Thursday, October 8, 2009

Who is the Protagonist?

Figuring out who the protagonist of a story is seems like an easy task. We know that the protagonist is the lead character in a story. We know that the protagonist isn’t the antagonist (usually). When we think in terms of the 7 Basic Plots (man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. God, etc.), it seems pretty simple. Man is the protagonist and whoever happens to be on the right is the antagonist. With many stories, that is exactly the case, but we find some stories where it isn’t so clearly defined. On another blog, someone mentioned Forrest Gump as an example of a non-proactive protagonist. I’ve read very little of Forrest Gump, but I know enough about it to know that Forrest stumbles into one thing after the other. I also know that while it is told from his point of view and follows his life, it is actually a satire about the stupidity of other people. Forrest is an observer in this story and others move the plot forward.

Another person mentioned having two protagonists. I assume she meant two protagonists acting separately. We might question if that is possible.

So, what do we really mean by a protagonist? The term comes from Greek plays. Greek plays were performed by three actors and they were called the protagonist, the deuteragonist and the tritagonist. We might as well call them the first actor, the second actor and the third actor. If you’re a producer and want to know which actor gets paid the most, that might be useful, but in terms of understanding a book, we need more than that. There are things our characters can do that can’t be done on stage.

For our purposes, instead of saying that the protagonist is the lead actor or the actor with the most lines, I think it makes more sense to say that the protagonist is the character who is the most proactive in moving the plot forward. On stage and screen, the actor with the most lines is usually the most important character, but in a book, the narrator may have the most lines, or the sidekick may have the most lines and they may have little impact on how the plot moves forward. To say that the narrator is the protagonist because we see him the most would be about like calling the cameraman on a film the protagonist because he films every shot.

By defining a protagonist as the most proactive character, it is clear that Forrest Gump is not the protagonist of that story. The world around him, which is far more proactive then he, is in fact the protagonist, so rather than a man vs. the world story, it is instead a world vs. man story, if we are to keep the protagonist on the left hand side.

That still leaves a question of what to do with the possibility of two or more protagonists. Every novel should have subplots. These subplots can cause difficulty when we’re trying to determine who is the protagonist, but the lead characters of the subplots are not the protagonist of the book. If you know the most proactive character in the main plot, then you know who the protagonist is. If you aren’t sure, it is probably because you aren’t sure which plot is the main plot and which are subplots. In this situation, one way to determine who the protagonist is is to ask who would take the lead if we were to bring all of the subplots together and merge them into one.


Lady Glamis said...

Really great post, Timothy! I like how you approach this, different from how I have in some posts of mine, but coming to similar conclusions I think.

I've addressed the two protagonists issue in this post on The Literary Lab.

His Or Her Story? Using Multiple Main Characters and Story Lines

Timothy Fish said...


Thanks for the interesting link. I think it's safe to say that there's a lot more that can be said on this subject than it seems like there ought to be.

Lady Glamis said...

Yes, it's a topic I plan on revisiting quite a bit.