questionmarkI have a supporting character that seems to fill a far greater purpose than I originally anticipated. The supporting character fits Wikipedia’s definition of Hero. However, your definition says hero and main character are synonymous.

In my story, the protagonist is the main character; it’s his story. But everything is affected by this supporting character’s possession of “character far greater than that of a typical person.”

Is it wheels off to have a main character and protagonist not be the hero in the end? Do you think the audience will feel cheated by a decision like this?

— Trey
Dallas, TX

We’re venturing into Dramatic Theory 101, so if you’re the type who begins squirming in your seat when professor-types talk about Joseph Campbell and character arcs, you can save yourself a lot of frustration by stopping after the following sentence:

In most cases, “Hero,” “Main Character,” and “Protagonist” are the same character.

Seriously, you can stop reading now. Here’s a nice article about raising orphaned squirrels.

Now, for readers who are still with me, let’s try to come up with more specific definitions for these three terms, and explore why they may apply to different characters in certain stories.

My incredibly-simplified definition: this is the character who you hope to see “win.” While it’s fine to think of Superman, or Aladdin, the hero doesn’t have to be noble, or courageous, or especially talented. As long as you’re rooting for him, that’s what matters.

Main Character
Just what it sounds like: this is the character who the story is mostly about. Confused? Often his or her name is in the title: Shrek, King Arthur, Tootsie, Citizen Kane.

The character who changes over the course of the story, travelling from Point A to Point B, either literally or figuratively. She learns and grows as the story progresses. Generally, Protagonists want something at the start of the tale, and discover they need something else.

Now, remember, most times, one character is all three of these things. For example, Ripley in Aliens is clearly the Hero (fighting the monster), the Main Character (the story is mostly about her), and the Protagonist (she reluctantly joins the trip, but ends up descending to the depths to fight for her “daughter”).

The same triple-aspect applies to Cher in Clueless, and John McClane in Die Hard. And it’s fine for movies to have “teams” of characters fulfiling these roles; in Charlie’s Angels, Dylan, Natalie and Alex are each Hero, Main Character and Protagonist.

However, in some stories, the Hero, the Protagonist and the Main Character are not all the same person. One very current example is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

There’s no question that Charlie’s the Hero. You want to see him win that Golden Ticket, and for only good things to happen to him. Likewise, he’s also the Main Character — though Wonka’s a close second. While Charlie recedes into the background a bit during the factory tour, he’s still the main focus of the movie’s storytelling energies. When the Narrator talks, it’s mostly to fill in details about Charlie.

However, Charlie is not a classic Protagonist. Charlie doesn’t grow or change over the course of the story. He doesn’t need to. He starts out a really nice kid, and ends up a really nice kid.

In terms of Classical Dramatic Structure, that leaves us one Protagonist short, which leads to the biggest change in the screenplay versus the book (or the 1971 film). In our movie, Willy Wonka is the protagonist. He grows and changes. We see his rise and fall, along with his nervous breakdown during the tour. Charlie’s the one who’s always asking — ever so politely, in the Freddie Highmore Whisper(TM) — the questions that lead to Wonka’s flashbacks upon his rotten childhood. (In Classic Dramatic terms, that makes Charlie an Antagonist. Not to be confused with a Villain. Are you sure you don’t want to read about some squirrels?)

As I pitched it to Tim: Charlie gets a factory, and Willy Wonka gets a family. It’s the whole want-versus-need thing. Charlie doesn’t need a factory. Wonka really needs a family. Otherwise, he’s going to die a giggling misanthropic weirdo.

Assigning labels

Playing “spot the protagonist” can be a good intellectual exercise — up to a point. As I started writing Charlie, asking “Who’s the protagonist?” led to some important decisions about the storytelling. But trying to pin firm labels on the characters in Go or Pirates of the Caribbean would only prove frustrating.

If a story works, it works — regardless of whether characters are fulfilling their archetypal roles. So be wary of trying to wedge characters into defined classes, simply because that’s how they “should” fit.