And the difference between Hero, Protagonist, and Main Character
In most cases, “Hero,” “Main Character,” and “Protagonist” are the same character.
Now, let’s try to come up with more specific definitions for these three terms, and explore why they may apply to different characters in certain stories.
My incredibly-simplified definition: this is the character who you hope to see “win.” While it’s fine to think of Superman, or Aladdin, the hero doesn’t have to be noble, or courageous, or especially talented. As long as you’re rooting for them, that’s what matters.
Just what it sounds like: this is the character who the story is mostly about. Confused? Often their name is in the title: Shrek, King Arthur, Tootsie, Citizen Kane.
The character who changes over the course of the story, travelling from Point A to Point B, either literally or figuratively. They learn and grow as the story progresses. Generally, Protagonists want something at the start of the tale, and discover they need something else.
Now, remember, most times, one character is all three of these things. For example, Ripley in Aliens is clearly the Hero (fighting the monster), the Main Character (the story is mostly about her), and the Protagonist (she reluctantly joins the trip, but ends up descending to the depths to fight for her “daughter”).
The same triple-aspect applies to Cher in Clueless, and John McClane in Die Hard. And it’s fine for movies to have “teams” of characters fulfiling these roles; in Charlie’s Angels, Dylan, Natalie and Alex are each Hero, Main Character and Protagonist.
However, in some stories, the Hero, the Protagonist and the Main Character are not all the same person. One example is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
There’s no question that Charlie’s the Hero. You want to see him win that Golden Ticket, and for only good things to happen to him. Likewise, he’s also the Main Character — though Wonka’s a close second. While Charlie recedes into the background a bit during the factory tour, he’s still the main focus of the movie’s storytelling energies. When the Narrator talks, it’s mostly to fill in details about Charlie.
However, Charlie is not a classic Disney Protagonist. The world is full of movies where scrappy young heroes succeed by trying really hard, by being clever and saying witty things. But that’s not Roald Dahl’s Charlie Bucket at all. Charlie doesn’t grow or change over the course of the story. He doesn’t need to. He starts out a really nice kid, and ends up a really nice kid.
The one consistent note Tim and I got from Warner Bros. about the script was, “Shouldn’t Charlie be trying harder?” To which we answered, “No.” And because Tim Burton is Tim Burton, they eventually stopped asking.
In terms of Classical Dramatic Structure, that leaves us one Protagonist short, which leads to the biggest change in the screenplay versus the book (or the 1971 film). In our movie, Willy Wonka is the protagonist. He grows and changes. We see his rise and fall, along with his nervous breakdown during the tour. Charlie’s the one who’s always asking — ever so politely, in the Freddie Highmore Whisper(TM) — the questions that lead to Wonka’s flashbacks upon his rotten childhood.
In Classic Dramatic terms, that makes Charlie an Antagonist. Not to be confused with a Villain.
As I pitched it to Tim: Charlie gets a factory, and Willy Wonka gets a family. Charlie doesn’t need a factory. Wonka really needs a family. Otherwise, he’s going to die a giggling misanthropic weirdo.
It’s the whole want-versus-need thing
Plotting a movie is mostly figuring out who the characters are, and what obstacles they’ll face. In film school, we were taught to look at character motivation as the combination of two questions:1
What does the character want?
What does the character need?
The implication is that your characters should be able to articulate what they want (true love, the championship, revenge) at or near the start of the movie, but remain clueless to what they truly need (self-respect, forgiveness, literacy) until quite late in the story.
The screenwriter-creator leaves explicit prayers unanswered, but performs subtle psychological revelation so that the characters exit profoundly changed.
Like most screenwriting hackery, this want-vs-need concept works just often enough to seem useful. You can trot out the familiar examples. Every character in The Wizard of Oz can be addressed this way (the Scarecrow wants a brain, but needs to realize just how smart he is). Ditto for The Sound of Music, though it gets a bit vague amid the younger Von Trapps.
Of my films, Big Fish and Charlie and Chocolate Factory come closest to fitting this template, though it requires a bit of hammering to get there. In Big Fish, Will Bloom begins the movie wanting to find the truth in his father’s tales, but he ultimately needs to accept that his father is contained within these tales. In Charlie, Willy Wonka wants an heir, but needs a family.
Bolstered by these two examples, I spent a few hours looking at the characters in my current project through the want-vs-need lens, before finally concluding it is complete and utter bullshit. Trying to distinguish between characters’ wants and needs is generally frustrating and almost universally pointless. The fact that I can answer the question for Big Fish and Charlie after the fact doesn’t make it a meaningful planning tool.
Why is the character doing what he’s doing?
Here’s what I like about this definition:
It scales well. You can ask this question about a character in a specific scene (“Why is he trying to get in the bank vault?”) or the entire movie (“Why is he racing in the Iditarod?”)
It implies visible action. Characters in movies need to do something. That sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many scripts slather motivation on like spackle to fill the holes. ( “He has OCD because his father abandoned him.” Umm, okay, so why is he robbing a bank?)
It can be both concrete and psychological. In Go, why is Ronna trying to make the drug deal with Todd Gaines? (A) Because she’s about to be evicted. (B) To prove to her friends (and herself) that she can. Both are true.
When I started asking this question, many of my concerns with the project I’m writing slipped away. The problem wasn’t character motivation, but how I was looking for it.
That said, you need to be careful not to stop at the first easy answer: Why is he racing in the Iditarod? “To win the prize money.” The better answer will likely lead to a better story. Why is he racing in the Iditarod? “To defeat his ex-wife, the five-time champion.” “To catch the man who killed his brother.” “Because the ghost of his childhood dog is haunting him.”2
Playing “spot the protagonist” or identifying a character’s wants-versus-needs can be a good intellectual exercise — up to a point. As I started writing Charlie, asking “Who’s the protagonist?” led to some important decisions about the storytelling. But trying to pin firm labels on the characters in Go or Pirates of the Caribbean would only prove frustrating.
If a story works, it works — regardless of whether characters are fulfilling their archetypal roles. So be wary of trying to wedge characters into defined classes, simply because that’s how they “should” fit.
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My recollection is that these ideas are featured in Syd Field, but I’m not inclined to look it up, for fear of sparking of an enraged tangent about how damaging I think most screenwriting books are.
For the record, I’m not writing Snow Dogs 4.