I told myself I’d write more for ImpishIdea this summer, but then life got in the way. For whatever reason everyone keeps telling me I can’t live in the local library, so I’ve got to find a new place to live, and that in turn has held a lot of my thinking time. Who’d have thunk it?

Because of that, I don’t know when/if I’ll get to that sporking of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles that’s been suggested a couple of times. For starters, I’d actually need to buy a copy of Hounded.

So instead I’m going to complain about having the wrong protagonists.

For whatever reason, there are a lot of stories in which the protagonist isn’t actually the main character. It’s fairly common, actually. It sounds like a problem that shouldn’t happen, but it does. Let me explain with an example or two.

I’ve been reading/watching/playing a lot of fiction involving Greek mythology lately. A lot of it is great. But I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency to make the story about a conflict between the gods but make none of the gods the protagonist. It’s always some human hero, who bumbles around without fully understanding what’s going on in the mythological world. To be fair, sometimes an author can make it work, like in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians, in which we see the hero and the Titans actually face off against each other. Additionally, despite the cosmic scale of the series’s plot, it still remains personal story about Percy fighting to save the people he loves.

But then you have things like the movie Immortals, meant to be a film retelling the story of Theseus that is also about preventing the Titans from escaping their prison. Except that Theseus doesn’t prevent jack squat, the Titans escape, and the entire thing would have been prevented if Zeus actually got off his golden cape to do stuff. There isn’t any reason Theseus is the hero, other than because Zeus and the movie say so. Other characters (the gods, mostly) are more interesting, more complex, and could do much more with the actual plot.

The obvious answer to this criticism is that having an immortal godlike protagonist is too boring, as there are no stakes and the character is too distant for the human audience to identify with. And while I agree that it is difficult to have a compelling protagonist who is a deity or godlike figure, it’s not impossible. I think Neil Gaiman did it pretty well in The Sandman. In the comic the title character, Morpheus, is an immortal being, but nonetheless he’s bound by certain rules and limitations. And while he’s not threatened by most of the human characters, he is surrounded by treacherous family members and angry mythological figures who certainly can hurt him.

But even moving out of fantasy stories with gods, this happens in other fiction as well. Do you guys remember back when I was sporking Angelopolis? Yeah, fun times all-around, I know. But one of the things that struck me re-reading the book is that Verlaine was a pretty piss-poor main character. Yes, the story was “about him” in the sense that he was one of the main players moving the plot forward. But who are all of the revelations in the story about, and who is the one person that the whole plot hinges on in the end of the novel? It’s not him. It’s Evangeline. She’s the one who finds out about her parentage being different than she thought, who found out that she was created for the sole purpose of being a weapon against evil. The plot is, by all accounts, about her, and so being the main character you’d think she’d be the protagonist, like in the first book. But she’s benched for most of the story so that Verlaine and the other characters can wander around Europe asking stupid questions. Verlaine himself doesn’t do much to move the story along; despite the text and other characters constantly singing his praises, he always has to be rescued and being told plot-relevant information. This story should not be about him. But Trussoni tried very much to make it so. So she makes him the protagonist, despite him not being the actual main character.

The much-maligned Assassin’s Creed: Unity had a similar issue. I’ve heard a lot of Assassin’s Creed fans and critics bemoan how boring the protagonist of that game was. But I don’t think that Arno Dorian (the protagonist) is a bad character, but again, the story isn’t about him. The whole plot hinges on his epic love story with Elise: juggling his willingness to help her take revenge on her father’s murders and his desire to keep her safe. It’s not a bad character motivation, but it makes for a poor protagonist, because the story isn’t about him. It’s about Elise, and how her quest to seek revenge plays out. It’s not that Arno shouldn’t be in the story, but it’s just not his story. If Arno had gotten a story in which he was actually the central character, he probably would have been received a lot better.

I’ll admit that heroic destinies, revenge plots, and prophesied heroes have been done to death, but one reason they’re used so often is because we know precisely who the story is about. It’s an easy way to make sure you don’t lose focus of who you’re supposed to care about. You probably could do successful subversions, in which the protagonist is not the main character in the epic quest, but rather the companion, best friend, or another party member. But that would work more effectively in satire or parody than a serious story idea: having a character who points out all the plot holes and tropes of their story, or how unrealistic it all is.

[I want to note that one can play around with the viewpoint character being different than the main character/protagonist being different. Sherlock Holmes is indisputably the main character and protagonist of his stories, but most of the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are narrated by Dr. John Watson instead. The narrator doesn’t have to be the protagonist/main character at all, though they often are.]

It isn’t just a matter of the protagonist being a likable character; it doesn’t matter how likable they are, or are supposed to be. If they’re not the central character of the story, the one on whom everything else hinges, then they’re not the main character. The protagonist and the main character should be the same, and that should be someone without whom there would be no story: a character who makes some of the decisions that move the plot forward. If your main characters are just reacting to what’s going on around them, and don’t do anything to advance the story, then you’ve got some work to do before they’re protagonists.

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Comment

  1. Dragonstorm on 3 July 2017, 23:05 said:

    Good points, and it’s making me rethink some of what I’ve been writing recently. I’m glad you posted this!

  2. Anonymous on 5 July 2017, 03:02 said:

    What if the protagonist is specifically there to observe and play up the ability of the main character? Ala Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is a much more effective main character if we don’t know what he’s thinking.

  3. Juracan on 5 July 2017, 10:37 said:

    @Dragonstorm:

    Glad I could be helpful!

    @Anon:

    I touch on this a bit, but I don’t really consider Watson to be the main character or protagonist in most of the Sherlock Holmes stories. He’s the narrator, but almost always Holmes is the one who leads the plot, whom the story centers around, and who the stories are actually about. I think the narrator being separate than the main character and protagonist can work very well when applied correctly.