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When the Main Character is NOT the Protagonist

Separate the perspective of the Main Character from the function of the Protagonist and open up whole new worlds of storytelling.

One of the most important things I learned from the Dramatica theory of story was this idea of a separation between the Main Character’s storyline and the overall storyline. It’s a basic concept but one that, if not done correctly, can cause all kinds of problems when trying to write a meaningful story. The biggest is the idea that the Main Character is always the Protagonist. Isolating the Main Character’s storyline from the story-at-large can be a difficult thing to do. Why would you want to anyways? Isn’t the Main Character an essential part of the overall story? Why would you want to pull them out?

The main reason I’ve found for doing this is that when you blend the two together you can cause all kinds of blind spots during the writing process. It’s the reason why so many people confuse the Main Character with the Protagonist and assume that both are the same. It’s the reason why so many story theorists ascribe to the Hero’s Journey mythology made famous by Joseph Campbell. And it’s also the reason why some unsuccessful stories can have too many Main Characters. Writers that suffer from the latter haven’t taken the time to identify the one personal viewpoint on the story’s central problem; they’re essentially grasping at story-straws for something that they know they need, but can’t quite exactly figure out what.

Separating Hero, Protagonist, and Main Character

The best explanation for a separation of Main Character and Overall Story comes from the Dramatica chapter on Heroes :

  • A Main Character is the player through whom the audience experiences the story first hand.
  • A Protagonist is the prime mover of the plot.
  • A Hero is a combination of both Main Character and Protagonist.

In other words, a hero is a blended character who does two jobs: move the plot forward and serve as a surrogate for the audience. When we consider all the characters other than a Protagonist who might serve as the audience’s position in a story, suddenly the concept of a hero becomes severely limited. It is not wrong, just limited.

So the Main Character is the central character in the Main Character Throughline while the Protagonist is the central character in the Overall Story Throughline. They can, and often are, the same character but they don’t necessarily have to be. In fact, there are many stories that don’t follow this pattern. To Kill A Mockingbird is the example used in the theory book. Attitcus (Gregory Peck) is the Protagonist in the larger overall storyline surrounding the trial of Tom Robinson. Scout (Mary Badham) is the Main Character in the very personal storyline examining her prejudices towards “Boo” Radley. Both examine prejudice; the former from a more cold, logical perspective, the latter from a more heartfelt, emotional perspective.

More recently I learned that the William H. Macy Las Vegas casino film The Cooler also doesn’t follow this usual pattern.

In that film, Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) fulfills the role of the Main Character. As the Shangri-La’s resident “cooler,” Bernie is a man who can manipulate others through his mood; his very presence can turn a hot craps table into, well, crap. This psychological effect is something that Bernie would take with him into any other story and thus becomes his greatest personal problem. It just so happens that this problem works great in a story about Las Vegas casinos.

The overall story in that film examines the conflict between Old Vegas and New Vegas. The young upstart Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston) wants to transform the rundown Shangri-La into a major competitor for the newer casinos on the strip like the Bellagio or the Wynn. Standing in his way is Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), the current manager of the Shangri-La. Shelly represents the old way of doing things and resents any attempts to “Disney-fy” his casino.

So where does Bernie fit into this story and why is he not the Protagonist?

Tips for Identifying the Main Character

There are two techniques I’ve learned that can be very effective for pulling the Main Character’s storyline out of the Overall Storyline. Either one may help you in writing your own story:

  1. Take the Main Character out of the current story and put him or her in a completely different one. What personal problems would carry over into this new story?
  2. When writing the Overall Storyline forget your character’s names and only refer to them in terms of their roles. In doing this, you’ll naturally assume an impersonal objective view of your characters, making it easier to identify how they fit into the OS.

Instead of writing Bernie into a story about casinos, what about making him the central character in a story about hiking Mount Everest or pretending to be a secret agent? What would be some of the issues he would take with him into that new story? If he was hiking as part of a larger expedition his mood might make it difficult for others to make it the top of the mountain; some might even quit. In a secret agent story, his mood might be so powerful that his very presence would make some villains reconsider their efforts towards global domination.

The second technique becomes helpful when analyzing films like The Cooler. At first glance it may seem that Bernie is the Protagonist. After all, he is the one we care the most about and his goal of leaving Las Vegas does way heavily throughout the story. But when we look at Bernie in terms of his role as the “cooler,” we can see that he has little more than an ancillary effect on the main plot of what to do with the Shangri-La. He is not a prime mover of that plot - the casino manager (Shelly) and the young upstart (Larry) are.

The question then becomes which one is the Protagonist and which one is the Antagonist — something that would probably be better answered in a separate article. For now, it is enough to say that Shelly is the Protagonist while Larry is the Antagonist. Bernie exists in the story and interacts with both, but he is not a prime mover of the plot. While Shelly and Larry do the bulk-work of the plot in the story, it is Bernie who is our “in” into the story itself; he’s the one we identify most personally with.

More on This

Both techniques developed as a way of teaching the Dramatica theory of story to writers. From the theory book chapter on Storytelling and Storyforming:

When looking at the characters in the Objective Story Throughline, identify them by the roles they play instead of their names. This keeps them at a distance, making them a lot easier to evaluate objectively. For instance, some of the characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet might be the king, the queen, the ghost, the prince, the chancellor, and the chancellor’s daughter, while the characters in The Fugitive might be the fugitive doctor, the federal marshal, the dead wife, the one-armed man, and so on. By avoiding the characters’ proper names you also avoid identifying with them and confusing their personal concerns with their concerns as Objective Characters.

The idea of looking at characters in terms of their roles:

However, here’s a little trick you can use to help think of the Objective Story “objectively.” Think of what ALL the characters in your story are concerned with. What holds them together — why are they even in the story. Make sure that, when thinking of the characters, you identify them by their ROLE (heroine, villain, father, doctor, sister, etc.). Avoid using their proper names. Once you think about a character in terms of their name it’s very difficult to avoid personalizing your feelings about them.

And the distinction between the two storylines is further explained in this AOL chat log:

Main Character is really a point of view. It just means the player through whom the audience experiences the story first hand, as if it were happening to them. That “player” that contains the Main Character could also contain the Protagonist, or the Antagonist, Sidekick, or any archetypal or non-archetypal objective character. Keep in mind that while MC is just a point of view, a position of the audience, as it were, the objective characters are defined by their dramatic function in the plot. Just like looking at a battle from a hill, you see the soldiers not by looking through their eyes, but by the job they are doing.

Never trust a Hero.

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