Heroes, MCs and protagonists

I was following a very interesting conversation about heroes and protagonists, anti-heroes and villains today on Facebook* started by one of my writer friends.

I am not going to recapitulate the discussion. Instead I wanted to present some thoughts on character roles and in particular on central or point of view character roles.

I’ll also be diving into roleplaying, but that will come later.

We Can Be Heroes

Does a story need a hero?

It’s pretty clear that most successful stories need a central focus – or a series of foci for a multi-POV story – whether that central character is the narrator or not. For example, the central human character of Moby Dick** is Captain Ahab but the narrator is Ishmael.

But is Captain Ahab a hero?

The Facebook conversation I mentioned was concerned primarily with the difference between heroes and antiheroes – those flawed central characters who might do the right thing despite themselves rather than out of heroic principles – and from what I know of Ahab he would fit the antiheroic mould quite well.

However, I wanted to go a different way here to talk about central characters and the meanings of different labels we use for them because it seems to me that there is a hierarchy in play here: a hierarchy of agency.

Heroes are larger than life characters who bestride the story rather than merely being in it. Indiana Jones is a hero who is known to his antagonists before the story starts. If we are talking of agency, we must mention Bond – James Bond is well known amongst his enemies*** before the story starts (at least before Connery’s Dr No, anyway). Luke Skywalker is a hero who is undertaking the well-documented Hero’s Journey from apparently humble beginnings to true heroic status.

But not every story has a hero as its central character. Sometimes the protagonist is more normal than heroic. Arthur Dent is hardly a hero – he is an aggressively normal person rather than a hero, someone written to evoke sympathy rather than admiration, but he still has agency.

Many of the stories of Lovecraft have main characters who are ordinary people marked by circumstance rather than capability for their role in the tale****. The reader has empathy with the protagonist because they can identify with them, but in many cases the story happens to them rather than because of them.

So this is the hierarchy, then:

  • heroes have the most agency because they have the drive and/or abilities to do extraordinary things
  • protagonists have agency but have limits also
  • main characters are central to the story because it is they who the story happens to, but they may be victims of the story rather than instigators.

Agency in Roleplaying

There is a mapping here to roleplaying games, and in particular the game systems.

Heroic systems such as Dungeons & Dragons consider the player characters to be heroes: extraordinary individuals with unusual abilities: a highly trained monk, a wizard with magical powers, or a chosen emissary from a barbarian god. Ordinary people in those worlds cannot throw fireballs or carve their initials into an opponent with their sword. Player characters are hard to kill.

On the other hand, game systems like Basic Roleplaying (BRP) – the basis for Runequest and Call of Cthulhu – try to model people a bit more closely. Call of Cthulhu especially is deadly for player characters, and that is not just because of the nastiness of the monsters: getting in a gunfight in CoC is not a good idea at all.

The Savage Worlds system tries to have a foot in both camps. The standard rules talk about PCs as wild cards, unusually gifted individuals with chances to retry failed tasks and more chance of completing tasks in the first place, but the Realms of Cthulhu setting tries to tone these advantages down a little with the gritty vs pulpy axis: selectively removing wild card advantages to put the PCs in more jeopardy.

They’re still quite hard to kill, though.

So, think about how much agency your characters. Where do your characters fit in the agency hierarchy?

[*] every now and then I think about dumping Facebook, but conversations like this wander along and I am reminded why it is still worth using.

[**] which I have never actually read, I’m afraid. For those howling in outrage that I have not opened this classic of American literature, I should note that grew up in Britain and so my English teachers inflicted classics of British literature upon us.

[***] which is a really bad attribute in a spy, although as noted occasionally he is an assassin rather than a spy.

[****] Randolph Carter is a notable exception.

2 Replies to “Heroes, MCs and protagonists”

  1. Kim says:

    This is very well done. I think the conclusion I’m drawing from the ongoing FB conversation and your post is that it doesn’t really matter if your character is a hero, antihero, or something else. What really matters is that you have a focus (or sometimes foci, as you mentioned), someone for people to engage with and follow. Still, the differences in the types of heroes and antiheroes is interesting to think about.

  2. I was just thinking of writing about heroes and protagonists.

    A lot of people use the word “hero” to describe the central character of a story. For me, that might be the protagonist — but as far as I’m concerned a “hero” has to be heroic.

    My example is the movie Prometheus. Dr. Elizabeth Shaw is definitely the protagonist. She drives the action and she is clearly the central character. But there’s nothing heroic about her (unlike, for example, Ellen Ripley) — she’s basically another Ahab, putting an entire crew at risk because of a personal obsession of hers. My opinion is that she’s psychotic.

    The hero, though certainly not the protagonist or the main character, is the captain of the Prometheus (Janek — I admit I had to look up his name). He (spoiler, I guess) orders his ship to ram the alien ship, a heroic self-sacrifice to save the planet Earth. That’s a hero.

    I’ve been thinking about this because I’m writing about a hero now, and sometimes she even surprises me. I feel like a proud parent (or at least how I imagine a proud parent might feel 🙂 ).

Leave a Reply