Thursday, February 3, 2011

What is a Protagonist?

I've been reading through some articles over at Jim Hull's Story Fanatic site and he has some interesting thoughts on the differences between a "Protagonist' and a "Main Character." For more information, check out these pieces:

The True Definition of a Protagonist

Redefining Protagonist and Main Character

Jim also raised a question about whether or not Nic was the true protagonist of "The Kids Are All Right" since she doesn't seem to go through a significant change by the end of the story, which I thought was an interesting point. I do think she changes, but I agree that the change is pretty subtle, which is simply an observation and not a criticism at all since I liked the ending. Within days, a friend of mine named Zenas asked the same question about how Olive could be the protagonist of "Little Miss Sunshine" when she isn't the one who changes in the end. This has inspired me to add a section in my screenplay analyses from now on about which character undergoes this kind of change and how that is demonstrated in the script.

Here are my thoughts so far: A protagonist should struggle to overcome an internal flaw (or to fill an internal need) in order to accomplish an external goal. The protagonist's character arc is represented by how much progress she makes in overcoming her internal flaw, so it seems like a good script should clearly demonstrate the amount of internal change the protagonist has achieved. From now on, that specific question will be in my script analysis template, because I'm not convinced yet that it's a 100% requirement for the protagonist to be the character who demonstrates that internal change. It could be this "Main Character" that Jim refers to in his articles, which would certainly be reflected in the amount of change that Olive's step-dad Richard goes through over the course of "Little Miss Sunshine." Fun stuff to think about!


  1. The idea that stories must be based on a protagonist overcoming an internal flaw is based on a mistranslation of "hamartia" as "flaw" rather than as "mistake". The plays that Aristotle was talking about when he made that rule (e.g., Oedipus Rex) do not feature protagonists with fatal flaws; they feature protagonists who made mistakes. Oedipus Rex' mistakes were based on things he did not and could not know; so the entire story is not about a character learning and growing, but about the inevitability of fate.

    (Many Greek tragedies, such as the Iliad, do not fit Aristotle's model at all, suggesting that Aristotle was writing about how he wished tragedy to be rather than about how it was.)

    The dominant paradigm in any culture says that art is those things that reinforce that culture's worldview. The entire point of Beowulf (a feudalistic story) is that Beowulf does not change. Change, in those days, was bad.

    It's no coincidence that Western literature as we know it did not appear until the 14th century, and started to mature in the late 16th century. The stories we tell today would have been deemed dangerously subversive under feudalism.

  2. I don't think that anyone writes stories about a protagonist confronting (not necessarily overcoming) an internal flaw because of a rule that Aristotle wrote thousands of years ago. This is the kind of story that the majority of audiences enjoy watching in an attempt to achieve a kind of catharsis or experience a vicarious emotion that holds some personal meaning.