We’ve all heard the terms protagonist and main character, and they are frequently used interchangeably.
They often appear synonymous, especially in stories with a clear leading character that the plot revolves around them.
While these terms are closely related, they are not the same.
In short, the protagonist is the “hero” who moves the plot forward while the main character experiences the plot. As the audience, we experience the plot driven by the protagonist through the main character(s).
Knowing what these terms mean is essential to good writing, building solid character arcs, and understanding what makes a compelling story.
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What Is A Protagonist?
Merriam Webster defines a protagonist as “the principal character in a literary work,” defining an antagonist as “one that contends with or opposes another.”
As the principal character, the protagonist moves the story forward. He is the hero (fx Luke Skywalker from Star Wars (1977)), anti-hero (fx Michael Corleone from The Godfather (1972)) of our story, or the villain (fx Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal (2001)).
Antagonistic forces are things the protagonist must battle. However, they do not necessarily have to be people.
A protagonist who combats with and often overcomes antagonistic forces has a character arc over the duration of a story.
In writing and dissecting movies, you must ask yourself what the character arcs are. Who is the character that is changing the most, learning, and growing throughout the film?
Once you’ve answered this, you most likely have your protagonist. It’s important to note that this requires an antagonistic force. Often, these may be internal and more difficult to spot than simply beating up a bad guy.
Our (anti-)hero may win the fight, but if they’ve not grown or changed, they’re not the protagonist (or at least not a very good one).
What Is A Main Character?
This brings us to the main character. The main character experiences the plot or the story of the protagonist. As the audience, we share the protagonist’s arc through the eyes of the main character(s).
Because of this, the main character might come off as ‘the person the movie is about,” though this is an incomplete distinction.
The protagonist and main characters can be the same, but that isn’t always the case. And it’s when they differ things tend to get complicated.
Chances are the main character will beat the bad guy, be the most talked about, and be on-screen the longest. But they don’t necessarily have to experience much of an arc.
Though this is a simplification, the main character is distinguished more by appearance. They tell the story and most likely drive it forward, but not necessarily who the story is about.
Good examples of main characters are Han Solo in Star Wars (1977), Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972), and Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001).
The main characters are very similar to false protagonists. Essentially, a false protagonist is a character we assume to occupy the protagonist’s role.
They can appear to be the leading character and the character the story is about, though at some point, the focus shifts.
This effect can be unsettling and surprising and is an exciting technique to disarm your audience.
The first example of this that comes to mind is Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho (1960).
While the film appears to be about Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) stealing $40,000 and going on the run, she dies halfway through the film.
The rest of the film is about Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), discovering who he is and learning his motives.
Marion Crane may come off as the main character, driving the story forward and occupying plenty of screen time, but Norman Bates is the character the story is about.
His internal struggles and uncovering his motives create the arc of the film.
Clarifying The Difference
To clarify how main characters and protagonists differ, I think it’s helpful to consider it a matter of internal versus external.
Often, internal struggles are reflected in a character’s external struggle, and in these cases, it’s very likely the protagonist and the main character are the same.
In many cases, the internal and external struggles are inhabited by two characters – like in Psycho.
Marion Crane struggles with running from the law and ultimately being murdered (quite the struggle), while Norman Bates struggles with internal demons and significant mother issues.
All that to say, one character deals with the physical, resulting in visual struggles and pushing us forward. In contrast, another character deals with internal struggles, which are frequently more cerebral and make the story more interesting.
Hopefully, this clears up some confusion around the main characters and protagonists. Knowing the difference between the two is a key point in captivating a story.
Especially in film, it is vital to successfully combine the visual with the internal; frequently, they can mirror each other.
Understanding these differences is also essential to write a good story. Even if you want your main character and protagonist to be the same, you still must understand the importance of internal character arcs and external struggles.
A good character (protagonist or main character) is not shallow. They have many antagonistic forces to overcome, which must be sources of great conflict.
Answering these questions for your side characters can help you make more motivated decisions, have characters that appear more human and more captivating, and help you in moments of writer’s block when you must decide what a character does.
Especially in the early stages of a project, treating all your characters as the main characters and protagonists is excellent. You may be surprised by what you discover, and it could shift the film’s entire focus to a more interesting storyline.
Does this information help? Do you have other helpful ways of thinking about the main characters and protagonists? Let us know in the comment section below, and good luck with your next writing project. I hope this helps!