back for another interview or to give up and go home, and “decision” is always to go back for more.

    During the early stages, he could skip the pub, and “decision” would just be to go back for another interview.

    So the MC is constantly switching back and forth from non-protag to protag. Does that sound all right?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s important to understand that in a story of this type the main character *will* be active and move the plot in his own right.

      • Now I wonder what “this type” is. Did I describe a “type” of story? I cannot think of another story like this.

  26. How about these:

    Bertie Wooster and Jeeves?

    Sherman and Mr. Peabody?

  27. Wow, thanks! This is exactly what’s going on in the books I’m writing. The main character is active, makes her own decisions, impacts on the individual aspects of the story, but in the end, it’s all about the protagonist. It’s his story. I deliberately chose not to use his POV for, among other things, dramatic reasons, but also because I think the complexity of his character would NOT be evident if he were telling the story himself.
    So, enter my lovely lady MC. In the end, they end up both having an impact on each other – she helps him overcome the trauma and loss he has experienced, and he gives her a greater sense of self-worth.
    I actually enjoy telling tales from POV other than the protagonist. In one story (on hiatus, but you never know), I decided I would have multiple 3rd person POV – but NEVER from that of the MC (in this case the same as the protagonist). I thought it would illuminate his character in interesting ways. (By the way, it’s on hiatus because of plot problems (i.e. it still needs one), not because this technique wasn’t working.)

  28. thomas h cullen says

    To reference a list of examples, where the two identities are one and the same.. Brad Pitt’s Louis, in Interview With The Vampire (1994), and Ripley in Aliens, and David, in Artificial Intelligence.

    Now, on the other side of the fence.. Ripley (again), in Alien! Andy Dufresne, in The Shawshank Redemption. Dean Keaton, in The Usual Suspects, and Mia and David in 2013’s Evil Dead.

    The question of who’s a protagonist is all subjective.. wholly dependent on the values of the artist.

  29. Any concerns to keep in mind when attempting a story where the love interest is also the mentor (and younger as well)?

  30. Can you think of a story where the world around the MC didn’t change, and the MC’s change resulted from his desire to help people, but he didn’t help anyone?

  31. So … reading this made me realize something about a project I’m currently working on, and I think it’ll help me greatly in mapping everything out.
    I hadn’t even thought of the protagonist and MC being two separate characters, but apparently that separation is exactly what I needed (and had basically orchestrated without realizing it!). And now that I’ve stopped fighting it … I think a lot of things will be easier moving forward.

    Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Awesome! The writer’s gut is a powerful thing. It almost always knows what’s best for the story. Sometimes it just takes a while for our conscious brains to catch up.

  32. Bret Wieseler says

    This post was a bit of a Road to Damascus moment for me. By taking the STAKES character of my story and turning her into the MAIN CHARACTER, this allows me to step back from a rather unlikeable PROTAGONIST and understand his character from the audience’s perspective.

    Now my question is, when laying out the plot in a three act framework, are the central plot points applied to the PROTAGONIST or the MAIN CHARACTER?

    Thanks for the mind-blowing revelation.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The protagonist is the *mover* in the plot, so the plot points will primarily belong to him. But this doesn’t mean the MC can’t and shouldn’t have his own impact on those plot points. At the very least, he needs to be impacted *by* them and the protagonist’s actions in them.

  33. Hi, Katie. I have a character dilemma that I’m trying to work out. In my second book of a series, my protagonist has taken the stage through the first act, but the story started stagnating. Is it then OK to introduce a character in the first half of second act, who will help said protagonist in her fight against the antagonist? This character may end up being part of a third novel as well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Optimally, you want all your important playing pieces (especially characters) introduced or *at least* foreshadowed in the first half (preferably the FIrst Act). Otherwise, you can end up with a story that feels pretty fragmented, or an element that may even come across as contrived.

      • Thanks, it might be time to have a good look at the whole thing again. There are some really great elements in the first act and I am happy with the inciting event, just not the next 4000 words 🙂

        • Joleen,

          I’m going to say something silly-sounding and I want you to take it seriously:

          Please identify the first word that you’re not happy with.

          Yes, I know the important thing is the overall ideas. It’s not so much that the exact word matters, it’s that when you go thru the exercise, your unconscious will become sensitized to what’s “right” and what’s “not right.”

  34. I cannot think of any story in which this is done.

    Why is it stagnating? Maybe there’s a problem there that ought to be addressed — new character or no new character.

    • I am starting to wonder that. It is mainly the second act that isn’t working for me. Perhaps it needs to be stripped back again and redone. I think I have set up the next conflict too early and am messing it up a little bit trying to fill in gaps.
      Thank you guys for helping with this. Luckily I’m not so far into the story that it might be painful to hit the delete button.

  35. In the BBC series, John is the deuteragonist and often participates in Sherlock’s adventures like he did in the stories, but, three times (two being intentional) has saved Sherlock’s life (the third time being offering up his life) and in one of the stories, John was shot in the leg, though one of them was meant for Sherlock, but somehow, John was hit, and Sherlock thought that John was gonna die, but it didn’t happen. However, for the perpetrator that shot John, Sherlock said that if John had died, the perp wouldn’t have gotten out alive. Also, I thought that the protagonist and main character were the same people as well as my mom since I made my main character Amelia the protagonist. As for contagionist, I know that my character Samantha fights bad guys to protect her city and the people she loves, but she doesn’t agree with how StarGirl does things and thinks that StarGirl isn’t good enough.

  36. Actually, about John, he may not be the protagonist, he’s the main character in a way as well as Sherlock since, even though the BBC series is about Sherlock mainly, he’s also important, since I think in the original stories, he did go on the adventures, and in the series with Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, John is pretty active, as well as Sherlock. He may not be as brilliant, but could make a good detective in his own right.

  37. I just found out that Watson earlier didn’t participate in Sherlock’s adventures in the stories. That makes me mad. I like him. He’s my fave character. I am GLAD that he’s a main character in the BBC.

  38. We could add to this list “A Christmas. Carol,” in which Ebenezer Scrooge is not the protagonist. WHAT?! you say. Then who is? It’s Jacob Marley, through his agents the three ghosts.

    Scrooge doesn’t put in the effort to move the plot forward. He doesn’t have the driving desire to change. All he wants is to be left alone to count his money. Marley is the one who wants to upset the status quo–he and Bob Cratchitt and his family, but Bob isn’t in a position to drive the plot.

  39. How would you format a scene if your main character was not the protagonist? Would the scene still follow the protagonist’s goal or switch to the main character’s?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The main character will either have a goal of her own that ties in or is obstructed by the protagonist’s forward momentum, or may simply be carried along with the protagonist’s goals–taking them on by proxy, in essence. What’s important is that the main character can’t simply be a passive observer. Even if the scene goal does not belong to her, she must be *impacted* by the result, she must be changed by it in some way.

  40. John A. Gorman says

    My protagonist is separate from the MC, however the change (inner obstacle) the protagonist goes through in the end is equally profound or perhaps more profound than that of the MC. I gather this means both would follow a change arc.

    Do I need to be careful about this approach? Can too many characters change?


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      No such thing as too much change. 🙂 However, you just want to make sure that the protagonist’s change is what is impacting the main character’s change.

  41. To what extent would a passive main character be disqualified from being the protagonist? If the plot merely happens *to* the main character and is driven by others (someone guiding him/looking out for him vs. someone trying to hurt him), would that make him a non-protagonist main character? Would the person trying to help him and, thus, directly opposing the antagonist and setting the plot into motion be the protagonist?

    (I’m asking because I’m doing a literary analysis on a story where this seems to be the case.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There are basically three possibilities for this:

      1. Another character (or collective entity) is really the protagonist, driving the plot around this passive main character (basically, what you just said).

      2. The character has purposefully been written as passive, in what is essentially a experimental form, so the author can make some kind of statement about people or society in general.

      3. It’s just poorly written. The majority of the time, this is going to be the case. Passive characters who have no goals and don’t drive the plot usually fail to produce powerful stories.

    • Laina, please tell us about the “someone” who is guiding and looking out for him. Without that someone, or without that someone’s desire, would the story collapse? For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wants to go home. If Dorothy ever stopped wanting to go home, the plot/story would collapse.

      And tell us about the “someone” who is trying to hurt him. Same question.

      Is there anyone with an unfulfilled desire that spans most of the story?

      Is there anyone that the reader naturally identifies with?

      Who changes during the story?

      • Well, I’m still working on reading it, but basically the main character has a goal (to go home), except that he is mainly powerless to accomplish it, so someone with more power and capability has been helping him from “behind the scenes” (the audience sees them doing it, but he doesn’t see them). He is mainly following the directions of whichever guide sent by his… sponsor, I suppose? …comes along next. Within most scenes, he is actively doing something (following the advice of his sponsor, seeking out potential allies, trying to survive, etc.), but the larger plot elements happen to him and then he reacts. He seems to be a flat arc character — side characters are affected by his presence, and one in particular has had some significant growth, but he hasn’t had any significant character development to speak of and does not seem to have a “Lie”.
        I mentioned this to the professor of the class I’m doing the analysis for and he said that I could at least argue that the sponsor is the main agent of the story, which would be a more easily defendable yet still quite arguable stance.

        • Laina, I am reminded of Jacob Marley and his three employees the Ghosts, as the main agent(s). Your MC corresponds to Scrooge. But Scrooge is changed.

          I am reminded a little of the Good Witch of the North and her explanations and snowfall, and everybody who helped and instructed Dorothy (“follow the road” / “bring me the broomstick”).

          In what sense is it “his story” ?

          Does this growth character begin with a Lie? In what sense is it HIS story?

  42. Oh, does the sponsor change? What’s the sponsor’s motivation? In what sense is it HIS story?

  43. Hannah Killian says

    So, would Belle be the protagonist and Beast the main character?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      No, I’d say (at least in the cartoon version, since I haven’t seen the new one), that Belle is both protag and MC. Beast is the love interest/relationship character, who is impacted/changed by her flat-arc Truth.

      • Hannah Killian says

        Ahh, okay.

        I wonder if it would be the same in my ow BATB retelling or if she’s the protag and he’s the main character.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Who is the story *about*? If it’s *not* about the more dynamic character, then you’ve likely got a split MC/protag.

  44. It was a really insightful post. Thank you a lot for your advices !

    I’m currently writing a Sleeping Beauty Retelling and I have a case of this.
    When I introduced a bigger plotline to the story, I’ve realized my MC Aurore wasn’t cut out to be the protagonist but that Kriss, who I thought was just an interesting secondary character, actually was the driving force behind the main plotline. And I think it works better that way. Now the thing is that as Aurore discovers more about Kriss and the crisis (see what I did there) that threatens her world, she grows and acts as an impact character to the protagonist because she’s the one who can see behind Kriss’ Lie and the psychological mess she’s in. But she also has her own journey / dynamic arc (since she carries the themes of the novel and has a more personal plotline), is personally involved with the Antagonist, etc.
    And so while Kriss’ journey is about saving the world(s) from a terrible threat, Aurora’s is about discovering the flaws in her world and others and yet understanding why it’s still worth saving. And also learning how to become the protagonist of her own life. Which is why I think for this story, it’s best to separate my MC from my Protagonist.

    Now the thing is finding how to plot this because objectively, Kriss’ plotline is the most interesting and drama-focused – but for the sake of mystery and themes, I have to stick with Aurore’s point of view and more mundane personal growth. It’s just that I’m afraid it could turn out to be boring after a while, especially knowing something much more interesting is happening in the shadows and is waiting to be discovered. That’s usually the problem with splitting MCs and Protagonists : the protagonist is always doing much more interesting things and the MC either has to catch up if he wants to be involved / doesn’t want to be in the shadows, or he is just a passive observant with a particular point of view.

    (Sorry it turned into a big rant !)

  45. The protag is the effort figure while the MC is the change figure, right? So the protag is “more interesting” as long as the doing of things is more interesting than the change. So, make the change as interesting as possible. We wonder: Will the character change or not? Also, are there two competing changes, so we wonder which influence will win? (Angel on one shoulder, devil on the other). Generally, how can character-change issues be made more “interesting” than decision-making, initiative, effort and action?

  46. Mike Purvis says

    I’ve spent a good deal of time wrestling with timelines in my current story outline as it takes place over many years, and once I had that ironed out (the biggest wrinkles anyway), something still didn’t feel right…

    I originally thought maybe I had two protagonists, but after working through that a bit, I realized that just didn’t work either. This post made a light bulb come on for me – thank you!

    I realized that who I thought would be my protagonist, is actually my MC – and my protagonist is the character that actually couldn’t tell the story herself – but really the entire story is about her journey.

    Thanks for explaining this in such great detail!

  47. Thanks for this post. It definitely helped me to clarify in my mind the roles of the characters in the serialized sci-fi mystery-romance-thriller novel I’m currently writing (my first novel). I use multiple POVs and protagonists (and antagonists) in addition to the MC. However, two-thirds through the story, one of the protagonists appear to take on an antagonist role to the main protagonist.

    I never planned how I would deal with my characters, I just wanted to tell my story. But it got a lot bigger and more involved than I ever could imagine, to the point that I had to split the story in 3 to make a trilogy.

    I’m wondering, is it unusual for characters to switch roles? Or is there a special term that defines such characters?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s best if the character roles are established from the beginning. A character can start as a “good” guy and turn into a “bad” guy–from a moral standpoint. But in order to create a cohesive plot, the protagonist needs a cohesive antagonistic force aligned against him as the catalyst in the conflict, from beginning to end.

  48. Cora Tate says

    Over the past year or so, I wrote a novel (I intended to write a short story, but the characters ran away with it) that felt ‘different’ to me [different from my other novels, but also different in a broader sense]. I didn’t understand why, until I read your post here. I separated the protagonist and main character. Thank you for clarifying that.

  49. Thanks for the article. I am writing a historical fiction series (3 books) and the protagonist is a female- in the first books she is merely a baby so I have created a separate main character to her, a teenage male, who responds to her and reflects her struggle, and together they drive the plot. She’s a teenager in the second book and by the third book, she is a woman. So, for the second and third books, I plan to have her as the protagonist and main character. Is this OK to do?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Readers are going to connect with the main character in the first book, since he’s the one telling the story. It would be fine to shift the focus of the later books away from him to a more prominent emphasis on the girl, but I wouldn’t abandon him completely. If he’s what readers really end up liking in the first book, they won’t appreciate him fading out later on.

    • Why can’t a baby be the main character?

  50. Hello!

    I have a question I think that relates to this article. My main character is not my protag, though he is affected by the protag every step of the way. The biggest reason she is not the MC as well as the protag is because the protag has a secret that is super important to not only Mc’s character arc, but is important to the plot (it affects all of it, but no one knows except the protag, and is important to her own character arc, too). Is this a valid reason to have him be the MC? Does that make sense?


    • That confused even me after rereading it. Jasper is MC, Daniella is protag. Daniella has a secret that isn’t revealed until the second plot pt, and I read that the reader needs to know what the MC knows when they know it. I want it to be a reveal to the readers, though, this secret of Daniella’s. So, Jasper, who is interesting and affected by Daniella and her secret via character arc and plot, ends up being the MC. Is her secret and the need to keep it from everyone (readers and other characters) a valid reason to not make her the MC AND protag?
      Sorry about the confusion!


      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        As long as the MC has a story arc of his own–with the protag driving the plot–this should be fine.

  51. Hi K.M. referring back to your article in August 2015, on having a different Protagonist and Main Character, I would like to know more about the structural implications arising from this. You mention that the MC has to have a story arc, so I am curious about what this means for aligning the beats of the structure, and also not ending up with more than one story. Is this really a question about the outlining stage and how to decide whether or not to use this strategy after which the usual rules apply. I imagine that the decision impacts on the character, or flavour, of the book as a whole?

  52. Hi K.M. – I am in the beginning stages of writing a comic (which I will illustrate and publish online once I’m done – hoo boy), and I am all mixed up about whether I have dual protagonists or an MC/protag…or even just a protag and a sneaky antagonist! Hopefully this isn’t too little information, but I don’t want to get too into the weeds of the plot.

    MC1 (Asa) is a compelling character in her own right, and the plot is directly driven by her. She is the “impact character” for MC2 (Jack), pulling him into the story, and (unbeknownst to him) guiding his actions along the way. Her character arc is the one most intrinsically tied to my story’s theme of unintended consequences, as every action she takes towards her goal/the climax of the story result in increasingly disastrous situations.

    Jack is, in my opinion, the most interesting character of the two, due to his unique backstory which causes Asa to “recruit” him in the first place. His character arc is tied less directly to the theme: he highlights the unintended consequences of Asa’s actions, and is more of a passive subject of the theme. But, his own character growth causes him to act in ways that spur Asa to reactions that result in even more disastrously unintended consequences on her part.

    (I’ll put a disclaimer here that I realize having two protags can be unwieldy and is generally not advised, but I’ve got two solid character arcs and an essentially unlimited length to deal with, provided people are interested enough to keep reading!)

    But, in your opinion, what does it sound like I have here? If Asa’s the sole protag, as her arc is the best illustration of my theme, is it okay for the main character to be more “interesting”, at least in terms of ~mysterious~ backstory? Or, conversely, given the nature of the theme and how it relates to their two character arcs (Asa causing the unintended consequences, which in turn drives Jack’s arc), do I really have two protagonists?

    I hope that’s not too confusing! Thanks in advance for the input!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds to me, based on what you’ve said here, that Asa is your protagonist. To double-check, look at your major structural moments (First Plot Point, Midpoint, Third Plot Point, etc.). The protagonist is the one (or should be the one) who consistently shows up, impacts, and is impacted by the events of the main structural beats.

      I don’t see any problems using Asa as your protagonist and Jack as your main character, as long Jack is suitably impacted thematically by Asa’s progression through the plot.

      • Thanks for the quick response! That definitely makes sense.

        So, my next question is – how does/should this affect my story structure? I’ve already got two distinct arcs (mostly) outlined, intersecting at each plot point, either through the same shared experience or cause and effect scenarios. Some need tweaking to bring them closer to the theme, but Jack’s entire arc is definitely a thematic consequence of Asa’s. Should any of this be changed with the realization that the story is protag/MC instead of protag/protag?

  53. Rod Schmidt says

    I believe that Mary Poppins is another example of this. Mary Poppins doesn’t change; she causes others (mostly Mr. Banks) to change.


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