Hero, Main Character, and Protagonist
Heroic characters have their spot in narrative fiction. Taking us along for the ride, they a drive a story to its inevitable ending. But what of stories that strive for something more elegant?
Throughout this series on Heroes we have covered learning heroes and teaching heroes, heroes who don’t change and the difference between what a hero wants and what a hero truly needs. But the one thing we have avoided is the concept of the Hero itself.
There are many entrenched with the notion that Main Character, Protagonist and Hero are interchangeable words. Having lost the will to explore the subtle differences between these concepts of story structure, they throw their hands in the air proclaiming It’s all the same to me. Unfortunately, taking this approach robs these terms of any usefulness they may have had in constructing a meaningful story.
Building a story necessitates certain tools. Building a strong story necessitates accurate tools. Acting as if the blueprints or the right size nail are inconsequential guarantees a final product that will crumble into another heap of pointless forgotten drivel.
If story matters, the tools to build them matter more.
The definition of Hero:
- a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
- a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.
These standards become a problem when the character labeled Hero fails to live up to its noble definition. To combat this lack of character, writers ascribe terms like tragic heroes, or anti-heroes, or dark heroes, or whatever perfunctory adjective they can come up with to justify the original definition. Regardless how twisted the terminology may be, the pattern is clear: when you need to clarify what kind of a hero you have in a story, you have effectively destroyed whatever useful purpose that term ever had.
With the introduction of these colors, as many as those in a double rainbow, the word Hero simplifies to simply “who the story is about.” In that case, it might be more accurate to cite this entity as the Main Character. Why bring into question the heroic nature of a character if you don’t need to?
Needing to attribute the status of Hero to the central character of a story is where the confusion in understanding story structure begins.
Luke Skywalker was a hero. So was Neo, Kirk and James Bond. William Wallace, George Bailey, Clarice Starling, Bruce Wayne, Paul Rusesabagina, Wikus Van De Merwe, Ree Dolly, Dom Cobb, Amelie, Hiccup, Simba, Woody and Remy claim the status of Hero. No need to tack on an adjective in order to justify their heroic status.
But what about Sarah Connor, Scout, Michael Clayton, Columbus, Hauptmann Wiesler, Bernie Lootz, Salomon ‘Sally’ Sorowitsch or even Joshua ‘J’ Cody from the intense Animal Kingdom? Like this second group, J was the central character of the piece, but heroic? Maybe tragic hero, but again that need to qualify in order to justify appears.
What about a character like Rick in Casablanca? He ended up doing heroic things. Was he like that from the beginning of the story? Certainly not. He refused to stick his neck out for anyone. As a result, most would adjust his hero status with the term ‘reluctant hero’. Having to qualify a concept of story points out the uselessness of it in accurate and meaningful conversation. The reason why one can’t call Rick an all-out Hero? Simple—while he is the Main Character of the story, he is NOT the Protagonist.
Reference the first character list above: Luke, Neo, William, George, Clarice, Wikus, and so on—all these characters, while certainly what their stories are about, also happen to be the prime movers of the central plot of the story. This is the definition of a Protagonist, the one who pursues the successful resolution of the story’s problem set into motion by the Inciting Incident. This dual conceit of being the character who the story is about and the one responsible for driving the plot was what they were trying to describe when they coined the term ‘Hero’ way back when. This need to tack on qualifiers like ‘learning’ or ‘teaching’ or ‘reluctant’ or ‘anti-’ comes from a lack of awareness that the one who drives the story does not have to be the one who the story is about.
Michael Clayton is about Michael Clayton, but it is Karen who drives the story. Same with Sarah Connor in The Terminator. She is the Main Character, but it is Reese (Michael Biehn) who drives the efforts against the big metal baddie from the future.
A similar structure exists with J (James Frecheville) in Animal Kingdom. The story centers around his emotional descent as we experience every gut-wrenching moment along with him. But it is through Det. Leckie (Guy Pearce), not J, that we witness a character pursuing a course of action against the disturbed Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody (Ben Mendelsohn). Joshua still has his resolve tested at the moment of crisis—as all Main Characters should—but when it comes to resolving the initial problem put into action by Pope’s return, it is 100% Leckie’s responsibility from beginning to end.
This is why one would never call J as a ‘Hero’. Laughable at best to consider calling him this when one takes into account the final outcome and the sophistication with the rest of the story. ‘Tragic Hero’ would be the term bantered about in film school classrooms, but this would only serve to muddle the conversation and inspire an attitude that all story theory is subjective. A result that would be both defeatist and non-productive.
Save the term Hero for the character who pursues the story goal and is the character with which we the audience empathize most with; the character we the Audience are in the story. This approach makes the most sense and clarifies the nagging notions that something isn’t right about calling a character a “Hero.” Killing off the qualifiers should be job one for those interested in authentic and meaningful storytelling.
This concept of splitting the Hero into equal parts Main Character and Protagonist was ‘discovered’ (rather uncovered) by the Dramatica theory of story in the mid-90s of the previous century. The concept is so revolutionary and obvious once grokked that it becomes the gateway drug into learning more about the theory. If this structure paradigm was insightful enough to point out this elegant feature of stories, then surely it must have more to say about what is going on within a story.