Hello and welcome back to Saturday Special!
Today we are going to be taking a look at what a protagonist is and their function in the story.
I know what some of you are thinking, “I’ve taken a literature class and I know EXACTLY what a protagonist is, why are you wasting time writing about it?”
Well you see, over the years I have seen some people throwing around the term in a particular way that is not necessarily correct, and I want to make sure that we are all on the same page on that front.
What is it?
The protagonist, according to Merriam-Webster, is the principal character in a literary work, TV show, movie, etc.
The protagonist is the main character of a piece of media.
However, one thing that I have noticed is that when people seem to combine the protagonist with the word “hero” or “good”
While it is true that many protagonists in media are often portrayed as good and heroic, that is not always the case.
Look no further into one of the most popular anime/manga franchise out there, Death Note.
Light Yagami is a high school boy who has the power over life and death and uses it to eliminate criminals from the world. While that is technically a “good” goal, killing people has often been attributed with being an evil act.
Not to mention that Light also sees himself as the only one who is fit to choose who lives or dies, which puts his “noble” goal of ridding the world of evil to question.
The whole premise of the series is asking the question, is it right to use an act of evil to perform an ultimate good? I mean the phrase “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” just so happens to ring true in this case.
Yet despite Light being a character actively committing crimes, he is the protagonist of the series. He is the main focal point character. His nemesis for much of the series, the detective L, is the antagonist, or the primary force trying to stop the protagonist.
L is a morally good character, yet he is the antagonist, which is often seen as the “bad guy” in comparison to the protagonist.
So we have a fairly clear definition of what a protagonist is, what is their purpose in the story?
Now a protagonist, or protagonists, is often meant to be the point of view for the audience. We as an audience follow what a protagonist is thinking and doing and we see how they interact with the situations that happen around them.
When a monster is attacking a protagonist, we see how they feel about that situation. If they are scared, then the audience is meant to not feel at ease, that something bad is going to happen. If they are confident, then the audience is meant to feel like this fight is going to be an awesome spectacle where the protagonist succeeds.
Usually a protagonist is acting as the delivery method into how an audience is supposed to interact with the medium, and a well written protagonist can deliver that with no issue.
There are plenty of badly written protagonists, but the worst ones in my opinion are often found in harem series or badly written romances, and it usually comes from a badly written male character.
I have often called these characters “Cardboard MC’s” because they usually have the same personality traits…none.
They are an average guy that has no spectacular skills, but for some reason they are able to attract people with the sheer lack of charisma or they happen to say something meaningful once or twice.
They have nothing about them that is interesting and they fall into being more of a vessel for romantic hijinks to occur than actual character development.
Now the only time these sorts of protagonists work are in video games, usually RPG’s, because via the cultural zeitgeist, we have decided that the non-talking main character is normal. I don’t know why this works, but it does and it really is the only time it does.
Being the point of view of the series is not the only purpose a protagonist has, however.
The Monkey’s Paw
Protagonists come in all shapes and sizes, but the common element that they all face is what they do in the face of a dilemma.
How do a protagonist handle an issue?
Well, duh, I’m sure you’re thinking, that’s how stories work, and you would be right, but let me ask you something-
When a protagonist makes a dumb choice, but it was in character, how does that make you feel? You see a protagonist, by design, will often make the wrong choices in a story.
To go back to Light from Death Note, he saw that the notebook he got really killed a person when he wrote their name down. He tried it again and saw that it wasn’t a fluke, he had the power to kill people.
What would your first instinct be in that situation be? Write names of people you don’t like? Throw the notebook away and try to forget about it? Keep the notebook hidden and use it on a certain occasions?
Or would you do what Light did and go on a “moral” crusade eliminating criminals from the world? I wouldn’t do that, I’ll tell you that for free.
The point is that a protagonist will make the right choices and the wrong choices, but they don’t have the perspective that an audience member has.
We have the power of hindsight and time, while a protagonist doesn’t. They may only have seconds before someone they care about dies and they have to make a decision on whether or not they take an obviously bad deal.
They endure struggles that we could never possibly fathom, and we can ponder on whether or not we would have made the same decisions.
Because here’s the thing, we as people make wrong decision all the time. I have made some pretty good decisions in my life, but I probably have made just as many bad decisions as well, maybe more.
We can take the moral high ground and say that we could have made a different decision, but we will never truly know. That is what fiction, and protagonists, are for; to be given a choice and make a decision on something that will likely not happen to us, or if it is something very normal like many slice of life shows, to make a choice that we are very likely to make ourselves.
A character could be given great magical powers at the cost of their very soul, or they can save a loved one’s life for a lifetime of servitude, or they can struggle to get a date because they said something dumb.
Some of these are more relatable than others, but that’s the beauty of the protagonist.
A protagonist is simple in concept, but complex in execution, and I hope I could convey that in my ramblings.
On Wednesday we are taking a look at a manga that drew me in purely by the cover. We are diving back into the mystery genre with the first volume of Mythical Beast Investigator!
So until then,
Heiwa to sayonara!