What is the difference between the main character and the protagonist?

Question: What is the difference between the main character and the protagonist?


Answer: "Protagonist" is a word that goes back to ancient Greek theatre and literally means the "first actor." As such, it was used for much of history (and often today) to refer to the leading or central character in a fictional work.

Dramatica theory recognizes that this is not as cut and dry as it seems. Plenty of stories have more than one apparent central character, and there are different ways of defining the central character and his/her role.

For instance, most stories today are written from the perspective of one particular character (rather than an omniscient narrator). This is true for stories written using first person or third person limited narration.

Dramatica calls the character from whose perspective the story is written the "main character." Fiction writers sometimes call this the "point-of-view character."

What distinguishes the main character from others is that the reader is privy to the main character's inner thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Hence, the reader feels like they are inside the main character's head. The reader imagines himself to be the main character and experiences a deeper connection to that character than any other.

In a well-structured story, the main character will experience an inner conflict, which is different from the external conflict. How the main character resolves his/her inner conflict often determines how the external conflict is resolved.

On the other hand, the protagonist is the character who plays the dominant role in pursuing the story goal. The story goal is the concern or goal that affects or involves most of the characters, if not the entire story world. It is also the source of the external conflict.

Often, it is the protagonist's idea to pursue the story goal and often the protagonist tries to persuade others to assist with that goal.

In many stories, the main character is also the protagonist--but not always!

For instance, in The Great Gatsby, Gatsby is the protagonist pursuing the goal of Daisy and the world of money that she represents. However, the main character is Nick, and his inner conflict revolves around a moral dilemma. (Essentially, both Daisy and Gatsby can be seen as morally right or wrong, depending on how Nick ultimately judges them.) We are privy to Nick's thoughts, but not Gatsby's.

Or, for a less literary example... in the animated film, How to Train Your Dragon, the goal is to rid the island of dragons. The character pursuing this goal is Stoic, the community leader. However, the story is told from the perspective of his son, Hiccup, who is the main character.

Of course, this gets more complex when you have multiple point-of-view characters because each POV character is essentially the main character of his/her own story, so you may actually have several stories within one novel. Or you may decide to make one character the primary POV character by developing their inner conflict more fully, giving them more impact on the story's outcome, or giving more space to their story (perhaps by making them also the protagonist as well).

Comments for What is the difference between the main character and the protagonist?

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May 24, 2017
Thank you
by: Sue

Thank you for your prompt, courteous and comprehensive reply. I appreciate the time you have taken to make it clear.

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