Why Your Protagonist Might Not Always Be Your Hero

This week’s video uses the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty to help writers think outside the box when choosing protagonists.

Video Transcript:

We often use the word “protagonist” interchangeably with “hero” or “heroine.” And this tends to conjure images of ogre-slaying, cape-wearing, entirely-dazzling-why-can’t-I-look-that-good people. But this is a little misleading. Sometimes the requirements of certain plots are going to lead you to look outside the box to find your true protagonist.

I got to thinking about this the other night while watching the old Disney classic fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. Now, if asked, “Who’s the hero of this story?”, most of us would probably look at the asker as if he’s a numbskull and say, “Sleeping Beauty.” But if we take a closer look, we realize that our fair princess has a sum total of eighteen lines, is onscreen for eighteen minutes, and, during that time, does nothing but sing, cry, and sleep. Not very heroic.

So, if pressed, we might rethink our original answer and say that the hero is really good ol’ Prince Phillip on that insanely ugly horse of his. He charges in to save the princess and her kingdom, kills the dragon—all that really good hero stuff. But turns out he’s not the hero of this story either.

So what does that leave us with? How about the three good fairies? The scriptwriters understood that their obvious protagonist choices just wouldn’t work for the unique needs of this story. Sleeping Beauty has no arc. Prince Phillip has no arc. And, even more importantly, neither of them are present from start to finish in the story. Without the fairies to hold this thing together, the plot would have lacked any kind of impetus or cohesion.

Most of time, if you have a hero type in your story, he’s probably going to be your protagonist. But don’t take this for granted. Analyze every character to discover which ones are actually the most important to your plot, which have the most dramatic character arcs, and which have the most at stake personally. The intersection of these three answers is where you’ll find your protagonist.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever chosen a non-traditional protagonist for your story?

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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 must say I do that almost always 🙂
    In my current sci-fi series the protagonist is an anti-heroin. She is flawed, imperfect, and controversial. Readers love her because of that. There is another main character who better fits in the hero role, though he is not perfect at all. In the beginning he is presented as an antagonist, then he turns out to be the “good guy” (more or less) and an ally of the protagonist. But he is not the one who reaches his goals in the end. The protagonist is.

  2. One of my favorite (albeit still unwritten) characters started out as the antagonist. Sometimes characters just end up being so much oomphier when they *start* life outside of the box.

  3. Perfect people are boring, and what is perfect btw? The protagonists I find interesting are controversial, politically incorrect rebels. The last few months Ive been hooked on the books by Michel Houellebecq. His novels has some interesting characters >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  4. Oh, I need to actually watch that movie now, lol.

    Sometimes, as you say, is hard to find a protagonist. Sometimes he pr she won´t be nice at all.

    As today, I have been told it would be very difficult to handle my net WIP because all my characters need to be equal. I didn´t much agree so, there IS actually a lot to play with!

  5. It’s a lovely rendition of the fairy tale!

  6. I´ve heard it is originally waaaaaay darker O.O

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