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Does my protagonist need to be the most important character?
In my fantasy story that I'm slowly getting into, my MC Sirena is an apprentice witch. Her two fellow apprentices, Aster and Keeva, study alongside her under their High Priestess, and they all somewhat cooperate with the king of the lands where they live.
Sirena is not the most powerful of the three. In fact, for most of the story, the expectation is that Keeva is the most powerful--she's aggressive, ambitious, courageous, and headstrong. But in the end, neither Sirena nor Keeva saves the day. Aster shows herself to be the most powerful (the "chosen one" if you will), despite her alternative, non-violent approach (healing and clairvoyance).
What I'm asking is, since Aster is the hero in the end, is it okay that I'm not focusing on her? Is it okay that I follow the journey of Sirena, even though she is not the most important of the three in the context of the whole? Should I switch to have my protagonist be Aster, or switch Aster and Sirena's roles? Does my main character need to be the one who saves the day?
This is perfectly fine as long as your protagonist's character arc is satisfying and complete. If someone else is stealing the show at the end, there may be good reason for that, and lessons to learn for everybody.
If your characters are part of one team (even a dysfunctional one), your task is even easier. The reader would be rooting for the team success, and the fact who scored the final blow is not that much important - actually, dedication is more important in this case.
In "The Lord of the Rings" climactic moment, Frodo was (very unexpectedly) overshadowed by Gollum. Does this make Frodo weak, and Gollum - the real hero?
IN GENERAL for the modern novel, the MC is the one with a problem to solve, the MC has to take the risks, and the MC has to solve the problem.
One exception to this rule I can think of is Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes series, he is the "MC" that tells the story. Most analysts believe Doyle did this specifically to hide the thoughts and feelings of Sherlock, maintain some distance, so the reader is not privy to all the nitty-gritty details of the investigation and what Sherlock thought about them. That would pretty much ruin the mystery and the climactic reveal.
But Dr. Watson is pretty much glued to Sherlock throughout the story, in a way he "vanishes" for the reader (like most narrators do) and this is the equivalent of 3rd person objective narrator (a 3PO doesn't know what any character is thinking or feeling; they describe only what can be sensed by a person at the scene; sights, sounds, heat, cold, etc). (But not exactly, because Watson is needed for Sherlock to "explain" things in conversation, a way to drop clues for the reader that a 3PO narrator doesn't have; though they could describe notes, diary entries, and self-talk of Sherlock).
For your story, one way to keep your plot line is to follow Sirena throughout the story, go ahead and show Keeva and Aster as magically powerful, but make it so Sirena is the one that finally figures out the puzzle, and directs Aster in saving the day, or convinces her.
That way your MC is still the hero, the one that figured it out. It doesn't have to be her own magic that did the trick, her true skill can be understanding.
Failing that, I'd say switch their roles; your MC should be the central figure in the plot that brings about the resolution of the plot.
It can work sometimes, especially if your main character is a pinball protagonist who is simply caught up in events happening around them or to them. For instance Arthur Dent is very clearly the main character of Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but for a large portion of the book series he instigates almost nothing and does almost nothing on his own.
However whether it's advisable to structure a story like this is another matter. In HHGttG it works because Arthur is the surrogate for the everyman reader who would be equally out of their depth in the universe suddenly turned upside down. But in case like yours where each character, at least in theory, should be equally equipped to handle the situations it can raise the question "why are we watching this character instead of the hero?" You need to have a very good reason that you can justify when you pick an unorthodox main character when the orthodox one would be a perfectly good choice.
Why do you want to follow not-the-hero in this story?
The protagonist is the person whose story you tell.
The protagonist can be a witness to important events that he doesn't have a hand in, or she can be the sidekick to a hero, but
the story must focus on how the protagonist experiences these events.
The protagonist might not be the most important person from the perspective of a historian evaluating an event, but the protagonist must be the most important person in your book.
Usually, when the protagonist is not the hero, the protagonist serves to show the reader how the population in general lives during historically important times. Examples are the lives of a woman during the Oregon Trail or Anne Frank, a jewish girl during the Nazi regime. The "heros" of those times are the politicians, military leaders, and others who shaped those events, while the protagonists – the woman on the treck and the jewish girl – are examples for the lives of the common people.
Indiana Jones was the obvious protagonist and main character in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But as to being "the most important character", if that quality is measured by contribution to the plot, it definitely wasn't Jones.
The Indiana Jones character could have been trimmed back to a few scenes at the beginning (an expert providing background information), or even completely dropped from the story, and just about everything that happened would still have happened.
Jones was an observer, not a participant. He provided a point of view for the telling of the story, his presence tied the various parts together, but, in terms of actual plot, he contributed almost nothing and almost certainly didn't "save the day".
Additional Reading, not worth retyping fully here: What if neither the protagonist nor antagonist wins? I feel my protagonist is too "detached" from the main plot. What should I do?
Protagonist - Character who is working towards one or many goals. They are pro-active. They do things.
Main characters are not necessarily protagonists. Protagonists do things. Main characters are around a lot and tend to be equated as the point-of-view-character.
The primary example from the above questions that I think applies here is The Great Gatsby. Nick is not a protagonist. He wants to achieve almost nothing. He is invited along for the ride. But its a really good ride. Others have referred to this as well in other stories. So your main character need not be the protaging sort of character.
This is the rule: Stories should be compelling, they should have an arc, and there should be protagonists and main characters almost all of the time. Almost. But, what people are really after is an interesting story. And the point you choose to tell it from should be the most interesting vantage you can; or at least the one that is interesting and makes the point you want to make.
If you can best tell the kind of story you want from your 3rd not-fixer position, then do so; but you can probably learn things from other stories that have done this successfully. The first is that your story shouldn't be boring, and that if your character is largely boring, then they should at worst take on the role of a narrator who is showing the reader interesting things merely by being in the right place. I'm not saying that your character should be a robot. She should have stakes and feelings. But if its better to have a character that stays on the sidelines so that you have some distance between your reader and the characters being observed, then by all means do it.
Like with all things in writing, if you want to stray from what people often do, you'll find you have to work exceedingly hard to get it right. You're going to be telling Aster's story anyways, so Sirena had better bring something to the novel, some perspective that makes it worth having followed her the whole time. That could be many things. She could have a vantage on a number of proceedings. She could be personally affected by traumas. She could have more mundane, relatable concerns and yet have to deal with this. She could be a red herring. Maybe everything indicates she'll be the Harry Potter, but we're just reading about Hermione afterall (there is nothing wrong with Hermione). Some advantage you might also get is a limited perspective; being able to hide some things allows surprises you might have spoiled by choosing a more active protagonist; inside the circle everyone knows the plan, but to an outsider its an unexpected turn of events.
I can see lots of ways to play this, but you're also going to have to drop hints along the way so that your readership doesn't hate you when they get to the end. Sudden, but inevitable is what you're going for here. It can be a surprise when its actually Aster, but when the reader goes back over the material, it should make a lot of sense. And it shouldn't be disappointing. Figure out how this is a victory for everyone, even Sirena; or at least how its interesting for everyone.
Not necessarily. Take for example The Phantom Of The Opera. The most important character is without doubt the phantom of the opera, but he is not the protagonist. The protagonists role in this particular story is merely to observe.
If you look at japanese storytelling in anime and manga you will find many more examples of stories with the setting of the protagonist playing the part of observer. (e.g. Akame ga Kill, Inuyasha, Fairytail(At least in the beginning), Bakemonogatari...)
I think it is not only fine but important to have such stories. Stories where the protagonist is the hero and saves the day can be fun because we all like to see the good guys winning and imagine ourselves as heroes, but it would be pretty boring if all books were like that.
In real life, we are usually not the hero or the most important person around. We work with more talented colleagues and have friends who can do amazing things we couldn't. We have good ideas that don't work as well as expected and then someone else's idea was better. Protagonists who have similar issues but in a World with magic and other cool stuff can be more relatable and relevant than reading about heroes all the time.
How does Sirena feel about Aster being the hero? Is she proud of her friend for doing the right thing? Happy that she was able to provide a supporting role? Jealous that she wasn't the hero? Guilty that she could have done what Aster did but she didn't? Just relieved that the whole thing is over? This could be a more interesting mix of emotions than "See, I was right", which could make Sirena a more interesting main character.
Here's an example from television, which while not in print media, is nonetheless a story:
On an old episode of Babylon 5, a fleet from really far away invades. The Babylon 5 crew must scramble fighters and fight them off, but that just becomes a backdrop for two maintenance men to run around and show us what THEIR working life is like. While clearly not the most important people on the space station, the story IS all about them.
Having said that, doesn't making the story about someone(s) automatically make them the most important, just for that story? I'm getting semantical here.
The protagonist doesn't necessarily need to be the most powerful character or the character with the most impact on the world around them. The protagonist should be the character who is most interesting.
How do you find out who's the most interesting character? Possible signs are:
- They are the one the audience can identify with the most.
- They are the one who has the most complex character development over the course of the story.
- They are the one with the most interesting perspective on the events which happen around them.
- They are the one who gets into the most interesting situations, faces the most difficult (for them!) challenges and makes the hardest decisions.
- They are the one whose personal character ark leads to the best pacing of your work overall.
Regarding the ending: The work doesn't necessarily need to end with the main viewpoint character saving the day, but it should end with that character saving their day. It is important to end your work with a satisfying conclusion for your main character and the central conflict which is most relevant to them. That conflict doesn't necessarily needs to be the epic conflict which happens in the background. So it is entirely possible that your final act is about Aster saving the world entirely off-screen while Serena solves a problem which is very important to her.