Who is my protagonist?

by Andria L.
(Pittsburgh, PA)

Question: I'm writing a story with multiple POVs and an alternating timeline. Essentially the story is a romance that takes place between people who must grow to see the other person's value. They have different goals and hoops to jump through over the course of the story. When trying to follow the plot outline steps, I keep getting confused about who should be assigned what role. The present day portion of the timeline takes place over the course of a day. The main character - and protagonist - is planning to get an abortion in an effort to save her "perfect life" plans. The romantic counterpart - and antagonist - is trying to convince her to keep the child, in an effort to save the last vestiges of the family he once had. Over the course of the day, she will realize that her ideal life is far from perfect, and that an abortion won't solve any of her problems. I don't plan on doing anything in first person, nor do I plan to focus more on one character over the other. The antagonist's goals match up with my actual goal as the author and I know the rules make it perfectly alright for him to be the antagonist, but I get lost after that. Should I be doing plot outlines for both of them? Two story goals? Two requirements, dividends, etc? Am I making a mistake by looking at it from their perspectives at all? Should I be looking at it from an overall scope?

Answer: Everything hinges on the story goal. If the goal is for her to keep the child and marry the father, that would make her the antagonist and him the protagonist (even if she is the main or principle POV character). Also, you would have a happy ending.

On the other hand, if the story goal is to achieve the ideal life (however the characters define it), but she makes a choice that causes that goal to not be achieved (but winds up happier as a result) then you have a tragi-comedy in which she is the protagonist and he is the antagonist.

Bear in mind that the story goal is the goal that involves or affects most of the characters. They don't all have to care if the protagonist achieves her the perfect life (if that is the true goal), though some may be for or against it. Other characters may be involved by seeking a similar outcome for themselves. If the story goal is achieved, most likely the entire story world will be brought into harmony.

Also bear in mind that the protagonist, the antagonist, and the story goal, are all part of the overall throughline - as are the rest of the 8 essential plot elements. While it is theoretically possible to develop the 8 essential elements in throughlines other than the overall, it is seldom necessary and may cause your work to get bogged down in overplanning.

In addition to the overall throughline, the main character will have his/her own throughline which concerns his/her inner conflict and how it is resolved.

In cases where you have more than one POV character, the main character will generally be the one whose decision (how he/she resolves his/her inner conflict) determines whether the story goal is achieved. This is a key point of connection between the overall and main character throughlines.

As for your other POV characters, they are the main character of their own story, but usually their stories are not fully developed. For instance, they may have their own arc, their own "main character throughline," but their stories may not have any other throughlines. They may simply share the overall throughline with the main character.

If you are a planner or plotter, you may find it useful to outline your overall throughline first, then your main character's throughline, the impact character throughline, and the relationship throughline. Think of these as parallel lines running from start to end of the story.

If you have subplots or other character arcs, these are additional lines.

The challenge (or the fun) is deciding how to braid all these lines, so you tell a little of one, then a little of another, until you reach the end.

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