Main Character vs. Protagonist...T.K.O.?

by Ben Keren
(Israel)

First off: Kudos on the site! I came here after Googling "how to write a book" because I was suffering from severe writer's block... I've never been more grateful to find a website in my life :) You've made my list of heroes for life.


So, here's my convoluted question:

On this site, you talk about the 8 Plot Points for a basic outline, Throughlines and Signposts, choosing your Main and Impact characters, and how Dramatica defines a "hero" (a main character who is also the protagonist). Unfortunately, I seem to be a slow learner, because I don't get it...

For example, let's go back to the 8-Step Plot Outline page, where it says that Costs are sacrifices the protagonist is willing to make to achieve the goal. You also say (elsewhere on the site) that your main character need not be the protagonist, but the MC's choice to change or remain steadfast will determine whether the goal is achieved. Okay, but how does that work with Costs?

Say our main character is a billionaire's son, and our protagonist is a billionaire who wants to cure cancer. The billionaire might pay many costs (literally and figuratively) to achieve his goal; but how does that increase the story's effectiveness if the audience is seeing the story through the eyes of the main character? One obvious answer might be that the main character sees how his father is skipping sleep and meals and wasting away in a dogged pursuit of this goal; but what if they're estranged? What if the main character thinks his billioniare father is a heartless sap, and is glad to see him suffering? Doesn't that convert the Cost (sacrifice) into something else entirely?

I get the basic roles of Protagonist/Antagonist, Main Character/POV Character...I think. But some elements of Dramatica theory seem deeply affected by the simple choice of making your main character someone other than the protagonist (or other similar choices).

To use an example which is also popular on this site, I could go to Harry Potter. In that series, you see Harry's struggles and attempts to grow through his arc and his eventual victory; but isn't Dumbledore really the protagonist? I mean, he's the one who's taking steps (all the way through the series) to counter Voldemort and achieve the goal. He sets up Harry's life, finds out the secret of the Horcruxes, stages his own death, etc. Harry doesn't know about many of those things, and neither does the reader - until much later. We don't understand that they're Costs paid by Dumbledore until the very end, because our Main Character (and 3rd person limited POV character) is Harry.

The Cost of self-sacrifice might have a HUGE punch later on, when we finally understand that the billionaire father literally gave his life for his cause; but in the moment of his death, that meaning is lost to the Main Character and therefore to the reader.

How does the choice to make your MC someone other than your protagonist affect those other points of Dramatica? Dramatica is a brilliant theory, which I've only just begun to dabble in, so I'm sure there must be an answer. Hopefully, the answer is as verbose as the question; that way I won't feel like I beat a dead horse. :)

Answer: Thanks for the kind comments.

The point of the Costs element is to make clear that the Story Goal is something worth obtaining.

In your example of the billionaire's son, it really depends whether finding a cancer cure is the Story Goal - the goal that affects or involves most of the characters. If it is, then the father's sacrifices would count as Costs, because they show what some characters are willing to suffer to achieve it. If curing cancer is merely the father's personal goal, and the real Story Goal is something else, then his sacrifice would not count as the Costs.

I was simplifying a little when I said Costs were something the Protagonist suffers. Often that is true. However, in some stories, the costs are borne by other characters. Even then, however, the main character and the reader will generally appreciate the Costs. For instance, if the Story Goal is to cure cancer, the Main Character would likely appreciate his father's sacrifices, and this would be motivation for him to make the right choice at the climax. If you have a different Story Goal, then the father might come off as a "heartless sap."

In Harry Potter, I would argue that the protagonist is Harry. He is the primary person to confront Voldemort. Dumbledore (as Guardian) helps, but only in one book do we see Dumbledore face Voldemort directly - and even then he is primarily concerned with protecting Harry. Harry, on the other hand, confronts Voldemort on numerous occasions, including the ultimate showdown. He is also the one person who can decisively bring about Voldemort's death (neither can survive while the other lives). It is Harry's task to get revenge, and among the major characters Harry has borne the biggest Costs (his parents).

Bottom line: the 8 essential plot elements are part of the overall throughline. The choice of Main Character generally does not affect them.

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Oct 04, 2012
Many thanks!
by: Ben Keren

Thank you for the clear and prompt answer to my question. In future, I'll keep them shorter.

(And I'm sure there will be more questions, because I'm just eating this site up! Great work!)

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