Protagonist vs. Narrator: Whose Line Is It Anyway?

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Father Christmas very kindly brought me a copy of How to write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card – something I’ve been after for a long time – so I’ve been ploughing through that this week. There’s a big section on world building, much of which I already knew but I will probably discuss some of what he says on the subject at a later date. What I want to talk about today, though, is his first point on story construction: whose story are you telling?

By far the most common approach is to have the narrator, the hero and the main character combined in the same person. In fact, this is so standard that it took me a couple of re-reads to understand the differences between the three. Here’s how Scott Card defines them:

  • The narrator is the character through whom we see the story unfold. They must be at the centre of most of the action.
  • The hero is the character we want to win, to achieve his goals and desires. The character we’re rooting for.
  • The main character is the one who causes things to happen – the one who triggers the events of the story. They are also often the one who is suffering most and therefore has the incentive to change things.

Scott Card’s example to demonstrate how the latter two can be different people is the original Star Wars trilogy. The hero is Luke (and, with him, Han and Leia), but there’s a strong argument that he isn’t the main character. Darth Vader is the one who triggered everything they did. They reacted to his moves, he had more power to act, he was mysterious and interesting, and it was his final redemption – the culmination of his character arc – that was the climax of the story. He was the main character, but we never hoped he’d win.

Someone call the NSPCC

Someone call the NSPCC

As for having the narrator separate to both hero and main character, that’s the way many detective stories work. The story is told by the detective, but the story is about the people involved in the case. The narrator will still be a major character, if only because we see so much of them, but they don’t have to be the hero or the central figure of the story.

Confusingly, Scott Card also refers to the hero as the ‘protagonist’. I’d say that the term is more appropriate for the main character. It originally comes from ancient Greek theatre and refers to the central or primary figure, rather than the sympathetic character. Medea is the protagonist of her tragedy but we don’t really want her to ‘win’ (unless you’re a fan of infanticide). Okay, if I’m being pedantic, ‘protagonist’ literally means ‘first actor on stage’ but the point still stands – they are the main character.

He makes one other really interesting point about the main character, and that is the freedom to act. This is often an issue in genre writing:

Too often – particularly in medieval fantasy – writers think their story must be about rulers. Kings and queens can be extravagantly powerful, yes, but too often they aren’t free at all. If you understand the workings of power in human societies, you’ll know that the greatest freedom to act in unpredictable ways is usually found away from the centres of power.

He takes Star Trek to task for the frankly irresponsible behaviour of Captain Kirk, who constantly abandons his ship to go off exploring. Your main character needs to believably be able to go out and do things. High-ranking leaders can be the heroes, but they are usually not the best choice for the main character.

I have to admit that this has changed my thinking somewhat. Looking back on past work, I’ve reassessed who is the hero and who is the main character – they often aren’t the same, even though I didn’t realise it at the time. I’m just starting work on a new novel and I hope that being able to define the characters in this way intentionally will make a significant difference, both to the shape of the story and developing character arcs.

What do you guys think? Does this make sense to you? Did you already know it? And do you usually have all three functions in one person, or are they spread across multiple characters?

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5 responses »

  1. Huh. Looks like the hero and the main character of my series aren’t the same person. Frankly, I shouldn’t be surprised — it’s kind of the Darth Vader deal — but I’d never really considered it and had actually been kind of concerned about the emphasis I’d put on the main character person. This makes me feel better.

  2. I tend to default to rolling all three into one, without really thinking about what I’m doing. Except maybe the hero – I do sometimes write less likeable central characters. I’ll have to have a think about how I could separate them out to make my stories more interesting.

    I’m a fan of OSC’s writing book, and given that I don’t even remember this particular lesson I should clearly read it again soon.

  3. I hadn’t thought about this before. I think in a lot of the stories I read they are one and the same person. I’m wondering how this would apply to stories that have multiple viewpoints. Did Card comment on that? I’m curious.

    • Not in this book. He’s written another called ‘Character and Viewpoint’ which he references, saying that because he’s covered the subject more completely there he’s not going to go into too much depth in ‘How to write’.

      • Now I have two books on my TBR list. 🙂 I’m interested to hear more about what you learn from Card as you go through it.

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