“I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so f–n’ heroic.” — George Carlin
By PJ Parrish
One of the most important decisions a novelist faces is: Who is going to tell this story?
Well, that’s easy, you say. That’s the job of the protagonist, right? Well, it isn’t always that simple, I am here to plead today. This is on my mind lately because I’m watching an excellent TV series called A Small Light, which is the retelling of the Anne Frank story.
The story of the teenage diarist is ingrained in our culture. What’s the point of rehashing it? But A Small Light is told entirely from the point of view of Miep Gies, a young Dutch woman who risked her life to shelter Anne Frank’s family from the Nazis.
Miep is just an ordinary girl trying to grow up in hard times. She’s a twentysomething slacker with no husband and no job prospects. She charms her way into a job working for Otto Frank at his company. But as the Nazis advance, Miep finds herself smuggling the Franks to the annex above Otto’s Amsterdam offices one at a time.
Anne is relegated to the margins as the story focuses on the growing relationship between Miep and Otto Frank. By shifting the spotlight to a secondary character, the story comes alive and feels very fresh, even though we know the tragic outcome.
We mystery and thriller writers often use the word “protagonist” as a synonym for “hero.” The protag is the person who gets the call to action, solves the murder, rescues the missing child, saves the world from the incoming comet. But it’s often more complicated than that, especially given how much genre-bending and style experimentation is going on these days. The standard old blond with the great gams who asks the private dick to find her missing husband just isn’t the standard anymore. We’ve grown beyond that.
I’m not even sure I even know what a protagonist is anymore. So let’s try some definitions. From Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop: The protagonist is the character whose fate matters most to the story. I definitely buy that.
But the writer’s website Dramatica takes it one step further:
- A Main Character is the player through whom the audience experiences the story first hand.
- A Protagonist is the prime mover of the plot.
- A Hero is a combination of both Main Character and Protagonist.
Confused? Yeah, me too. Let’s go to an example most of us know — the movie The Shawshank Redemption. But let’s look at it through its source, Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. In King’s iconic book, Andy Dufresne’s story of injustice and escape is narrated entirely by fellow inmate Red (Morgan Freeman in the movie). The book opens with a long recitation by Red on how he got to prison and ends thusly:
I have enough killing on my mind to last me a lifetime. Yeah, I’m a regular Neiman-Marcus. And so when Andy Dufresne came to me in 1949 and asked if I could smuggle Rita Hayworth into the prison for him, I said it would be no problem at all. And it wasn’t.
And later, Red summarizes Andy’s opaque character:
I knew him for close to thirty years, and I can tell you he was the most self-possessed man I’ve ever known. What was right with him he’d only give you a little at a time. What was wrong with him he kept bottled up inside. If he ever had a dark night of the soul, as some writer or other has called it, you would never know. He was the type of man who, if he had decided to commit suicide, would do it without leaving a note but not until his affairs had been put neatly in order.
So in the book, who is the protagonist? I would vote for Red. Andy Dufresne is the story-driver, but Red, even though he is a “secondary” character, is the one whose heart and mind we are living in. More important, he is the one who changes the most over the course of the story. At the end, we shed tears not for Andy, but for Red.
A couple more prime examples of secondary characters who act as narrator-prisms for main characters and thus almost become “main” characters in their own right:
- Dr. Watson. The Sherlock Holmes books are written from his point of view, all observations of Sherlock solving the crimes. Witness:
“You have brought detection as near an exact science as it ever will be brought in this world.” My companion flushed up with pleasure at my words, and the earnest way in which I uttered them. I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty.”
- Chief Bromden. In Key Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the primary conflict is between McMrphy and Nurse Ratched, but the chief is the consciousness through which we view this and Kesey’s views on mental illness.
I been silent so long now it’s gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.
- Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. The true “hero” of the story is her father, Atticus, who defends an innocent man, confronts a lynch mob, and faces retaliation against his family. But the story emerges from the emotional prism of the narrator Scout. Like Red in Shawshank, Scout is the one who changes over the story. Thanks to Atticus’s heroism, she learns that evil can be lessened by compassion.
Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.
While researching this post, I found out screenwriters have a name for this type of character — Supporting Protagonist. Some writers chose someone who does NOT have a central role to narrate the story. A Supporting Protagonist is someone who would normally be a secondary character but is actually the main character. It can, as in A Small Light, put a fresh spin on what’s expected.
There’s another type of protagonist that I love — what I call The Hero To Be Named Later. This is a character who emerges out of the pack or obscurity and is called upon to save the day. The reasons might vary:
Shlubb turn savior (Chief Brody in Jaws who can’t even swim)
I Didn’t Raise My Hand! (Han Solo in Star Wars, essentially a jerk who wants nothing to do with anything where he might get hurt).
Default Diva. (Ellen Ripley in Alien, who just wants to collect her paycheck and go home with her cat)
Not So Innocent Bystander. (Michael Corleone in The Godfather who sulks in the shadows until the Sonny sets).
Let’s look at the last two (two of my favorite movies, by the way). Alien opens with an ensemble cast — the crew aboard the salvage freighter Nostromo. We assume the protagonist is Captain Dallas, given his cool stewardship. But as the xenomorph picks off crewmen one by one, Ripley emerges as the badass leader.
I’ve saved the best for last. The Godfather trilogy, taken as a whole, is about Michael taking over the family business and losing his soul. But in the first movie, Vito Corleone is vividly the protagonist, with his sons in orbit around him. Sonny dismisses Michael as “that sad thing over there.” It’s not until halfway through the movie that it becomes clear that Michael is the protagonist. His father shot, abandoned in the hospital, Michael whispers: “Just lie here, Pop. I’ll take care of you now. I’m with you now. I’m with you.”
Michael has looked in mirror. A protagonist is born.