The Basic, Buildable Truth About Protagonists
I’ll never forget the first time I watched Chicago, the movie version with Catherine Zeta Jones and Renée Zellweger.
It’s about two utterly selfish singers living in Chicago during the Jazz Age. Roxie Hart, the protagonist – or main character – is cheating on her husband in an effort to make it big in the music business when she finds out that her lover is using her with no intention of putting her up on stage after all.
So she kills him.
Throughout the movie, Roxie has no sense of shame about what she did to her husband, what she did to her lover or what she did to herself. She’s entirely focused on getting what she wants when she wants it.
There’s nothing redeemable about her whatsoever. And yet she’s still the star of the show.
She’s still the main character of her story. She's still the protagonist.
Because, like her or not, that’s how Roxie’s writers wrote her.
I think that Chicago was my first vivid taste of a protagonist that wasn’t good or didn’t end up being good. Up until that point, I’d mainly watched movies and read books about traditional main characters: heroes.
Except for Hunchback of Notre Dame, now that I think of it. And Othello. And I suppose there were probably a few others as well.
But moving on…
Call me sheltered or idealistic or unrealistic if you’d like, but I prefer my stories filled with heroes and heroines fighting bad guys while they learn more about themselves and grow into better, stronger people throughout the process.
And that’s fine. Just as long as I recognize that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Your main character is always going to be a protagonist. That’s a given. They’re synonymous terms. However, your protagonist doesn’t always have to be a hero.
It’s true that writers mostly focus their stories around a good guy or guys, writing about main characters who work hard to battle the forces of evil or take on the establishment or promote “true love.” But just because that’s the norm doesn’t mean it’s the only possibility. A protagonist can also be a bad guy, and one that may or may not change his ways.
Like with Chicago. And Hunchback of Notre Dame. And Othello.
So your protagonist can be a good guy. Or your protagonist can be a bad guy.
Or he can be complicated.
The reason why the writing Definition above ends with, “A protagonist can also be a bad guy, and one that may or may not change his ways,” is because there are those rogues who start out bad but go through some kind of redemption story as the plot progresses.
Those can be compelling when done right.
Also compelling are those protagonists who start out normal enough – just like us, really – only to come across temptations that explore the darker side of human nature. Oh, they’ll come around again by the end, but we still get glimpses into what we could look like if we gave in to boredom… or envy… or so many other normal drives we face every day.
Honestly, there are a million different ways – or more – to make a protagonist interesting. It all boils down to two particular traits.
If you’ve got ‘em, you’ve got ‘em. And if you don’t, you should.