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?