Chasing the Protagonist

The Protagonist: more than someone who wants something 'badly enough to drive a story.'

Story structure based on recognizable patterns garner legions of fans. They draw many in with their easy “fifteen steps to Hollywood success” and their claims of having unlocked the keys of story. Unfortunately, with simplicity comes great inaccuracy.

The popularity of these paradigms or screenwriting blogs lie the elementary nature of their concepts. Protagonists are characters who want something badly enough to drive a story. Inciting Incidents are the moments when something new happens. These are easy concepts that one can tape to their monitor during NaNoWriMo, easy-to-grasp bellwethers for hobbyists.

Unfortunately, as easy as they fit on a yellow Post-It, these concepts and edicts prove insufficient towards creating holistically meaningful stories. Their reductive nature blinds many to the complicated psychological processes that complete stories rely on, the end result revealing itself in illogical and inconsistent analysis. Worse, it only adds to the immense landfill of confused pointless storytelling.

Recently, Narrative First received a challenge to its series of articles on How to Train Your Dragon (beginning here). The area of disagreement focused on the article’s assertion that the Protagonist of How to Train Your Dragon was in fact NOT Hiccup as many would believe, but rather his father, Stoick. An explanation if you will.

What the Protagonist is Not

The dissenter defined the Protagonist as the character who wants something badly enough to drive a story. What character doesn’t? Placing the burden of narrative momentum onto a singular character leads to Hero-centric storytelling--a myopic understanding that confuses the function of a Protagonist with the perspective of a Main Character.

That original article's purpose was to show that the Protagonist of a story pursues the resolution of the story’s problem, while the Main Character of a story represents the audience’s viewpoint into the story. The Main Character presents a personal perspective on the story’s problem. The Protagonist drives a story forward.

Sometimes (more often than not in Western film) the two find themselves within the same player. It is this trend that fuels the ever popular Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat! paradigms. This is fine. Until it leads to preconceptions--blind spots that motivate inaccurate analysis of unfinished works.

The reservations many have towards popular story gurus and constructs of story stem in large part to this misunderstanding that the central character of a story is always the one driving the efforts towards resolving the problem. Instinctively, everyone gets that this is not always true.

The Function of a Protagonist

The Inciting Incident introduces the problem of the story that affects everyone in the story. The Protagonist works to resolve that problem, the Antagonist to prevent it. Because of these intrinsic functions, they both must be aware of the problem and the efforts to resolve it. No sense pursuing the resolution of a problem you're not familiar with, no sense trying to prevent it if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to stop.

The rabble-rouser who wrote in believed Hiccup’s goal as Protagonist was to win his father’s love. Fair enough. There is an element of truth to that notion. But who is actively preventing Hiccup from achieving this goal? No one. No Antagonist. In addition, how are ALL the characters affected or even concerned by this problem? Maybe Stoick’s friend Gobber and perhaps Astrid, but beyond that no one cares what is going on between these two. It is a personal problem, a subjective problem, shared between two competing perspectives.

Their struggle is not the all-encompassing main problem of the story. It is part of the story, but not the part that concerns the Protagonist and Antagonist objective character roles. More reason to stay away from the Hero-centric models. Thinking of the story strictly from Hiccup’s point-of-view blinds people to the other contexts within the framework of a meaningful story. Those who hold strong to those paradigms are not seeing the whole picture.

Looking Deeper Into a Story

The Dramatica theory of story offers the most accurate model of the inner workings of a story. It presents a holistic view of the thematic dynamics at conflict--a more comprehensive understanding that seeks to explore ALL sides of an issue, NOT simply from the viewpoint of a “protagonist”.

True, Hiccup wants his father's love badly enough to motivate many of his actions. But this is only part of the story, what Dramatica would call the Relationship Story Throughline. When looking at a story through this context, the concepts of Protagonist and Antagonist fade in importance. From this perspective, the contentious relationship between the Main Character and their greatest personal challenger becomes the most essential issue.

The Protagonist and Antagonist only show up within the context of the Objective Story Throughline--what most consider to be the "story" of a story. Both Objective Story and Relationship Story exist simultaneously within a single work. Understanding which context you're taking when examining the structure of a story can go a long way towards properly understanding the dynamics at work. Knowing that both need to be there in order to explore both sides of an issue will go a long way towards appreciating the real power of narrative fiction.

The greatest benefit from thinking this way? Seeing story in this light protects one from having to defend faulty logic with caveats and special cases. The paradigm works universally.

Hiccup's desire for his father's love is only part of the story. The desire to train the next generation of dragon-killers and the effects those efforts have on the Vikings and the dragons is another. Subjective emotions drive the former, objective logistics the latter. The Protagonist and Antagonist exist within the objective half of a story. Main Character and their challenger, the Influence Character, the other half. Complete stories--great stories--require both as they both work in concert to give the meaning of a story.

Stories Without Archetypal Characters

To add to this, continuously looking for the Protagonist or Antagonist of a story is a broken approach because there are some stories that have neither. Protagonists and Antagonists stand for a familiar collection of dramatic elements that an audience easily recognizes. Familiarity, though, breeds contempt. Classic Archetypes such as these, while clear and easy to understand, are not complex enough to warrant deep exploration of issues. Complex characters, on the other hand, do.

Othello endures without these strict Archetypes. Shakespeare infused that play with complex characters, characters consisting of unique and disparate dramatic elements. Yet, there are still some who cling to the notion that a story ALWAYS has a definite Protagonist who wants something. They contend that Iago is the Protagonist and that his Goal was the destruction of Othello and Casio. This line of logic presents us with a clear case of how chasing the Protagonist naturally leads to error.

Protagonists do not achieve their Goal in a Tragedy. By definition, a Tragedy tells of a failed effort to resolve a problem. Pretty sure Othello is a Tragedy. To identify Iago in this role as Protagonist would somehow suggest that he failed to achieve his goal of bringing down Othello.

Does that sound accurate?

Looking for Something That Is Not There

Understanding context helps align an interpretation of story with what is going on. Realizing the dual perspectives of objective and subjective helps one to fully comprehend how a work of narrative fiction functions and allows one the best opportunity to address any problems within.

Protagonist and Antagonist are objective character functions. They exist to give an objective “take” on the best approach towards solving the central problem of a story. Their wants and desires? Subjective context--those exist within the character. Trying to find the Protagonist from that perspective will only end in false assumptions and wasted efforts.

Appreciating the dueling perspectives of objective and subjective viewpoint that permeate a work of narrative fiction offers one the ability to make a coherent argument--a solid story worthy of time and attention.