Your Protagonist Doesn’t Have to Be a Good Guy


Today’s writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is for “protagonist.” That means your main character. The two terms are synonymous.

What’s not necessarily synonymous are "protagonist" and "hero." Your main character doesn’t always have to be a knight in shining white armor. He or she can be an antihero instead.

It’s a verifiable fact that writers mostly focus their stories around traditional good guys – characters that battle the forces of evil or take on the establishment or promote “true love.” And in my not-always-humble opinion, that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think writers should encourage readers to root for the good guys. There are far too many negative temptations out there already and far too many stories of despicable people getting away with their evil plans.

Why add glamour to that mix?

That’s my opinion, though it’s clearly not one everyone shares. As shows like Breaking Bad indicate, there is definitely a market for protagonists who don’t bother with the straight and narrow.

I never watched Breaking Bad myself, but even I know it collected and maintained a cult following, which means there are a good number of people out there who find unrepentant bad boys (or bad girls) pretty compelling.

So clearly, writers can get somewhere bucking the good guy trend.

But there’s also a middle ground out there for writers to utilize should they so choose. And it’s a fascinating one.

Main characters can also be big-time redemptive stories: protagonists that start out as the kind of figures you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley but then end up turning their lives around through some twist of fate.

Take Star Wars’ Han Solo, who definitely isn’t introduced as a good guy in A New Hope. He’s a full-out mercenary when he establishes his theatrical presence.

Thanks to some gaming and comic book fan friends of mine, I was introduced last year to the whole “Han shot first” debate. In the first scene where we meet this rouge of a protagonist, he gets into a discussion with Greedo, an unscrupulous bounty hunter.

While Greedo is the first one to pull a gun on him, it’s completely obvious that Han shoots the guy, not vice versa. And while we can get into a lively debate about whether it was a justifiable act of self-defense, our swashbuckling main character shows absolutely no feeling about Greedo’s death. Really, he could care less that he just ended a life.

Ipso facto, Han Solo starts out the Star Wars saga as a something other than a good guy.

After that, he shows his negative colors repeatedly by being ungracious, self-centered and all-around obnoxious. And his temperament only improves so much by the start of The Empire Strikes Back.

Yet it still does, in fact, improve. Plus, he continues growing a conscious and gaining scruples throughout the saga until, by the end of the trilogy, Han is a full-out hero.

Redemptive stories like that can be a lot of fun and potentially more compelling than either the typical good guy story or bad guy story. Because the protagonist is such a complicated mess, he or she can leave readers guessing at every turn.

Will he desert his fellow protagonists in their fight to save the galaxy?

Will she risk another round of prison time to warn some random woman that her husband’s trying to kill her?

How many ways can they complicate the plot before they get their acts together?

That’s for the writer to know and the readers to find out.

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