The Protagonist: An Overview
June 8, 2006 10:16 PM   Subscribe

The Protagonist: What can you tell me?

I am fascinated by the concept of 'The Protagonist'. Whether this be in fiction, mythology or used as a metaphor for how one perceives oneself (your 'life' being the narrative within which you exist) I desire a few new angles on this ancient human construct.

- Do you know of any theories / research / writings on the protagonist?
- What books / movies / myths etc. have you come across from which a protagonist is COMPLETELY absent?
- Or any such fiction/mythology with an interesting spin on the traditional protagonist?

Basically anything which comes to mind would be fascinating, thanks a lot...
posted by 0bvious to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Not what you're looking for, but the main character in snow crash is named Hiro Protagonist, which makes me laugh every time I think of it.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:43 PM on June 8, 2006

I think Neal Stephenson is making a literary tongue-in-cheek wink when he named his protagonist in Snowcrash, "Hiro Protagonist."
posted by Juggermatt at 10:47 PM on June 8, 2006

Croutonsupafreak (great name!) beat me to it. Oops.
posted by Juggermatt at 10:47 PM on June 8, 2006

Have you looked at Joseph Campell already?
posted by evil holiday magic at 11:41 PM on June 8, 2006

posted by evil holiday magic at 11:42 PM on June 8, 2006

Campbell is probably the way to go, as evil said. The Hero with a Thousand Faces is the only one I've read by him but he also has some videos that are worth watching, if you can find them.
posted by 517 at 12:06 AM on June 9, 2006

Response by poster: Yeah, I have seen the interview tapes with Campbell, not all Protagonist based, but fascinating nontheless.

Will have to check out his books methink.

Anything else?
posted by 0bvious at 12:28 AM on June 9, 2006

Best answer: Wayne C. Booth, "The Rhetoric of Fiction."

Related concepts to explore: the unreliable narrator, apparently coined by Booth; the avatar (in multiple senses of the word).

Regarding the self, you could google "illusion of the self" and read for days.

Other books come to mind:
Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity.
posted by Phred182 at 12:56 AM on June 9, 2006 [1 favorite]
posted by Phred182 at 1:00 AM on June 9, 2006

Response by poster: Great stuff...

I plan to compile these links, plus a few others I have already, and give them a suitable home. Watch this space if you're interested in the result
posted by 0bvious at 3:29 AM on June 9, 2006

I'm currently directing Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," which has no clear Protagonist. Chekhov's "Three Sisters" doesn't have one, either (all three sisters sort of form one protagonist).
posted by grumblebee at 4:33 AM on June 9, 2006

Best answer: Syd Field, a screenwriting guru, wrote some very influential books. He coaches writers to create stories with a three-act structure, centered around a protagonist (Field is extremely influenced by writers like Campbell). Not all movies fit (or should fit) Field's model, but the model is so clear that it not only helps you write -- it helps you see the structure behind many movies (also many novels, plays, etc.) This is especially true since Field has had such great sway over contemporary moviemakers.

Act I
The protagonist is innocently living his live when -- WHAM -- he's hit with a problem which he must solve (much like Campbell's "The Hero Answers the Call")

Act II
He tries to solve the problem, having to grapple with all sorts of obstacles to do so. (The obstacles should escalate in difficulty.) He keeps doing this until he his some sort of turning point (he finds the secret weapon that will solve all his problems or -- if it's a tragedy -- he learns that the bad guy is actually his father), which leads to...

The resolution.

This model assumes we -- the audience -- are attracted to problem solving. The protagonist is a guy with a problem and we're interested in (a) how he solves it/fails to solve it and (b) how the problem/solution affects him.

At each point in his story, we can compare ourselves to him. If I were him, I would... He shouldn't do that... Oh, good plan...
posted by grumblebee at 4:48 AM on June 9, 2006

It's highly debatable that there is no protagonist, or human protagonist in Requiem for a Dream. I remember reading several articles regarding this, but cant pull them from anywhere.

And as far as reading goes, Joseph Campbell - A Hero with a Thousand Faces.
posted by psyward at 5:44 AM on June 9, 2006

Most books on screenwriting (like the one grumblebee mentions) focus on the protaganist. I can't stand the Field book (or any of his books), but recommend James Ryan's book on the character-driven screenplay.

Basically, most books that talk about the protagnist (that I've read) boil down to one thing: the protaganist must act (ie, not be passive), though there are exceptions...

Howard Suber, a film prof at USC (I believe) has stated the three acts Field refers to in a much simpler way: Desire, Deception, Discovery. That is, what the protaganist wants, what the protaganist does to get it, what the protaganist (and other characters and audience) find out about him or her as a result.
posted by dobbs at 6:16 AM on June 9, 2006

Best answer: The protagonist changes. A hero is merely a character who can be relied upon to do something heroic. The difference can easily be seen in a movie like Toy Story, in which Woody is the hero (he's a good, reliable guy who's pretty much the same guy at the end of the movie that he started out as), and Buzz is the protagonist (he goes on a personal journey in which he learns more about who he really is and what he wants out of life). Another example is The Terminator. Reece is the hero, Sara Connor is the protagonist. Sara's reality is rocked to the core; Reece is basically a badass to begin with, and stays that way.

Similarly, the antagonist is the character that changes the protagonist, while the villain is the counterpart to the hero: he can be relied upon to be bad. Multiple characters can be protagonists of their own subplots, and a pair of characters can each be protagonists to themselves while being antagonists to each other (take a movie like Face/Off, for example).

But here's the heart of the matter. In real life, people don't change much. In fiction, they change all the time, and those changing characters are the protagonists. So we observe them as a way of cathartically experiencing the big change that we are each frustrated with our inability to acheive in our own lives.
posted by bingo at 11:42 AM on June 9, 2006 [8 favorites]

bingo, great comment. Marked as favorite.

I've been thinking a lot about protagonists/antagonists recently myself. I found a very helpful section in (believe it or not) Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at The Novel.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 12:36 PM on June 9, 2006

Best answer: For anyone who is interested further discussion of this topic, as well as a series of interesting links to links to more links, can be found here: The Protagonist
posted by 0bvious at 4:47 AM on June 11, 2006

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