Whose Story Is It Anyways?

Crafting worlds and the stories that take place in them creates many quandaries. Histories, genealogies, customs… those things are time-consuming, but I have always come to a fairly clear-cut answer. However, one element of my novel has perplexed me since I noticed it about a year ago.

Who is the protagonist?

Before you sigh and question the quality of the creative writing and literature courses I took for my English degree, let me start at the beginning. Back when the story was patterned after a galaxy far, far away, my narrator was third person omniscient (just as most narrators were when I was eight).

Then I turned fourteen and decided to try something else. The story was growing up, my husband (then just best friend) had some intriguing plot ideas, and the lasting medieval theme was beginning to settle in. The story was still primarily about the same character–the prince–but I had recently discovered the joys of first person narration and chose that route. But the prince didn’t automatically become the narrator. His betrothed–yes, a princess–did. I had read a short story where the narrator was a minor character and wanted to give it a shot. Little did I know that this would have lasting consequences.

In high school, the narrating princess faithfully told the story, and it worked because she was usually by the prince’s side. He was the protagonist. She was a supporting character. Clean cut.

Three years of college passed, and I reread the tale. And grimaced. Plot: flat. Characters: flat. Antagonist: exceptionally flat. Prose: horrific. Time to start over.

And when I did, the plot, the prince, and the depth of it all changed. But the narrating princess–now complete with complexities–kept her job.

What I didn’t realize until recently, though, is how much the story changed in four years. The narrating princess is no longer by the prince’s side most of the time. For nearly half of the book, she continues to talk about him, but he isn’t in scene. His motivations and conflict with the antagonist continue to drive everything, but her role increases to fill the gaps left by the prince’s absence.

So, who is the protagonist?

The princess could be because:

  • she has the most page time
  • she elicits the reader’s empathy
  • she has some issues with the antagonist

But maybe she isn’t because:

  • her personality changes are minor
  • she isn’t the focus of the climax
  • she doesn’t drive the story

The prince could be because:

  • his conflict with the antagonist drives the story
  • his conflict with the antagonist is the climax
  • he changes drastically from the first page to the last

But maybe he isn’t because:

  • the reader only empathizes with him because of the princess
  • he isn’t in scene for almost half of the story for one reason or another

All of the qualifications of a protagonist are split between two characters. He provides the undeniable primary conflict, but she is invaluable in keeping the reader involved while he is gone and emotionally engaged when he is at his most contemptuous.

My verdict: he is probably the protagonist. The story boils down to his conflict with the antagonist. But is that the most basic/important role of a protagonist? What do you think?


8 responses to “Whose Story Is It Anyways?

  • laurastanfill

    Yikes! What a dilemma! I think you’re right that in the way you lay it out here, the prince is the protag because he’s the one that drives the story and he changes. However, if we’re more squarely in the princess’ corner, believing her and listening to her version of events, she could be the protagonist, especially if you revise your story enough to have her change significantly due to the prince’s journey. That would be really fascinating, actually–having her undergo a transformation and become heroic in some way in relation to the prince’s journey. She could start out as the observer/narrator and change to a real force. But I don’t know your story at all, so these are just some thoughts that you can take or leave. I love these kinds of questions because ultimately whatever you figure out will change how you view the story, and probably change the story itself if you’re doing rewrites.

  • Brett James Irvine

    Interesting post – I was just musing over this myself. In my current book, the story is told mainly from my protag’s point of view – he’s the focus, the title of the novel, everything that happens generally revolves around him, and he’s the key. Except…despite a few things happening to him, the odd character building obstacle, he doesn’t really grow in the sense of a protagonist, and how a protagonist’s story arch should.

    But, there is another character, the antagonist really, that has the entire character arc, and if you look at it from the other perspective, the story and plot is really driven by his actions. So he would make a good protagonist (not a very likeable one…but still). Except…70% of the story is told from my protag’s POV.

    What to do, what to do? I’m wondering whether I should rewrite slightly and throw in a few more scenes in order to allow my protag to really grow, or to just leave it as is and let the reader figure it out.

    Anyway, I don’t think that the protagonist necessarily has to be in the scene in order to be the protag – you just have another narrator in the form of your princess. The protag can still be your prince, provided he fulfills the role of protag in that he is the main character of the story.

  • C.B. Wentworth

    A protagonist should be who the reader trusts as the story progresses. When I read a novel, I need to feel connected to the main character and I need to care what happens to them. The very best characters are the ones that feel so real I’m sad to say goodbye to them at the end of the book. :-)

    Your character dilemma makes my had hurt! There are so many ways to play with everything you have mapped out. One way you can solve this is to ask yourself one question: Whose story is it? One character has the main story line while the other has the secondary story. Decide which story is at the root of your novel and then you’ll know who the main character should be.

    I went through the same thing when I wrote my novel. Initially, I was going to write it through multiple perspectives, but the more I played with it (and agonized over it), the more I realized one character stood out above the rest and it was his story all along.

  • EverydayEpic

    Thanks for all the great feedback. I’m so glad I’m not alone in my bewilderment. :)

    Laura, your suggestion is wonderful and ironic. The change she currently undergoes does take her from sitting back and watching events unfold to standing against the antagonist (and the prince at times) and even engaging in a couple of battles. I’m going to examine this dynamic more to see if it can help in her development in whatever her role ends up being… :)

    Brett, that is quite a quandary! Two characters on the same “side” vying for the same role is one thing, but having the same trouble with the protagonist and antagonist is even more confusing. If you want to try the story from the current antagonist’s point of view, there are stories that successfully (though usually tragically) take that route: Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Star Wars: Episode III’s Anakin Skywalker, for instance. But I suppose, as CB Wentworth pointed out, it all comes down to who and what is at the root of the story. So much to ponder….

    Wentworth, you are wise. When I read your question, I immediately thought that his conflict and his story is the root of it all. She faces her own struggles–nearly all of them in some way intertwined with him–but the big showdown that you wait a hundred pages for is his. She plays a role–mostly attempting to convince him to do the right thing while wielding a sword–but without his internal and external conflicts, there is no climax. Though I will continue to think about it, I think I may have found my answer… :)

    • laurastanfill

      Such an interesting conversation! It’ll be fun to see what you choose to do. Whoever you pick as your protagonist, you’ll be able to revise with that idea firmly in mind–and you may find certain parts of the story open up, or certain parts fall away, as a result. It’s this kind of thing that makes me such a fan of revision!

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    If I can propose a possibly-heretical idea, every story may not have a “protagonist” in the classic sense.

    For example, I’m currently writing mystery stories. The detective character would seem to be the protagonist in some ways: center of the story, drives the action, clearly is opposed to the antagonist (the murderer).

    But in classic terms the protagonist is the person who changes (Thelma and Louise is Thelma’s story, not Louise’s, for example), and detective characters are mostly not changed by the events of the story.

    I do agree that likeability is not really a factor. Protagonists don’t have to be super-likeable, unless you’re writing a Hollywood movie. And your protagonist can be off-stage for long periods. Remember how much of Lord of the Rings (especially The Two Towers) stays away from Frodo, and he’s clearly the protagonist.

    I wrote about some of these questions on my blog:

  • Would the Real Protagonist Please Stand Up? « The Everyday Epic

    […] May 17, 2011 @ 10:00 am } · { Writing } A great deal of examination has finally revealed the actual protagonist of my novel: the prince wins. Hurray for […]

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