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

Disney’s Moana as an example of a flat arc protagonist

While learning the writing craft I found that examples of flat-arc characters, especially protagonists, are pretty hard to come by. There tends to be a belief that a protagonist must undergo a big transformation as the story progresses. I like to question this premise.

Most writing advice suggests that a protagonist must start off either with a fatal flaw or believing in a big lie. A character on a positive arc, will overcome the flaw/unravel the lie and become a better version of themselves. A character on a negative arc will fall deeper into the flaw or the lie, which will lead to their demise or corruption. A character with a flat arc will end up believing the same truth they started off with. 

NB: A flat character arc is not to be confused with a cardboard character. A character on a flat arc can be nuanced and well-developed. They can have agency and learn new skills along the way. They just don’t undergo a drastic change, especially in terms of who they are and what they believe.

You may ask, is there even a story if the character doesn’t change? Good question! Yes, the story is in the conflict between the character and whatever tries to push them off their path, make them give up their truth or corrupt them. This can include their own doubt.

I believe Disney’s Moana is an example of a character with a flat arc. At the start of the film,  Moana is already brave, responsible, empathetic and has leadership qualities. She already believes the sea is her friend. But her father and her community try to change her. They are the ones with the fatal flaw/lie—the fear of the sea. 

Moana tries to conform, but when the villagers come to her saying there is no fish, she suggests going further out to sea (returning to her truth). The idea is shut down by her father. Moana still believes she is right and tries to cross the reef by herself, but is stopped by the big waves. Thus, her father and her environment are examples of antagonistic forces that create the conflict.

When Moana’s grandma (her ally) gives Moana new information (that her people used to be seafarers) and tools (a better boat and the heart of Te Fiti), Moana braves the reef again. Along the way she faces many obstacles that lead her to doubt and question her truth, path and identity, but she perseveres. 

Once she succeeds in her quest, she returns to her island, essentially proving she had been right all along and teaching her community the seafaring ways. The Motonui community is transformed as a result of Moana’s journey, not Moana herself. (Compare this with Anna from Frozen, whose understanding of love changes as a result of her journey, i.e. a positive arc). That’s why I believe Moana’s is a flat arc, and it works great for the story.

I hope you found this helpful and it will encourage you to experiment with different types of characters and arcs.

Can you come up with other examples of characters with flat arcs?

Tips for writers who just can’t finish that first novel

So, you’ve always wanted to be a novelist but have never been able to knock out a novel? Do you hoard hundreds of first chapters for innumerable novel ideas that you’d given up on? Or have you been working on the same story for the past decade but aren’t nearing the finish line? Then these tips are for you!


  1. Write like no one’s watching

Thinking about readers this early in the process can be paralysing. Don’t do it. Your first draft is meant for your eyes only. Don’t show it to anyone and don’t worry about what your mum would say, or your friends, or your English teacher.Treat it like your private diary and spill all your dirty, little secrets and your crappy, little plot holes. You’ll edit them out later.

  1. If #1 fails

If writing for just yourself is not motivating enough, write for one other person. Someone you know will  “get you” and support you no matter what. Nabokov wrote for his wife, Vera. Stephen King initially wrote for his mother who paid him a quarter a piece. 

  1. Embrace the terrible

Your first draft will suck. There’s no way around it. Spending years perfecting the first chapters will get you nowhere. Reading every instructional book in the world won’t make you a better writer. Writing several crappy but complete drafts definitely will.

Be prepared that you will have to rewrite your WIP almost in its entirety. Maybe several times. But you’ll be in a better position to know how it all fits together and what you need to fix once you get to the end. It’s part of the process. You can’t make coffee without grinding the beans. 

  1. Stick to one story

Some writers work on two or more novels in parallel. But if you’ve never managed to finish one, that’s a bad idea. You probably already have more novel ideas and first chapters than you care to count, and they’ll just keep coming. You can jot the ideas down, if you want to, but don’t spend more than a few minutes. 

Digging into new projects is fun. Sticking with one is discipline. It’s hard. Treat “working on a new idea” as a reward you give yourself for finishing the first.

  1. Pick the low hanging fruit

Don’t try to write the next Game of Thrones on your first attempt. Pick a premise with one POV character. Maybe two. Not a dozen. Stick to one key theme. Don’t try to squeeze everything you have to say to the world into your first novel. Keep it simple. Treat it as a practice round. You can increase complexity with your later works.

  1. Stick to a tight outline

Discovery writing is great when it works. But if you find yourself hitting dead-ends on repeat, even a one-page outline can make a difference. 

Don’t overdo it either. Some people spend years on world-building, taking personality tests for their characters and drawing up massive genealogical trees. But they never actually write their story. As with tip #4, keep it simple. Layout the key plot points. Know what happens at the start, in the middle and how it ends. And stick to it.

If you’ve started writing and realised you need to change earlier plot points, make a note and keep writing as if you’ve already made the changes. You’ll fix the continuity issues in the second draft.


Do you have any tips to add? Let me know what’s keeps pushing you to the finish line.