Sunday, March 16, 2008

What Is a Protagonist?

I ask this question pretty frequently, and get lots and lots of smart answers, but none that really satisfy.

What is the definition of protagonist?

Can we come up with a simple, concise definition? Every time I try, I come up with reasons that the definition fails.

If we define the protagonist as "the character we root for," then this presumes that the protagonist's goals are always worthy. In the case of tragedies, they frequently are not. Really, did anyone actually want Oedipus to marry Jocasta?

If we define the protagonist as "the character in active pursuit of a goal," then this eliminates an entire class of protagonists whose only true goal is to preserve the status quo. Think of thrillers. Think of a bodyguard hero. His goal? To have nothing change. The antagonist -- the bad guy with an ax to grind and bullets to spare -- is the one who sets the plot in motion by setting a goal of killing the bodyguard's protectee.

If we define the protagonist as "the character on the stage or on the page most frequently," then ancient pieces with narrators and choruses get a bit muddled.

If we define the protagonist as "the character with the most central role in the plot," then what on earth do we do with ensemble pieces? Really, who was the protagonist in Crash? In The Big Chill?

And then there's romance. Can a story ever really have two protagonists?

I'm throwing this out there as food for thought and because I'd like to hear what everyone thinks. We've got some smart people hanging around this little blog.



Anna said...

Perhaps, a protagonist is the character in whom the reader has the most emotional investment.

Ian said...

I don't see any reason why a story can't have multiple protagonists.

Most stories will, of course, and it's the character with whom the writer has the closest emotional investment.

In an ensemble piece, it seems to me that the ensemble itself is the protagonist. Because if you look at ensemble pieces, each character within the group tends to represent a specific attribute. Think of them like appendages or organs - each one designed to perform a specific function within the group. Some members' only function is to die, often by creating an emotional bond to the audience or reader which strengthens the connection to the survivors. You have the Voice of Reason, the Everyman, the Scientist, the Traitor, the Plucky Comic Relief. All of these can be (and usually are) parts of an ensemble cast. And they're all protagonists, or a single protagonist as The Cast. We want them to succeed. We invest our emotions in them, and even if all but one perish (literally or metaphorically) in the course of the plot, we're happy as long as they ultimately win.


Edittorrent said...

I remember a Simon Brett novel where the main character sort of accidentally kills someone, and then he sort of purposefully kills his wife, and then he decides he should kill his mother-in-law, and I was so rooting for him to get away with it. It was the weirdest feeling. I wanted him to succeed at killing people, because, heck, that was his goal!

So protagonists don't even have to be GOOD. He wasn't even that likeable. I think it was that accidental murder that won me over.

C.L. Gray said...

Can the protagonist be an event? I'm writing a war novel. It seems to me that the one driving the events is the war itself. And because I'm viewing the war from both sides, my audience's investment can be on Side A or Side B depending on which side of the war they are.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I was taught that the protagonist is the person who drives the story forward. We're often in their point of view, either first person or a third-person ... shoot. I don't remember the name for the POV. But it's close, we're seeing things through their eyes.

Yes, you can have multiple protagonists. Absolutely.

But then, I was also taught that the narrator can be a character in the story, too. A third-person narrator.

Anonymous said...

I like the concept that I learned over at Morgan Hawke's writing blog of stories having a proponent and an antagonist (where the proponent is someone struggling to maintain the status quo and the antagonist is the one struggling to disrupt the status quo) You can have an antagonist hero or a proponent hero. Her tips are geared heavily toward unabashedly genre writing, but as long as you take them as tools to use or not as you see fit rather than gospel (which IMHO is how most writing advice should be used) she's got some useful stuff.

Anonymous said...

Then there is the use of Main Character, which could be protagonist or antagonist, good or evil, but certainly an important player to the play.

Because fiction, heck all writing, is generally linear, it's difficult to break out of the idea that the character introduced first is the 'most important'. Do they really have to be? If Jane comes out first followed by Steve, then Connie and Dave, is Jane any more important if this really is an ensemble?

Then as you say in your post, tragedies are completely different animals. My novel opens and ends in grief, not a happy ending at all. So what am I to do with that? The reader does find out the explanation, but there are NO winners here. Is that acceptable any more?

Evangeline Holland said...

I wonder about this when it does come to a romance novel: shouldn't both the h/h have character arcs? Many times, one character in the romance has the arc, while the other is a catalyst for that other character to change. Should all characters have an arc and be balanced, or is there no right or wrong in writing (even a romance novel)?