Why Your Protagonist Might Not Always Be Your Hero

Writers often use the word “protagonist” interchangeably with “hero” or “heroine.” This tends to conjure images of ogre-slaying, cape-wearing, entirely dazzling, why-can’t-I-look-that-good people. But this is misleading. Is “heroic” really the only qualification for a protagonist? Sometimes the requirements of certain plots necessitate that authors look outside the box to find the story’s 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 protagonist of this story?”, most of us would probably say, “Sleeping Beauty.” But if we take a closer look, we realize 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. Certainly not very heroic.

Sleeping Beauty (1959), Walt Disney Pictures.

If pressed, we might rethink our original answer and say 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.

Sleeping Beauty (1959), Walt Disney Pictures.

So who does that leave us with? How about the three good fairies?

Sleeping Beauty (1959), Walt Disney Pictures.

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If we examine the structural throughline of this story, as presented in the 1959 adaptation, the three fairies and specifically Flora, create the protagonist’s throughline. They are the ones who have agency in this story, who take action, and who move the plot forward.

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 the time, if you have a hero type in your story, that’s probably going to be your protagonist. But don’t take this for granted.

Ask yourself:

  • Which characters are actually the most important to your plot’s structural throughline and particularly which character’s actions are most important in your story’s Climactic Moment?
  • Which characters have the most dramatic character arcs?
  • Which characters have the most at stake personally?

The intersection of these three answers is where you’ll find your protagonist.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever chosen a non-traditional protagonist for your story? 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.

Comments

  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

  7. Yes, thank you! I’ve argued before that the fairies are the protagonists of the story, and my roommate didn’t listen.

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