Is the protagonist the same as the main character?

Is the protagonist the same as the main character?

Writers and readers alike uses the terms protagonist and main character interchangeable, or even believe that they are the same by definition. In fact, if you search up the definition for the word protagonist, you are almost always getting back the answer "main character". But if you search the title question, you are almost certainly going to get the answer "no".

In fact sometimes, people throw in another trope "hero" to discuss their differences.

Another problem is that nobody can ever seem to agree on how many protagonists or main characters there are (or can be) in a story. When you present a story to the floor, there'll always be a good majority who claim that there is only one single protagonist/main character, while the others believes there are a few.

Quick Definitions

To solve these problems, we first have to understand what the terms refer to, without involving circular definition. Most writers, especially when we try to differentiate the two concepts, will agree upon definitions which are more or less like the following:

The main character is the person who gets the most page or screen time. The story unfolds through the main characters eyes.

The protagonist takes the action that drives the story forward. The person who is undergoing the most change.

The hero solves the problems, takes action. Who We’re All Rooting For. It is a type of protagonist.

From this, one look and anybody can tell the difference between them. Simple enough right? Not so fast.

If you look closer, all 3 of these tropes have two sets of "criteria" in their definitions rather than one. Usually, one of them is the true definition, while the other is just a logical consequence, or even just a convention. For example, protagonist has two criteria: "drives the story forward" and "undergoes the most change". Most will deem the former as the definition, while the latter as just a rule that most protagonists follow as a result.

In fact, some articles even split the criteria up. WritingCooperative actually deemed the main character to be the one who "drives the story forward", while the protagonist as the one who just "undergoes the most change". Neither of these definitions really encapsulate the intuition of most, which I will address later.

Others even combine criteria to define a trope. For example, Dramatica define the hero as a character that is both the protagonist and the main character. This is a rather counter-intuitive definition to say the least.

In a nutshell, it's just a mess as to how they define them. Let's dive into each of them and see if they're really right.

Definitions Problems

Main Character

The main character is the person who gets the most page or screen time. The story unfolds through the main characters eyes.

Regardless of your belief that there can be multiple "main characters", "most page or screen time" is still an intuitive and fitting definition. The main characters of a story would just be the few with significantly more page or screen time than others.

However, the second criterion makes everything more problematic. You may think that the one who we experience the story from would automatically be the one with the most page or screen time, right?

That is not necessarily true. There may be parts of the story which for some reason, the supposed "viewpoint character" is not present. The story may be momentarily shown from the perspective of the protagonist instead, or even a third character.

So even though majority of the story was presented from the perspective of this viewpoint character, the protagonist may end up having more page or screen time than this "viewpoint character". In this case, who is the main character then?

Some viewpoint characters who have little or no involvement in the story (e.g. Dr Watson from Sherlock Holmes) was largely considered not the main character.

Protagonist

The protagonist takes the action that drives the story forward. The person who is undergoing the most change.

While defining the protagonist, most will bring up the concept of the story goal, and how the protagonist is the one working towards it, while the antagonist is the one working against it.

My biggest problem with this is that differentiating the protagonist from the antagonist seems completely arbitrary. If the antagonist is just the one who opposes the protagonist, how do we know which is the protagonist and which is the antagonist? How do we know the story goal isn't just the opposite of itself?

The problem is that it's usually the protagonist that defines the story goal, not the other way around. We all have this intuitive sense who the protagonist is, but to know what's the story goal we have to find the protagonist and what he or she is working towards.

The differentiating factor is certainly not the second criteria, namely "the person who undergoes the most change". The antagonist can easily be the one who changes more than the protagonist. In fact, the protagonist need not change at all. Look at Sherlock Holmes, the early days of Superman, or any Mary Sue character. All they have to do in the story is to save the day, and they are still easily the protagonists of their stories.

Hero

The hero solves the problems, takes action. Who We’re All Rooting For. It is a type of protagonist.

For most, this is probably the most difficult to define. There are plenty of characters in a story that can "take action", and we can always root for anyone other than the hero, even the antagonist!

And before you get confused, "the hero" here is about the hero of the story. It is not the same as the typical idea of one who displays or possess qualities of heroism, nor is it a reduced form of superheroes.

Also, it is certainly not necessarily the protagonist or main character. There are plenty of villain protagonists throughout fiction, most of them also happens to be the main character.

Solution

Before I get to how to define them correctly, I'll first highlight the underlying problem with the original question: Is the protagonist the same as the main character.

And if I'm honest, that's like comparing apples to oranges. Being the "main" character is an attribute, while being a "protagonist" is filling a role. In fact, you've probably heard of "Main Protagonist" very often, which is simply appending the attribute to a role.

The definitions given are actually intuitive enough to be understood by anyone, but they're just using them to define the wrong terms, resulting in a whole list of counterexamples.

"Lead" Character

Fortunately for us, there is already another attribute that we can contrast with the "main" character: the "lead" character. The definition of lead character is quite self-explanatory: the character that drives the story forward.

  • Lead Character: one who is most responsible for the plot
  • Main Character: one who has the most screen time
  • Supporting Character: one who is not as responsible for the plot
  • Side Character: one who the audience can't relate as well to

Notice that the protagonist need not be either lead character nor main character. Viewpoint characters often have slightly more screen time than the protagonist, and antagonists of many stories were often more responsible for the plot in the big picture than the protagonist (hence the role "Lead Antagonist").

However, what differentiates protagonist from the two, is that it is both a lead character and a main character. Being a lead character differentiates it from the viewpoint character, while being a main character differentiates it from the lead antagonist.

You may also be aware of other terms that are writers use interchangeably with "main" or "lead" character. For example:

  • Principal Character
  • Focal Character
  • Central Character
  • Primary Character
  • Major Character
  • Starring Character

Which brings me to the reason for my choice of the term "lead" character. While the "main" character is pretty much set in stone as to what it means, the "lead" character is by far the best in contrasting it. The other terms seems too similar to "main" which may make it counter-intuitive in understanding this framework.

Extending the Framework

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By now, you should understand that the story roles are just a mix of attributes namely "main", "lead" and their opposites "side" and "supporting".

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