The protagonist is the hero of his or her story. That “hero” could be a shinning knight out to save the world from evil or an assassin who sets out to avenge the death of his wife. Hero and anti-hero, good and bad, noble and justified. Being the hero doesn’t necessarily mean being the good guy.
Yet we love our heroes no matter where they fall on the good to bad scale. We cheer for the assassin just as loudly as we do for the hunky guy in colorful tights. It’s not their profession we find heroic, it’s what they’re doing with those skills.
You killed the puppy his dead wife sent him? Oh dude, you gotta die. (John Wick)
No matter what moral compass your protagonist follows, something about her is worth reading about. She’s trying to do “the right thing” even if that follows a dark set of rules.
Because of this, heroism can take many forms, but at the core that one thing remains—doing what’s right.
Marvel Comics does this particularly well, and their recent string of movies offers multiple examples (warning: some spoilers if you haven’t seen these movies yet):
In Antman, the hero is Scott Lang, a thief who went to prison for exposing a corporate scam that stole millions from its customers. He’s hired by Hank Pyn, who’s trying to stop a former protege from using his technology for evil and world domination. Even Scott’s subplot of wanting to see his daughter Cassie again puts this hero vs. thief idea front and center—to be the father he wants to be, he has to be the thief. The “good guy thief” is so strong, that viewers are behind Scott (the thief) and not his daughter’s new stepdad-to-be (the cop).
Scott’s doing what’s right—stopping bad guys from getting tech to cause evil in the world, taking care of his daughter, robbing from the criminal rich to give to the poor. His heart is in the right place and we love him for it.
For comparison, Captain America: The Winter Solider challenges viewer perception of “what’s good.” The Winter Solider is technically a bad guy doing bad things, yet he’s also Cap’s best friend acting under mind control. It isn’t his fault per se. And Shield, (the good guys), are building warships capable of killing millions of people at a time, claiming it’s to help keep the peace. And it is, but as Cap says, “that’s not freedom, that’s fear.” Even though the good guys are trying to protect the world, their path to get there is rocky and Cap knows that. He’s seen where that road leads. The “right thing” Cap believes goes against what the good guys believe—and what many viewers likely believe. It forces you to consider the bigger moral picture.
This goes a step further in Captain America: Civil War. After a fight that results in collateral damage and the deaths of innocent people, the world wants to put the Avengers (and all superheros if you look at the original comic) under registration and control. The government wants to decide what they do and where they go, and they want to keep track of them. The Avengers (all the heroes we love who always do the right thing and fight the bad guys) are split—some think they need oversight, others think losing control and the right to choose who they fight and why leads down a dark road. Not discussed in the movie, is the “all powered people must register” aspect that sounds all too familiar to Captain America, who fought the Nazis.
Doing “the right thing” here isn’t so cut and dry. In a story filled with heroes, who is “the hero?”
In storytelling brilliance, Marvel spent a lot of time and effort setting up Captain America to be the moral center of the Avengers, and the guy who knows “the right thing” when everyone else is being short-sighted. He sees the bigger picture even when the “right thing” looks different when faced with the immediate problem at hand—how do you protect innocent bystanders from super-powered fights?
For a non-Marvel example, just watch the movie Mama. Everyone in that movie is trying to do the right thing by two little girls (even the antagonist), but they each have a different view on what that is. It’s hard to even know for sure who the protagonist is. Good and bad, right and wrong, they all get warped in this fabulous movie that strips away what we “know” as the right thing to do. It makes you question what’s right and wrong in a wonderful (if creepy) way.
(Here’s more on why every writer should watch Mama)
Using This in Our Own Writing
No matter who our protagonist is or what we want them to do, their actions should be heroic. They should be trying to do “the right thing,” even if the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way. Their plan for doing that might not be classic “good guy” in nature, and maybe their motives are a little less honorable at first, but at the core, what they want is “the right thing” to do.
Note: As all things writing, nothing is absolute. If the whole point of your story is to show the protagonist doing the wrong thing, that’s fine. Just remember that it’s harder to keep readers rooting for a protagonist who’s doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons and there’s nothing to redeem them. So if you want your non-heroic protagonist to be “the hero,” they need to eventually be on the “right side” of whatever the problem in the story is. If you don’t care, and you want to show the bad side of things and have a protagonist readers won’t relate to or support (for example, American Psycho), then the heroic aspect wouldn’t apply.
Think about the type of protagonist you want to write. Are they a hero?
What makes your protagonist heroic?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the upcoming Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound