Types of Protagonist
Protagonist … Main Character … Hero. We use lots of interchangeable words for this character. Most writers know the gist of what makes this type of character great …She or he needs to want something and go through hell to get it, whether that’s literal, metaphorical or both.
But now audiences want more more variety to their protagonists and the types of story they are in. With this in mind, I thought I would put B2W’s two types of protagonist under the microscope. I put it to you there are TWO types of main character …
- Ones that DO change
- Ones that DON’T change
Lets look at them in a little more detail. Ready? Then let’s go …
1) Protagonist as ‘The Educated’
AKA ones who change! This is the most common type of protagonist. This type leads to the character changing something fundamental about herself via her actions in the narrative, thanks to the actions and teachings of other characters. This may be the teaching and actions of secondaries, but also the antagonist. B2W calls this ‘The Transformative Arc’).
‘The Hero’s Journey’ is a classic example of the transformative arc, so most superheroes follow this route. Modern heroes would include Black Panther and Wonder Woman, since both have to undergo a quest and face significant challenges in doing so. For more on archetypal heroes, CLICK HERE.
2) Protagonist as ‘The Educator’
This is when the protagonist does NOT change. Instead, she has an effect on all other characters around her *for some reason* … Sometimes the entire storyworld, too.
There are many ways to do this, but here are 3 of the most common ways to write a protagonist who does not undergo a transformative arc.
i) The Change Agent
This is when a protagonist does not change him or herself, but may inspire other characters to change, such as the antagonist or secondary characters. Famous examples of The Change Agent include Forrest Gump and Mary Poppins. MORE HERE.
ii) The Passive Protagonist
A passive protagonist will resist all efforts to make him or her do ANYTHING … which is why a secondary character or antagonist MUST ‘take the reins’ FOR the passive protagonist and drive the story forwards instead.
Usually, a passive protagonist will take some kind of last-minute action in the final moments of the story *for some reason*, often under sufferance (especially comedy). Some people say this means there’s no such thing as a ‘true’ passive protagonist. The most famous example here would probably be The Dude in THE BIG LEBOWSKI.
iii) The Voyager
I named this one myself, since I couldn’t find a name for the trope. Those eagle-eyed Bang2writers will realise I name it after Christopher Booker’s notion of ‘Voyage and Return’, which is one of my favourite plotting archetypes.
The Voyager is a protagonist who is already capable. S/he doesn’t need to change, but solve a significant problem presented with skills and attributes they already possess. Famous Voyagers include John McClane, Ellen Ripley. Modern ones that riff off this would include Furiosa and John Wick.
Secondary characters may have to decide to ‘fill in’ with the protagonist and see the mission his/her way … They must help the protagonist, or they are the enemy. You could say The Voyager’s motto is ‘join me or die’. This is why s/he turns up so often in genre movies where it’s ‘life or death’. NB >> That said, Voyagers turn up in ALL kinds of stories and mediums, not just thrillers.
It’s obvious that the number one type of protagonist is the most used. That doesn’t mean it’s bad to use it, but it does mean there’s some novelty in the second kind. Consider the type of story you want to tell and what has gone before. Sometimes, just a small change is all you need … Other times, you need to make a much bigger change.
One thing is clear though, if you don’t know structure or character or plotting archetypes, it will be much more difficult to get a handle on. So make sure you do your research.
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