Defining character terms — Part 1

Protagonist, hero, main character, point of view character and narrator — these terms are often used interchangeably in fiction. This is because in many stories they’re all the same person. But that is not always the case.

Read on to learn the difference.

Protagonist

All fiction stories need a protagonist. This character drives the plot and pursues the main goal of the story. Usually they change or grow while they’re at it. Their decisions impact where the story goes. The protagonist’s arc is defined by the pursuit of the goal, whether they achieve it in the end, or not. 

Can a book have more than one protagonist? Yes. But they’ll usually need their own arcs. A book with multiple protagonists is usually not one, but several stories that are intertwined. In The Song Of Ice and Fire several characters drive their stories and have their own distinct arcs. The Cloud Atlas is an example where the stories and protagonists are tangentially connected but have a unifying theme.

Hero 

A hero is a type of character. They tend to be virtuous and put others before themselves. Typically the reader is rooting for them to win. All stories must have a protagonist, but not all stories need a hero.

Often, the protagonist is a hero but they don’t have to be. Protagonists can be anti-heros, sidekicks, villains (e.g. villain origin stories), or anyone else.

Main Character

A main character (MC) is a central player of the plot, but they don’t necessarily drive it. The MC is often defined as the character “closest” to the reader, so the reader is getting their perspective. They’re often the same character as the protagonist, but not always.

For example, The Moon and Sixpence is about the artist Strickland and he is driving the plot as its protagonist. The story, however, is told from the perspective of an unnamed journalist who is trying to understand Strickland’s journey. 

Other examples where the protag and MC are different people include Sherlock and Watson and Gadsby and Nick Carraway.

POV character

Any character whose point of view (POV) the story is told from. It doesn’t have to be a main character. One of the scenes in Lord of The Rings is written from the perspective of a fox. Authors may include minor character’s POVs to offer distance, objectivity or a different perspective. 

With a first person narrative, the POV character is telling their own story, as themselves. With a third person limited narrative, it’s as though the narrator is standing where the POV character is and is describing what that character is seeing and experiencing, in some cases, including their internal dialogue.

Narrator

A narrator is anyone who tells the story. They can be a character from inside the story, such as a POV character, or outside the story, e.g. a granny telling the story to her grandkids. 

Sometimes, the author is the narrator and they can choose how “visible” they want to be. In the third person deep POV, the author is almost invisible. They’re reporting the narrative as the POV character is experiencing it. With a more distant POV, the author may interject with their own thoughts and opinions.

I often compare this to the concept of “the artist’s hand” in painting analysis. Is there evidence of the creative process like texture and brushstroke? Or is it smooth and polished like it’s come out of a printer (or painted by a renaissance master)?

Stay tuned for Part 2