Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Main Event: Main Characters Vs. Protagonists

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Visit any writer's forum and you'll see tons of posts that talk about the MC (main character). You'll even see posts that talk about the main characters (plural), because there are several. This has always struck me as a little odd, because by definition, "main" is the most important, so that suggests singular. All those posts got me thinking about a couple of things.

1. Can you have more than one "main" character? 
2. How is the main character different from the protagonist?

I think most novels have only one main character, even if there are multiple important characters or even multiple point of view characters. There's usually one stand-out character readers root for, and the story revolves around them. The other point of view characters all connect to the storyline of the main character in some way. It's harder to have true multiple main characters because each character usually wants something different. So in essence, if you have multiple main characters, you also have multiple stories, even if they are related in some way (as always, there are exceptions to this, such as a traditional romance plot).

In Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, there are dozens of important characters and points of view, but to me, Rand al'Thor is clearly the main character. The story revolves around him, even when he isn't there. His actions drive the plot, making him the protagonist as well. Other characters play vital roles and have their own goals and stakes, but if Rand were to suddenly go poof, the story couldn't really continue. The goals and stakes of the other characters depend on what Rand does, even if it's obliquely.

(Here's more on knowing whose story it really is)

In contrast, in Tom Clancy's Hunt for Red October, Jack Ryan stands out to me as the main character. The story revolves around him and his hunt, but he isn't the protagonist. Ramius is the one who's acting and driving the plot, because his choices and his actions set the entire story in motion (which is also the sign of a good antagonist, though I don't think he plays that role here). If you took Jack Ryan out of the story, Ramius would still act as he does and his story would end tragically. If you took Ramius out of the story, Ryan has nothing to do. But Ryan plays a vital role in balancing the Ramius plot. We care about Ramius because we care about Ryan, and he cares about Ramius.

I think this subtle distinction is what throws a wrench in a lot of stories (some of my own included) There are either too many characters trying to drive the plot, or none of them are trying to drive the plot. If no one is a clear protagonist, the story lacks drive and you can find yourself halfway through a novel and wondering what happens next. If everyone is trying to have their say, you find yourself with multiple plot lines going that leave readers wondering if they're reading three books in one. They're multiple stories inspired by the same situation, not a solid novel with a strong plot.

(Here's more on getting the most out of the main character)

Then there are stories where there really are multiple main characters. I think for this to work, each character has to have the same stake or goal in the story. The details may change, but the story remains the same. Sara Shepard's Pretty Little Liars series is a great example of multiple main characters. Four girls who all have the exact problem with the same stakes. The specifics to each girl are different, but the goal and the end result is the same for all of them. What I find especially interesting about this series (besides the fact that it's just so darn good) is that the person driving the story is the mysterious A, who plays the role of the "protagonist" (making the plot happen) even though they're clearly the bad guy. How's that for skill? Take out any one (or two or three) of the main characters and the story still works. Take out A, and the girls have no problem to worry about.

(Here's more on creating a great antagonist)

So how can we apply this to our own stories?

Understanding who the main character is and who the protagonist is goes a long way to untangling any troublesome stories. Identifying them sounds easy, but if you're struggling with a story right now, take a hard look and see if maybe the people you thought were running your story really aren't. Forcing a character to play the wrong role might be causing frustration. The story might not be working because there's someone else who really has the reins, and the main character needs to react to what this protagonist is doing for it all to work. Or the opposite could be true. And in some cases, it's the antagonist who is the problem, because they aren't truly opposing the protagonist so there's nothing to struggle against.

It never hurts to ask yourself, whose story is this, and who's driving the plot?

Who's the main character is your novel? Who's the protagonist? Are they the same or different? What about for multiple POVs?  

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This was an interesting post. I'd never thought about "main" characters that way. Definitely going to check out the Pretty Little Liars series now. I've been meaning to but just hadn't had a chance yet :)

  2. Thanks again for helping me figure out the main character/protagonist of FLFP!!

  3. Can you explain how the protagonist can be the bad guy? Maybe I'm just ignorant, but how is that different from an antagonist?

  4. Never thought about it this way. Thanks! As usual, you continue to deliver :)

  5. ColinF, technically, the protagonist is the person driving the plot. It's usually the hero of the story, but sometimes it's someone else. The antagonist is the person trying to oppose the plot. Stop the hero from getting what they want. If the person trying hard to get something is the bad guy, and getting that something is what the book is all about, then technically the bad guy is the protagonist.

    This differs from something like a thriller, where the bad guy is trying to blow up something and the good guys are trying to stop it. The book isn't about a bad guy trying to blow something up, it IS about the good guys trying to stop something bad from happening.

    In the Pretty Little Liars series, the author has done something utterly fascinating by having the bad guy drive the plot. (and to be honest, this is my take on it, so I could very well be full of bunk here). I think the reason this works so well in this instance, is that the series could very well end up with the mysterious A being the good guy in the end (probably not, but it could be), because the four main characters have all done bad things. The story could turn on its ear as you find out more. Or we could find out the person behind all this is as bad as we think. But there's no doubt that the story is being shoved forward by A, and the other characters are just reacting to what A is doing.

    In the end it's just labels, but I have found it interesting to study other stories and see who really drives a plot and who drives the story. Authors have created some really compelling story structures by doing some non-traditional things.

  6. Thanks for the response Janice. That helps explain the difference. So the protagonist is someone pushing the plot forward, and the antagonist is someone laying down obstacles. Either could be good or bad. And either or neither could be the main character I guess.

  7. Pretty much. In most cases your protag will be the hero and the antag will be the bad guy, but there are times when things shift.

  8. That's a really interesting perspective. I'd never thought to distinguish between a main character and a protagonist before.

  9. Fantastic topic! I love the WOT example, though I'd argue the story could go on without Rand (it'd just be a very different -sadder!- story than what it started out as). I agree that if you have to pick an MC - he's it!

    I'm curious to hear your take on how this applies to large ensemble casts like Martin, for example, or for books that seem to have equally-important male and female MCs.

    I also think it's interesting how the MC can change between books within the same series. Anne McCaffrey's early Pern novels did this. Dragonflight clearly has Lessa as an MC, but the sequels seem to shift to more of an ensemble cast even though the story arc is fairly continuous.

  10. I'm currently reading a book by a well known author with two main characters, and I'm finding it really hard to get into. Both characters want the same thing and have the same stakes, but it feels like the story is being told once and then the same events are being rehashed again from another person's perspective. Boring. At this point, I'm forcing myself to finish. And this is a very well known, VERY sucessful author.

    But I've also read Pretty Little Liars, and in that case it works, I think because each character is bringing unique situations and perspectives to the story.

    I think it's very difficult to pull of multiple MC's. In most cases, I prefer just one. I like to know who to root for :)

  11. This post speaks to me. I have issues to work through regarding 3 "main" characters. I've tried to avoid what Candace brought up by having the story progress, not rehash, when a chapter with a different POV starts. What I'm afraid will happen is not enough connection with any of the characters. I also have POV "glimpses" from the antagonist, which would be a section of a chapter that tells their piece of the story. It's intended to be funny and to fill in gaps.

    I'm going to see how my first set of test readers like it. Otherwise I'll probably alter it to one main POV.

  12. It's scary how many times a post here has been exactly what I needed to read as I write my novel. I also had the issue of having what I thought were three main characters. I had to decide who the main character was and tailor the journeys of the other two to fit the main character's journey, rather than have three separate agendas.

  13. With the novel I'm completing for NaNo, I decided to have five main characters, with each telling the story in first person from their perspective. I hope I'm doing what Candace said, presenting unique and different points-of-view, but won't know for sure until I start revising. But I may have to switch to one main character in the first person, as her voice is coming out easier than the others.

  14. Lin, scary, but I love when that happens :) Always makes my day.

    TWL, that's a big cast, good luck with it! Sometimes you just don't know how something will work until you start playing with it. But that's what revisions are for right?

  15. Hi Janice, I found your website from the top 10 blogs for writers contest nominees, and I have to say that you have a lot of insightful and helpful posts!

    This post really makes me think and evaluate my current writing. When I write the scenes, there's this one character that keeps "owning" them. So he's my MC, but he's not really calling the shots. I have another character who's trying to stop the bad guy, and I thought he's the second MC, but after I read this post, then I think he's the protag.

    Are you familiar with Larry Brook's ( story structure? If yes, then whose POV (MC or protag) should I use to structure the story? Do I put the plot points according to the MC or the protag?

    Thanks a lot!

  16. Eve, welcome to the blog! I'm not familiar with Brook's story structure specifically, though odds are I am in the general sense (story structure has a lot of common elements). I'd guess you'd want to put the plot points according to the protag, whoever that is. They're the ones driving the story. However, if you have multiple POVs, every POV will have goals and plot points driving their scenes and story arcs.

    Whoever is doing things to make the plot happen, has stakes in what happens, and is the one trying to resolve the issues of that plot is the one (ones) you probably want to plot from.

    Protags are proactive, and drive the story. Antags provide the conflict that lets the story happen and gives it the fuel to drive it. So if you have a MC who's calling the shots and actively working against the antag, odds are that's your protag.

    Hope that helps!

  17. Wait, but what if your antag is what motivates all of your characters? Or do you mean the protag is the main character who motivates the other characters while the antag motivates him or her? And THEN what if you have two characters working for the same goal for a simliar reason against the same person but in different ways? Is it whoever you focus on more?

  18. Elizabeth, when you think about it, the antag is usually the one driving the story and motivating all the characters anyway. Without someone/thing in conflict with your protag, there'd be no story.

    The main character is typically the one the story follows and the one who is going to resolve the core conflict of the novel. In most cases that's also the protagonist, but once in a while they're different.

    You can have more than one main character, but odds are one is going to be slightly more important. (not always though). Who has the responsibility of resolving the core conflict? Who is "in charge" at the climax? If one has a bigger role and without them the story would fall apart, that's probably your main character/protagonist. Both might be working toward the same goal, but if you took either one out of the story, how would it change?

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  20. Love this blog! So much information in terms I can actually understand :) Just so I understand and using Charlie's Angels as an example, Charlie would be the protagonist even though we never see him because he's the one masterminding the cases. If the girls were to go after someone in the mob, would the mob boss be the antagonist since he's the one directing his crew? The girls & the guy they're after would be the main characters, right? Or am I totally off base?

    1. Thanks! You could indeed consider Charlie the protagonist since he triggers the plot to happen. It has the same kind of setup as Pretty Little Liars. The antagonist would be whomever the angels were after that episode.

      Most books have one of the main characters as the protagonist, but there are situations where the run "driving the plot" really isn't the one you;re following along with as a reader.

  21. Thanks for reposting this. Having read this I realise my 'bad guy' is in fact the protagonist and my MC is the antagonist. Interesting.