I quite often work with writers who are uncertain which character is driving the story. Several have compelling arcs. How do we decide whose story we are telling?
In simple terms, the protagonist is the entity whose story is being told and the antagonist is the entity who is blocking the progress of the protagonist towards achieving their ends. Of course nothing is ever that simple. In Breaking Bad, is Walter White a protagonist or an antagonist? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? If he is the protagonist, does that make Hank, the policeman, the antagonist? If there are multiple protagonists, for example in The Magnificent Seven, whose story is it? Who is the protagonist in Game of Thrones? Who is the antagonist? Stories often involve more than one key character with aims and ambitions and an interesting journey, so how can one decide? Who is the protagonist?
Firstly, note that the term ‘protagonist‘ does not mean ‘the good guy’. It means the entity whose story is being told. Yes, this is usually the main character, and usually the good guy, but here is the secret:
The protagonist is the entity who carries the storification dynamic.
The storification defines the major power of your story, so the character that carries the storification is the one whose story is being told. And make sure you get this: Everything else in your story is being crafted into place to ensure the storification is being delivered successfully.
I will post a blog on storification soon, however, to give you an example, in Back to the Future, the storification is delivered through George McFly’s character growth. George is the character who changes and grows and teaches/learns the moral imperatives of the story through the actions and decisions he takes under pressure of conflict. He is the one who makes the choice that drives the storification outcome (George’s character grows as a result of his decision to stand up to Biff) so he is the protagonist. Marty might be the star of the first act and several individual scenes and story events. Marty might ‘bookend’ the film with his time-travel adventure, and he is there throughout, but the storification defines the real power of the story, and George is the bearer of the storification, because it is his character growth that defines the story. The story is therefore George McFly’s story. Everything Marty does is there to create the conditions for George’s storification arc. (More on storification and this example later.)
It is interesting to note that Marty McFly is present in every sequence of Back to the Future… with one exception. The scene in which George McFly’s character grows.
Once you have identified which character is carrying the storification, then you know whose story you are telling, and that is a huge help in getting everything right on the story journey that will deliver the storification. If the main storification is not clear to you this may be an indicator of problems in your story. It may be that you have two stories to tell around two different characters. It is important that you understand each story and divide the whole into a plot and subplot, or two different books, or several episodes, a trilogy, or maybe you have…
A protagonist certainly does not have to be an individual or indeed a person. It may be a Lassie dog, an ugly duckling or a Skippy kangaroo, an anthropomorphic car, an iron giant, a friendly ghost, a buddy movie, three musketeers, four horsemen, five go a-hunting, a big hero six, a magnificent seven, a hateful eight, a class of 91, an ocean’s 11/12/13, a dance troupe, a full monty, an orchestra, sports team, choir, regiment on and on up to and including, yes, an army. In each case of multiple protagonists the members of the group work together as an agent of change and although there may be plotlines that revolve around individuals in the group, it is the group as an entity in itself that functions as the protagonist in these stories IF that group is put under pressure and goes through storification. This is why I state that a protagonist is an entity that carries the storification, not just a character.
Find the storification dynamic and work out how and who delivers it. That is where the focus must lie in creating your story.
Similarly, the antagonist is simply the term for the forces ranged in opposition to fulfilment for the protagonist. Again, this will most often be a person — the ‘bad guy’ — in conflict with the good guy protagonist, but you may have a criminal as your protagonist (Robin Hood; Butch and Sundance; Jack Sparrow;Delboy Trotter; Walter White; Norman Stanley Fletcher…) and the antagonistic forces to such a protagonist might therefore be ‘good’ people; the victims or the police. Forces of antagonism can include the weather, a dog, the protagonist’s own insecurity, jealousy or delusions, acts of God and many others (as we shall see in the blog post on Conflict). Equally, there are plenty of excellent full-length stories that don’t have a ‘bad guy’ at all. A person can stand in the way of their own fulfilment, as is the case with George McFly whose cowardice provides the key antagonism that must be overcome in the process of storification. He is both the good guy and the bad guy. He is the protagonist whose character growth storification is a journey to overcome the antagonism within himself. This might sound strange, but internal conflict is an extremely common and a highly effective story tool (more on this in the blog post too).
This blog post is lifted from my life-defining, flagship masterwork: The Primary Colours of Story, available the world over in hard copy or eBook in 2020.