The Heart of the Story

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In the Character Module of DIY MFA 101, Gabriela postulates that, even if there are many characters of great importance, there is actually only one protagonist in a story. Of course there are exceptions, but this tends to be the rule. My first inclination was to reject this statement. After all, almost every one of my stories has a pair of central main characters: Ryn and Scion for Ravens and Roses; Samuel and Amaris for Seahawks and Storms; Nathaniel and Shakti for Courting the Moon; Asa and Tal for Faylinn; and Melyin and Ciar (see-are) for Rinamathair.

But then I really sat down and thought about it and realized that, actually, for I think all of these, there actually is only one whom I could name as the protagonist if I had to pick them out. Ryn is definitely the protagonist for Ravens. That I have never doubted or struggled with. Asa and Melyin lead the way over their male partners by a little in their respective stories. Even thought Shakti is a major character and there’s an argument to made for her as a second protagonist, if I had to choose one, it would be Nathaniel. (Which is odd because pretty much all of my other protagonists are female.) In Seahawks, I started thinking that Samuel was the protagonist, but now I’m not so sure if he’ll stay in that position. Ideally, I’d like him and Amaris to share the spotlight.

However, even though a main character might not be a protagonist, that doesn’t mean they aren’t very important to the story as a main supporting character. As you probably noticed, there’s also a symmetry to my lineup. I really like having a kind of yin/yang, male/female connection between the two main characters of a story so that they can compliment and support each other, even if the relationship is rocky at first. This is actually an important trait for the Best Friend archetype mentioned in DIY MFA 101, which is perhaps my favorite out of all the supporting character archetypes. (The others are the Love Interest, the Villain, the Mentor, and the Fool.) I liken it to a heart. While the heart is physiologically located in the center of the chest, we often indicate the heart being on our left because the heartbeat comes through stronger. My yin/yang characters are like that heart. One of them might have a stronger beat and thus be the protagonist, but the other is still necessary, or else the heart won’t work and the story dies.

The same kind of symmetry informs my choice of villain and/or antagonist (which are not always one and the same). I tend to have villains diametrically opposed to the heroes in some essential, almost visceral, way. And I’m wondering now if that might be one of the reasons why it’s been so hard to work on Seahawks. I have a pair of main characters competing for the role of protagonist, and I have a growing supporting cast. But right now there is no clearly defined antagonist or villain. The antagonistic forces that exist are larger and more numerous (like the other Admirals and the Taavaryo) or they are more elemental (like nature and society). But that’s hard for people to relate to. The villain puts a face to that antagonism and gives the reader a focal point, and Seahawks doesn’t have that. There isn’t a specific person or people who embody that, and maybe that’s why the story isn’t working, why it’s so hard to write. The characters don’t have anything to struggle with directly. So that’s something I’ll need to mull over for a while.

What do you think about this idea of there being only one protagonist per story? How far does this relate to ensemble casts? And have you noticed any trends regarding the kinds of characters you create for lead roles, like I have with my yin/yang pairs? Please leave a comment below and tell me what you think!


2 thoughts on “The Heart of the Story

  1. I do like the idea. Now, I’m thinking about all my stories too. You also get into the idea of the FOIL character. A character who plays well and balances the main character. Think Enkidu and Gilgamesh they are Foils. Best friends, but also foils in personality.

    I would say that…Remmy is the main character/protagonist to my Abide story. It is told in first person, so the story is happening to her and around her. I want to say that first person is easier to distinguish, it really isn’t. Because in the Book Thief, Death is the narrator of the story. Death uses first person pronouns, but the protagonist of the story isn’t Death.

    See for Compass of My Curse. I thought I had three main characters/protagonist, but truthfully the story moves around Maddy (who doesn’t even have chapters) and Arie.

    Gifted/Sighted…this one is trickier because once again two main characters/protagonist and they are pretty balanced into driving the story, but ultimately I think it will Alexis who wins out as protagonist. Troy and his brothers play key roles. While fun to write and some of the best interactions yet, they aren’t the ones the majority of the story revolves around.

    Hmmm…you have given me much food for thought. I’ll have to see what some of my other stories have as the protagonist.

    1. I’m glad it provided some food for thought! I’m not familiar with Abide or Gifted/Sighted, and I know Compass is still in development, but my guess would have been that Arie was the protagonist. But that may be just because in the early draft, things were primarily from Arie’s POV. I also noticed with my stories that all of my protagonists are the ones who are introduced first in the story. Maybe looking at who comes first can help too!

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