green rectangles > Blog

What it means to be a protagonist

August 24, 2013

All stories have at least one main character who is known as the protagonist. The story develops around this special character as we follow along for the ride. But being a protagonist isn’t as easy as watching events unfold around you. As a matter of fact, this is completely antithetical to the job description of protagonist.

What makes a protagonist?

The word protagonist comes from the ancient Greek word πρωταγωνιστής, or ‘protagonistes’. On general principle, I’m not a fan of tracing words down through history and and using etymological fallacy to make a point. But when we look at this word and its components πρῶτος and ἀγωνιστής, the results are illuminating.

When we break down this compound word, we get protos meaning “first” and agōnistēs meaning “combatant” or “actor”. A protagonist of a story is the primary actor. He is the one who acts.

Acting for protagonists

A story will often be full of characters who have things happen to them. When they react according to their nature, it makes the story believable. But the protagonist cannot be limited to reacting to events around him. The protagonist stands out from other characters by acting and thereby changing the world around him.

This is the most important role of any protagonist. While others react, the protagonist decides to change things. By acting, he moves the story forward. He attempts, he struggles, he fails, or he succeeds. But all the time he is acting, and these actions paint him as a driving force in the narrative.

Narrative demand

Stories build momentum in various ways. Sometimes they are grand and sweeping, and some times they are subtle and evocative. But the story needs an agent of change to avoid being a simple list of events. Let’s consider the plight of a character we’ll name Alexander. A husband and parent, he struggles for money, believing that if he had enough, his worries would be over.

Scenario 1:

Alexander received an unexpected phone call. 45 minutes later, he found himself in a very plush waiting room that did little to settle his nerves. The hour dragged on before the receptionist let him know he was expected in the conference room.

An hour later, Alexander walked out of the lawyer’s office in a daze. He barely remembered his great-aunt, but evidently she had remembered him, a year and a half old, always naked except for a diaper and a pacifier, and always with bright eyes and a hug for his favorite aunt. She’d made sure that he was included generously in her will, and the shock that came with learning of her passing was dulled by the distance of long years and the four hundred and fifty thousand dollar cashier’s check in his wallet.

An hour later, the bank had accepted the check and cheerfully opened a premier savings account and CDs. He had never had the red carpet rolled out for him like that before. A week later, the check had cleared and all of his credit cards were paid off. Two weeks later, his credit card companies had sent friendly letters offering increased lines of credit and reminding him how much they valued him as a customer, and trumpeted a dozen exotic destinations that required only a choice and a click.

He was interrupted by the doorbell. He went to the door to see a man in a brown uniform and a matching brown delivery truck at the curb. “Delivery. Sign here, please.” The 50” plasma TV had just arrived. He couldn’t wait to see his kids’ faces when he hooked up their new Wii U to this in the living room.

Scenario 2:

Alexander sweated gently as he sat at the table. He stared at his hand and the flop on the table. The dealer burned a card and dealt the turn. King of Diamonds. His hands became clammy and he squeezed the Ace of Spades between his fingers so tightly he was afraid he’d rub the ink off. He took a deep breath. A royal flush was so near. His stomach twisted in knots. He knew he could win this. He threw a $50 bill on top of his bet. Another player raised. He was out of money.

“Are you in or not, Alex? You’re holding up the hand.” Under the dealer’s glare, Alexander felt another bead of sweat form by his ear.

“Wait! Here…” he placed his cards face down on the table, reached back and pulled out his wallet. In front of everyone, he produced his paycheck and said, “I’m still in.”

“Your call,” the dealer said. He burned a card and dealt the river. 3 of Clubs.

A pair of 10’s not withstanding the full house, Alexander was left with $7 in his pocket and the role of dealer for the next hand. His mind was numb as his hands shuffled the cards from muscle memory alone. What would he tell his wife? He managed to deal the flop and the turn. All low cards. He tried not to think of how he would feed his children while the betting war waged on among the other players.

“Hey, Alex, we’re ready for the next card!” snapped him out of his stupor.

“Of course,” he said, “and picked up the deck. He placed his thumb on the corner of the top card and it stuck. His eyes stared at the bets in front of him–easily double his lost paycheck. He felt the heat from the corner of the card he’d squeezed earlier and knew it was his Ace of Spades. Instead of burning it, he dealt the river card on the table.

Swears and curses of disgust were tossed about as players threw their hands at the table. Alexander smiled and pulled the winnings to him. “I guess that’s just the house advantage,” he reassured everyone. Suddenly, a player slammed his fist on the table.

The other players sat in shocked silence. “Wait a minute. You didn’t burn a card before the river!” The player’s voice grew in intensity. Alexander’s pulse quickened as the shocked looks melted to varying degrees of anger and suspicion. His mind started to swim before centering on the fishing knife on his belt.

Alexander’s hand slipped below the table and he leaned forward. “What did you just say?”

Secret Agent Man

While both scenarios have potential behind them, the chief difference between the two is agency. This is the capacity of the protagonist to make choices that change his environment.

In the first scenario, our hapless Alexander is reactive. He gets a phone call. The family death holds no meaning for him–it’s deus ex machina. The fortune goes into the bank. He pays his bills, buys a TV, and looks for vacation spots. The windfall is simply something that happens to him. He doesn’t make any choices and nothing is at stake.

In the second scenario, Alexander makes several choices. He judges the cards. He damages his ace. He makes a decision to gamble with his paycheck. He makes a decision to cheat while dealing. He acts on his environment. His actions are an attempt to change his situation.

Acting for new writers

During outlining and during first drafts, having reactive protagonists is a very easy trap for new writers to fall into. You think of the plot points you want to happen and figure out how to steer your main character there. But this doesn’t make for a compelling story.

A good story will center around a true protagonist–someone who isn’t content with his situation and who through his actions works to achieve his goal. He’ll have his setbacks and he’ll have to deal with complications along the way. The plot points will hit because of or in spite of the choices he makes. But with each event he gathers himself and continues to be an active participant in the storyline, struggling to persevere until he accomplishes his goal.

That makes him the primary actor in his story, and ensures that a vital ingredient in your story–the protagonist–is present and accounted for.