A new year, a new season of Writing Excuses. And this week’s episode got my soap box nerves tingling. Hero, protagonist, and main character – which is which and how to know which to use.
Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟
Humor: 🌟🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟
Usefulness to me right now: 🌟🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟
What a great episode! And it hit on one of my personal pet peeves when it comes to craft books for fiction writing – a determination to fit all main characters into a particular label.
One of my preferred craft books on structure is John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, which I love for its many insights and approaches to developing the bones of a story. But I HATE his use of the label “hero” when talking about the the character of the story. Perhaps I should explain.
I don’t write stories about heroes, at least, that’s not how I think of them. I’m much more interested in the stories of everyday people thrust into extraordinary situations. Sometimes that lets a person’s heroic side show. And often, it doesn’t. So as Truby used the word “hero” to describe how the story theme gets built and all of the way that the structure ties back to desire and need and ghosts and all these things that tie into the character driving the story, I felt put off, like his words weren’t for my story.
Until I changed my brain to substitute protagonist every time he used hero. Then it all started to gel for me.
For the pod-casters, there is a difference between a hero, a protagonist, and a main character, and Mary described them as being in sets that overlap. Hearing it that way made me change my thinking on this a little bit. For them, the main character was the person through whose eyes we see the story unfold, the protagonist is the one making choices and actions that drive the story forward and changes through story, and the hero is the one that makes the heroic action or who we admire. Sometimes those are all one character and sometimes they are three different characters and sometimes any mix in between.
And that’s where things really made sense for me. I’m currently working through a cut revision of my first novel and my main character is my protagonist, but he isn’t the hero. That role goes to another, and in my story, that ends up being a trope subversion, which I really like. But being able to better separate the roles lets me see just how I can mix and match them to make very different kinds of stories.