Is there a difference between the hero, the main character, and the protagonist? Does a sidekick sharing 90% of screen time with the hero count as one of the main characters? There is a lot of confusion about these terms. Let’s see if we can sort this out…
Why is this important to know?
While you might not be a film critic or a Professor of Storytelling, it can’t hurt to define some storytelling terminology when you work on a story. If there are differences between the main character and the protagonist, maybe thinking that way can lead you to some unusual ideas.
In a movie production, working with unclear definitions can even lead to some practical issues. Imagine you decide with a rigger to put some extra features into the “main characters”. Does that include the villain? You need to make sure that both of you are on the same page.
I have to admit I didn’t really think about it until one of my students asked me. So I went down the rabbit hole to dig up how these roles have been defined elsewhere…
The answer is… it depends.
Turns out there are no clear definitions. Some terms even changed over time. In the Ancient Greece the term protagonist did not refer to the character itself, but the leading actor playing the main character and other roles (Dictionary.com). But even nowadays the borders are not clear. Some people say there is only ever one main character, some say you can call all your important characters main characters. It’s a mess. However, I found some similar theories and definitions that I want to share with you.
An interesting “problem” with this word is that it has a positive connotation. If you call a character a hero you immediately expect him or her to do something heroic; something an ordinary person wouldn’t do. While those kinds of deeds are what we might automatically find interesting, you shouldn’t forget that your protagonist doesn’t need to be a good guy.
Some very interesting stories have been told with people that aren’t exactly good guys (e.g. Jack Sparrow, Breaking Bad). In “Thank you for Smoking” the protagonist is a lobbyist of the tobacco industry and the antagonist is a governor promoting healthy living. What a change in perspective! Other films like “Megamind” and “Despicable Me” play around with the hero label and have the character presented initially as the “villain” do something heroic in the end.
As you can see, your story can be about a hero but it doesn’t necessarily have to be.
Protagonist vs. main character
Quite a few sources I found (e.g. narrativefirst.com) differentiate between the protagonist and the main character in the following way:
The Protagonist pursues the Story Goal (as opposed to the Antagonist who tries to prevent it).
The Main Character is the character through whose eyes we experience the story.
Now that’s interesting. They could be one and the same and in many stories they are, but they don’t have to be. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for example, we experience the story from Charlie’s perspective (main character), but Willy Wonka is the one developing and resolving the conflict of the story (protagonist). In Hotel Transylvania we often experience the story through Mavis’ and Jonathan’s eyes, but the character having to change is Dracula.
What makes sense to you?
I think what it comes down to is this: You miss opportunities if you don’t use these different words to mean different things. This way we can experiment better. Maybe a story becomes more interesting if it’s seen through another character? Maybe the protagonist in your story is not really a hero? Having a more fine-tuned vocabulary allows you to think outside the box.
But do you have to use the definitions above? No, you can change them to something that works for you as long as they make sense and (if applicable) are clearly communicated to your team. You can also make up new ones. For example, I like to call all important characters with a lot of screen time (protagonist, sidekick, antagonist,…) the “main cast.” This would be the term the rigger and I could use in the example from the beginning, and we would both instantly know what was being discussed as long as that term was defined ahead of time. It makes a big difference!
Do these different definitions make sense to you, or do you understand them differently?