Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Protagonist, Main Character, POV - What's the Difference? (Hannah)

A story's protagonist, its main character, and its primary point of view (POV) character are almost always the same person.  As a result, these terms are often used interchangeably.  In reality, this only confuses three very similar - but distinct - roles.  To identify the differences, first we have to know what each one really is.
Protagonist, Main, and POV
- he really is super!

Primary Point of View Character

This one is usually the easiest to identify.  Who is telling the story?  Through whose eyes do we watch the tale unfold?  Although there can easily be many POV characters in one story, the primary one is the one who is used the most, and almost always is the one observing the main plot.  Any story written in first person will feature a fist person narrator, who is the primary point of view character.  This is also a necessary position in third person narratives, but sometimes is slightly more difficult to identify.
A villain protagonist


The protagonist is the character whose actions drive the main plot.  He is the biggest catalyst driving the story, and he opposes the antagonist.  This character is the "hero," or the closest thing to it.  The role might be filled by a villain, such as in the recent Disney movie Maleficent, but the protagonist is always the one who is taking the most action toward accomplishing the story goal.

Main Character

This is difficult to define, since it is often so closely linked to the protagonist.  In fact, when most people think of a main character, their favorite protagonist immediately comes to mind.  This is because the two roles are so closely linked.  The main character is the character the audience is supposed to identify with and root for.  This character is usually the protagonist, but not always.

Some examples, please...

Non-main character narrator
One of the most well-known examples that separates some of these roles is the Sherlock Holmes series, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  In this case, Sherlock is clearly the protagonist, since he is driving the plot.  He is also the main character, because the story focuses on him.  However, his story is told from the point of view of Dr. Watson, an outside narrator.  Watson is the primary point of view character.

Non-protagonist main character
Another example is J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The story is told from an omniscient narrator's point of view, and follows every character from the Fellowship of the Ring.  It does give special attention to Frodo and Aragorn, but for the most part, it doesn't have an easily defined point of view character.  Frodo and Aragorn are both key characters,  but Frodo is the main protagonist because he is the character carrying the One Ring to be destroyed in Mount Doom, which is the main plot.  However, Frodo is not the true main character of the story.  That honor falls to Sam.  Even though Frodo is moving the plot, we are experiencing it through Sam.  Sam is the most relatable, and if you pay attention, he is the final character in the story - not Frodo, and not Aragorn.  The Ring was destroyed... but the story didn't end.  Aragorn became King of Gondor... but the story didn't end.  Frodo departed for the Grey Havens... but the story didn't end.  It ended with Sam's return to his home.  Frodo was the protagonist, but Sam was the main character.

So, why does this matter?

Is this just an exercise in literary terminology?  Is it a distinction without a difference?  Are we dusting pigs ears?  Maybe.  For most stories, one character will play all of these roles.  Movies and TV shows in particular have such a limited amount of time, and it is more difficult to develop different characters to fill these essential roles.  But once in a while, you will encounter a gem of a story that changes things up.  And you will be able to recognize the author's sleight of hand.  Like any skill, those who are most proficient make it look effortless.  Today, sub-par writers are screened out.  Their books aren't published.   They are not hired as writers or directors.  All of the storytelling we experience comes from masters of the craft, and it is easy to forget the work that goes into a monumental task like writing a story.  But as you study the inner workings of a well-written masterpiece of a story, you will begin to recognize all of the pieces and parts that make that machine work perfectly every time.  All it takes is observation and understanding.

Can you think of any other stories that feature more than one character in these roles?  Do you like the technical aspects of writing and storytelling, or do you prefer to read On Writing posts with a more personal spin?  Let us know in the comments!

~ Hannah

If you would like to read more, K.M. Weiland has gone into greater detail in this post.

John August also covers this topic, but uses slightly different terms and definitions.

If you really want to go in-depth, Dramatica has a huge article detailing the functions of various character roles and archetypes. The first section, "Hero is a Four Letter Word," is the relevant portion, but it is all extremely enlightening, if a bit technical.

Superman: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/e/eb/SupermanRoss.png
Disney's Maleficent: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/55/Maleficent_poster.jpg
BBC's Dr. Watson: http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/p__/images/2/21/John_Watson-_Martin_Freeman.png/revision/latest?cb=20150522195709&path-prefix=protagonist
Samwise Gamgee: http://www-images.theonering.org/torwp/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/sam.jpg
Sunrise: http://res.freestockphotos.biz/pictures/9/9161-early-morning-romantic-sunrise-pv.jpg


  1. Wow! Great, clear explanations, Hannah! Have you considered a career in teaching?

    1. Thanks! I actually really love teaching. I'm glad this turned out well.

    2. You are correct in your observation that great writers are able to seamlessly intertwine multiple characters with individual points of view into a great story. The big trick is to eventually move these characters to a point of convergence with each other. My favorite kind of book keeps you wondering just who the main protagonist is until the very end! I agree you would make a great teacher because you did a great job of explaining your character roles and providing concrete examples. You also obviously love the craft of writing!

  2. Awesome post, Hannah! I had never really thought about the fact that the protagonist and main character could be different, but your examples illustrated the distinction perfectly. Plus it explained the multiple endings of Lord of the Rings, I was always puzzled by that :)

  3. Very informative and well-said! I find the rules of writing challenging and interesting, and posts like these are very helpful. Thanks for this, Hannah!

  4. Wow, Hannah! Fantastic post. I loved how you compared all of those, and I've never thought about the differences between the protagonist and the main character.


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