Introducing The Protagonist

by Kay
(Grand Rapids, MI)

Question:Does the Protagonist have to be introduced before any other character?

Answer: The short answer is no, though it is often an effective strategy.

The word "protagonist," which comes from the ancient Greek dramatic tradition, literally means "first actor." In that sense, you can define the protagonist as the character whose decision or action gets the plot moving. On the other hand, Dramatica defines the protagonist as the character who pursues the story goal or, in cases where a group of people seem to be pursuing the goal, the character who takes the lead role in the pursuit. The protagonist is also the character who considers or weighs up the importance of attaining the story goal.

Obviously, there are many stories that begin with the hero deciding that something must be done and/or taking the first step towards doing it. However, that is not your only option.

For instance, there are stories that begin with the villain deciding upon a plan or taking the first step towards a nefarious goal. The “hero” will still be the character who considers the goal – in this case, considering how bad things will be if the villain succeeds. But he or she will take on the antagonist's traditional role of attempting to avoid the story goal (or thwart the evil plan). In this type of story, you may introduce the villain before the hero.

Then, you have the issue of “point of view” and who your main character will be. The main character is often introduced first because it is from his/her perspective that the story is being told. But the main character may not be the protagonist. For instance, in Moby Dick
Captain Ahab is the protagonist who pursues the goal of revenge against the white whale. But the novel is told from point of view of a minor crew member who starts the story with the words, “Call me Ishmael.”

Then again, you may begin with your main character describing the first time he/she encountered or heard about your impact character. In such cases, even though you are telling the story from the main character's perspective, it is really the impact character the reader learns about first. (Note that the impact character may or may not be the antagonist.)

As you can see, the choices are many and thinking about them can be confusing. Obviously, if the main character is also the protagonist, that makes everything easy. (Huckleberry Finn is a good example of this.) However, that might not be right for the story you want to tell. Only you can decide where to begin the story and which characters to introduce first.

Dramatica does offer one bit of advice. It says that it is often best to start telling the story from the perspective of the main or principle-point-of-view character (whether or not they are the protagonist) because readers tend to latch onto the first point-of-view (POV) character they are introduced to. They can find it jarring to discover later that a different character is the real main character.

However, there are also successful novels that defy that rule and begin in the POV of a minor character. For instance, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone begins in the POV of Vernon Dursley on the day that Harry's parents are killed. The novel switches to Harry's POV later, as Harry nears his eleventh birthday.

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