The Protagonist is one of the most misunderstood characters in a story’s structure. It is often assumed that this character is a typical “Hero” who is a good guy, the central character in the story, and the Main Character (the one with whom the reader identifies).
In fact, the Protagonist is not any of these things, though all of these attributes may be added to what the Protagonist really is. By definition, the Protagonist is nothing more than the Prime Mover or Driver of the effort to achieve the goal. That’s it. He or she is just the archetypal character who keeps pushing for the goal – that and nothing more.
So, sometimes the Protagonist is not a story’s Central character (the most memorable or charismatic character in the story). Being the Central character simply means he or is is the most prominent to the reader. For example, Fagin in “Oliver Twist” is perhaps the most prominent, but he is certainly not the Protagonist. And Darth Maul is an extremely charismatic character in Star Wars, but was not at all the Protagonist. Clearly, the actual Protagonist may in fact be less interesting than than the Central character, and may even be almost a background character if achieving the goal is not really the focus of the story but just the reason for the chase.
Similarly, the Protagonist is often not the Main Character of the story either. The Main character is the one the reader identifies with – the character we are most connected to emotionally – the one whom the passionate outcome of the story revolves around. It is the Main character who grapples with some personal issue they will ultimately try to overcome by the end of the story by making a choice in a leap of faith.
For an example of a story in which the Protagonist is NOT the Main character consider To Kill A Mockingbird, in which we experience the story through young Scout’s eyes, and yet, it is her father (lawyer, Atticus Finch) who is the protagonist, trying to defend a young black man wrongly accused of rape.
As you can see, while there are many attributes often given to the character who is the Protagonist, these don’t really have to be bundled together unless you are trying to create a stereotypical hero.
Just as in our own lives, we are the Main Character, but may not be the Protagonist on every single project or job in which we are involved, nor are we always the most prominent member of our team, department, or social group.
While it is fun to read books and go to movies in which we identify with heroes, stories that recognize all of those traits don’t have to be given to just one character help us to learn how to be heroic in our own lives.
So in developing your Protagonist, give the guy a break and see if you can’t distribute some of those other jobs to other characters to make them more interesting and your Protagonist more reflective of real life.