Protagonists Who Come
Out Of Nowhere

“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.


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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

18 thoughts on “Protagonists Who Come
Out Of Nowhere

  1. A different setup is found in “An Instance of the Fingerpost,” by Iain Pears. Set in England during the Restoration, the general plot involves a suspicious death. A first narrator explains the facts in the matter from his own POV. Then a second narrator tells us that the first is unreliable and tells us what really happened. A third POV is used to cast doubt on the first two accounts. I’ll stop there to sail around a potential spoiler. The unusual use of multiple, vastly different narrators makes Pears’ book stand out. He’s an excellent writer.

    • Wow…what an interesting structure. Would love to read that one. So, I’m curious…given that complex set-up for story-telling, is there one character you’d say was the “protag”? Thanks for weighing in JG.

      • Is there one character you’d say was the “protag”?

        Good question, but very hard to answer, by the nature of the book. I shall, therefore, steal from Christopher Finn’s review. Finn calls the book: “…a novel that barely mentions its central plot, or many of its important features or themes.”

        “For a reviewer, however, it is hard to discuss the plot in detail without revealing things better left for the reader to uncover, so I will tread carefully with a wariness for spoilers.”

        I can say this: I definitely did not identify with Narrators #2 & #3. I must read it again. All 700 pages.

  2. Michael has looked in mirror

    Yes! 😁

    I love it when the antihero becomes a hero, and inspires a character to follow his lead (hero to be named later). The classic example is Casablanca, where the corrupt Louis walks off with Rick into the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

  3. You just blew my mind, Kris. I did this in my Mayhem Series. The bad guy in books 2 and 3 emerges halfway through book 4 as an antihero. In books 5 & 6, he is now co-protagonist by your definitions above. I usually refer to him as an antihero because he kills poachers to protect the Natural World, but now you’ve got the wheels turning. How would you define that type of character?

    • Well, I had the same thing happen with my Thomas & Mercer book “She’s Not There.” During the writing process, the guy who starts out the book as what I thought was the villain turns into an anti-hero after his “man in the mirror” moment. He switches sides, in a sense, and actually becomes a co-protagonist by books end. I think an anti-hero can morph into a genuine hero depending on the character arc.

  4. Wow! Fascinating post, Kris. I really like the idea of a supporting protagonist.

    I encountered a theory, years ago, that plot-wise, if the protagonist is the driver of the action, then often the first half of the story the hero is reacting to the villain, as the villain drives the action. Up to the point where the hero goes on the offensive and begins decisively acting rather than reacting to what is going on, the villain is the protagonist, then they switch roles and the hero begins truly driving the action. This fits the four part arc of the hero as laid out by TKZ alum Larry Brooks where the hero goes from reaction to action over the course of a novel.

    It seems to me that the concept of a supporting protagonist can mirror this, perhaps with the protagonist driving the action initially, and then the supporting protagonist eventually pushing things. Just an idea on a morning when I need more caffeine 🙂

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking post.

    • I hadn’t thought of it, but you are right in that the villain is the driver of the story in the beginning and the protag is merely reacting. Then, as you point out, they reverse roles.

  5. Great observations and classifications of characters, Kris. This is what makes writing so much fun.

    I esp. like when a character starts out appearing to play the ordinary shlubb role but shifts partway through the story–either rising to heroism, or descending into darkness.

    Writers throw characters into the boiling cauldron and see what they do. Some sink. Some swim and climb out. Some help others out of the soup–even if it means sacrificing their own lives. Some hold other’s heads under until they drown.

    • Good analogy, the boiling cauldron. I’ve had several characters up and surprise me in this way. Yeah, it’s what makes it fun.

  6. Good morning, Kris. You’ve given us a lot to think about today.

    Have you seen the French film “He Loves Me… He Loves Me Not” with Audrey Tautou? My husband and I saw it a couple of decades ago. The first half of the film is told from the POV of a young woman who is having an affair with a married man. At least that’s her story. The film abruptly stops at the halfway point and begins the story again, this time from the man’s POV. The audience slowly becomes aware of the truth, and the end of the film is a stunner. Casting Audrey Tautou was brilliant.

    My third novel had a character I described as a “spicy secondary character.” She was a young girl who fancied herself an investigative reporter. Most of her scenes were in first person while the rest of the book was in third. While the main character was the woman from my previous two novels, I now see that the young girl Reen was a supporting protagonist. That makes more sense than the way I originally thought of her.

    • Will look up the movie, definitely. Sounds like something I would like. There’s an under-the-radar flick kicking around the late-night channels that is similar — “Chloe” an erotic thriller with Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore. A little cheesy but really surprising at end via that Rashomon type of POV switching.

  7. I learned something today! Thank you.

    I have yet to watch “A Small Light.” The story from Gies viewpoint would be much different than from Otto’s. A part of that is the “official version” of the diary is the one Otto edited after it was discovered. Somehow Anne discovering her father was having an affair ended up on the cutting room floor. As did portions of Anne being a teenage girl and falling in love.

    The unabridged version came out about 15 years ago. At my house you will find both version as well as the school version that is further abridged.

    • You’d probably enjoy A Small Light, definitely. The woman who plays Miep is amazing. Otto Frank is played by Liev Schrieber. You can get it on National Geographic, Hulu and Disney.

  8. The Iain Pearson story sounds like a RASHOMON narrative. RASHOMON is the incredible movie by Akira Kurosawa where each of the characters tell their own version of the truth of an horrific happening. and other characters have to figure out what the truth really is. The trick is that everyone believes their own truth.

    Then there’s the stranger in a strange land narrative told by the outsider who may or may not the driver of the plot. Nick Caraway in THE GREAT GATSBY narrates what happens to Gatsby, but in the end, it’s his emotional change as a witness that matters. One type of this stranger comes in with a sword or gun like Jack Reacher to right a wrong. He tends to be the protagonist.

    • Yeah, Nick Caraway is another great example. And “Rashomon” the movie created what we now call The Rashomon Effect.” (see Gone Girl, Reservoir Dogs et al.)

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