What’s the Difference Between the Main Character and Protagonist?

is she the main character or the protagonist?

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Although people often use the terms “main character” and “protagonist” interchangeably, they carry distinct roles that shape the dynamics of a story. As a writer, it’s important to understand the difference so you can best exploit these roles and improve your writing skills.

What is a main character?

The main character serves as the anchor of a story. This character typically receives the most page time and serves as a lens through which the audience experiences the unfolding events. The main character is often the narrator, guiding the audience through their perspective, or a central figure whose journey the audience follows closely.

What is a protagonist?

A protagonist is the driving force behind the story’s plot. This character is not merely present; they actively shape the narrative trajectory. The protagonist is the catalyst for change, facing challenges, making choices, and evolving throughout the story. This is the character the audience roots for, investing emotionally in their journey.

If these two literary terms sound similar, they are. Often the main character and the protagonist are the same, but that is not always the case, and it’s intriguing to explore the differences.

The difference between the main character and protagonist

To understand the nuances between the main character and protagonist, it’s crucial to grasp their respective roles in storytelling.

The biggest difference between the two is one of agency. While the protagonist causes change, the main character is impacted by it. The other difference is that the protagonist will evolve throughout the narrative. Protagonists not only have an external journey (the plot) but an internal one as well. Typically, the protagonist has a character flaw, and, through their external journey, they must deal with their inner journey.

Examples of main characters who are not the protagonist

Let’s consider a few classic tales where the main character and protagonist are distinct entities.

In The Great Gatsby, the main character is Nick Carraway. He is the narrator and observer, while Jay Gatsby is a different character who takes on the role of the protagonist, driving the narrative with his ambitions and tragic fate. This dichotomy adds depth and complexity to the storytelling, challenging traditional expectations. Consider how different the novel would be if Gatsby were both the protagonist and the main character. You’d lose a lot of the perspective that Nick brings to the tale.

Another classic example is To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is the protagonist, while Scout is our narrator and main character. Separating the two roles gives the story an added sense of irony, as we see the very adult subjects of rape and moral values through the eyes of a child.

What do you gain by separating the protagonist and main character?

Having a separate main character and protagonist allows you to build up, even mythologize your protagonist, as the reader can see the protagonist through your main character’s eyes. You can see how this works in both To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby.

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Is the main character simply a narrator?

In the cases of The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird, our main characters are both also narrators. But all in-story narrators aren’t also main characters. Consider the tales of Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson is the narrator of these stories, but one could argue that he is not the main character because he is not impacted by the actions of Holmes; he is merely an observer. Carraway and Scout, on the other hand, are both impacted by the actions of Gatsby and Finch, respectively.

How to identify the protagonist of your story

Determining the protagonist amidst a cast of multiple main characters requires a keen understanding of their role in shaping the narrative.

Who is driving the story forward?

The protagonist is the central character whose actions and decisions propel the plot. Identify the individual who takes charge, influencing the course of events.

Who is undergoing the most change?

The protagonist experiences growth and transformation as part of their character arc. Look for the character who undergoes significant development, facing challenges and evolving as a result.

Who is the reader rooting for?

The protagonist is the leading character with whom the audience emotionally invests. Identify the individual for whom readers feel a sense of connection and empathy.

Tips for writing a strong protagonist

Crafting a compelling protagonist involves more than assigning them the central role. Here are some tips to ensure your protagonist captivates readers:

Give your protagonist a clear goal or motivation

A strong protagonist is defined by their desires. Be sure to clearly establish what your protagonist wants and the motivations driving their actions. This adds depth to their character and provides a guiding force for the narrative.

Put your protagonist through challenges and obstacles

Adversity and conflict are the crucible through which a protagonist’s mettle is tested. Introduce challenges that force your protagonist to confront their fears, make tough decisions, and demonstrate their resilience. This not only builds tension but also allows for meaningful character development.

Allow your protagonist to grow and change

The hallmark of a memorable protagonist is their ability to evolve. Whether it’s a change in perspective, values, or capabilities, let your protagonist undergo a transformative journey. This growth creates a satisfying arc for the audience and ensures a dynamic, multi-dimensional character.

Main character and protagonist: Anchor and driver

While the main character provides a narrative anchor, the protagonist drives the story’s momentum while facing challenges and evolving in the process. Think about your story goal and what you want to convey through your writing. Recognizing the unique qualities of each role will allow you to create characters that resonate with audiences, adding depth and complexity to the storytelling experience, and perhaps allowing you to subvert character archetypes through a unique narrative approach.

When you’ve established your characters’ roles and have your novel ready for publication, turn to the self-publishing experts at BookBaby to get your book in the hands of readers.

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  1. Having never written a book before, but flirted with the idea for considerably longer than I should of.
    This blog has been invaluable in giving me direction.

    Thank you.

  2. The differences between the main character and the protagonist indicated by author of write up have undoubtedly expanded my understanding of both concepts in a way never before understood. Thanks.


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