Wednesday, September 07, 2005

When the Hero is NOT a Hero

Protagonist & Antagonist
A Different Definition
(Fair Warning - this is a toughy!)
There are Three Essential Characters in Every Story. There may be any number of side characters, but in traditional Adventures, and Romances of every stripe (erotic or not,) the main conflict is usually, if not always, a triangle of complimentary opposites.

Translation: You could tell the WHOLE story with ONLY these Three Characters; perhaps not with any real detail, but you could still do the entire basic plotline.

THREE Characters?
Yep. I'm sure you're familiar with: Hero – Villain – Heroine (or Sidekick) already. Those are pretty darn standard. So, let’s define them in a more Literary, (and complicated,) fashion shall we?

Antagonist - Protagonist - Ally
ALLY? Who the heck is That?

The Secret Character
The Ally
Always there, though seldom named is: the Ally -- the Companion to the Hero. The ALLY's function is to be the Middle-Man, the nay-sayer that presents an opposing view to both the Hero and the Villain. The ALLY is the Obstacle Character who adds complications to the plot, making matters worse for both the Hero and the Villain, generally by getting in the way.

In Romances, this character is the Love Interest, in modern mainstream fiction, and tons of movies, this is the trouble-inducing Best Friend or Interfering Relative, (often a younger sibling). In traditional fiction, they were known as the Victim.

In ALL cases, this character's FATE turns the plot at the Climax, and more often than not, is the story’s VIEWPOINT CHARACTER.

Lady Hero or just another Ally?
Traditionally, fictional Females were NOT allowed to hurt anybody, and they NEVER Killed anybody. The Heroine was not allowed to defeat her own Villain. Her male companion did all her dirty work for her. However, since only the Protagonist faces the Antagonist in the final battle, this made the Heroine’s male companion the actual Protagonist, and the Heroine – the most common viewpoint character in a Romance novel – the Ally or designated Victim.

Does the term: ‘Damsel in Distress’, ring any bells?

The Heroines in tradional stories served two purposes only:
  1. To get into trouble, so they could be Saved by the hero
  2. As a reward for the hero's heroic efforts.
(I know, I know... Don't gag on me.)

Lately, fictional Heroines have begun to defeat their Villains all by themselves, (Lara Croft anyone?) so that rule is changing. But it’s still not acceptable for the Heroine to battle the Villain in some arenas.

In Walt Disney’s Mulan, Mulan is clearly the viewpoint character and presented as the story’s Protagonist, and yet Walt Disney still made her male companion, Mushu, the story’s Comic Relief character, take out the Villain – not her, (or her designated Hero!)

In Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Belle is the clearly the viewpoint character and presented as the story’s Protagonist, and yet Walt Disney still made her male companion, Beast, take out the Villain – not her.

However, in Tomb Raider, Lara Croft not only does her own butt-kicking, she frequently rescues everyone else!

Antagonist - Protagonist - Ally
Hero - Companion - Villain?
Who is supposed to be What?

Well, that depends -- on the character's ACTIONS in the story, and their effect on the PLOT. Lets look at some literary Definitions that came from one of the ancient Greeks, Aristotle to be exact. (*Based on Aristotle's “Elements of a Greek Tragedy”.)
ANTAGONIST: Traditionally the Villain, the one causing all the trouble. (Anti = against: “The one who struggles AGAINST.”)*
PROTAGONIST: Traditionally the Hero, trying to keep the Antagonist at bay and keep things the way they are. (Pro = for: “The one who struggles FOR.”)*
ALLY: In Greek Tragedies, this character was the designated Victim of the Protagonist's poor judgment whose fate brought on the tragic ending, OR the Only Survivor, who played official witness to the heroic struggle between the Antagonist and the Protagonist. They "Lived to tell the Tale."
In modern fiction, ANY of these three character positions can operate under ANY of the three drives, (Motive - Action - Emotion,) and the Protagonist does NOT necessarily have to be the story's Hero -- just who the story is ABOUT.

Additionally, the Viewpoint Character, the one telling the story, does NOT have to be the Protagonist. In fact, it's very traditional for the ALLY to be the story's Narrator -- not the Protagonist.

“But I thought that the Protagonist was always the Main Character?”
In the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Watson was the Viewpoint Character, he told the stories, and yet those stories were all about Holmes who solved the mysteries and faced all the villains. Holmes was obviously the Protagonist; making Watson the Ally.

The Problem with
In a story’s Grand Finale, the Antagonist & Protagonist do battle, and ‘winner take all’. Therefore, the one character who does battle with the Antagonist is, by definition, the Protagonist, (and vice versa.)

BUT ~ No one wants to think of the Protagonist as being anything other than the Main Viewpoint Character, whether or not they do battle with the Antagonist. Literary Scholars don't like their definitions changed. Unfortunately their educated opinions are not having any effect on the characters appearing in modern Fiction -- such as the Anti-Hero, Honorable Villain and the Heroic Ally.

In Moby Dick, the main character Ishmael, is commonly thought of as being the Protagonist because he told the story. However, Ishmael did NOT do battle with the white whale – Captain Ahab did, therefore Ishmael was NOT the Protagonist at all.

Then… What was Ishmael?

Moby Dick
A CLASSIC Greek Tragedy

Aristotle’s Elements of a Tragedy, in short:
  1. The reversal of the protagonist's fortune is brought on by a personal flaw.
  2. The eventual recognition by the protagonist of this tragic flaw
  3. The resulting moral consequences of their actions.
  4. The final moral re-affirmation of the audience -- delivering catharsis.
  • Protagonist = Main or Central Character. “The one who struggles FOR.”
  • Antagonist = Obstacle to the Protagonist. “The one who struggles AGAINST.” The obstacle that stands in the way of the protagonist.
In Moby Dick – The White Whale was minding his own business when Captain Ahab attacked him the first time. Seriously pissed off, the whale ate Ahab’s leg. Ahab of course, declares revenge against the monster.

And Ishmael? He's not there yet. This is the Back Story, all the stuff that happened before Ishmael stepped on Ahab's ship for the first time.

The story Moby Dick is all about Captain Ahab’s struggles with the white whale, making AHAB the main character – though no one I know would ever call him Heroic or a Protagonist.

From: Aristotle’s Elements of a Tragedy
Harmatia = Fatal flaw of the Protagonist. In a classical tragedy, the protagonist falls from a great position of power due to a flaw in their character, usually an emotional instability, like pride (hubris), in the case of Oedipus.

In Moby Dick – Ahab’s overwhelming pride – “I WILL kill that whale”, cause him to pit his ship, and the lives of his men, against a monster far too big for him. The Whale’s thirst for revenge is also driven by Pride.

The Whale and Ahab BOTH have the same flaw; a VERY traditional trademark of the Protagonist and Antagonist.

From: Aristotle’s Elements of a Tragedy
Peripetia = Reversal of Fortune. The reversal of fortune that besets the protagonist and is intended to elicit our pathos. our pity, and sympathy.

In Moby Dick – Ahab finds the white whale (again minding his own business,) and attacks. The Reversal happens when the whale obviously realizes who is attacking him, and goes after Ahab, attacking the part of the ship Ahab occupies.

From: Aristotle’s Elements of a Tragedy
Anagnorisis = Recognition of Deeds. When the protagonist understands that their plight has been brought about by their own harmatia.

In Moby Dick – Ahab’s ship is sinking, and his men are dying. He REALIZES that the whale has made Ahab a personal enemy – and it’s his Own Fault. If Anyone is to survive, he must face the whale HIMSELF.

From: Aristotle’s Elements of a Tragedy
Catharsis = Purgation of Pathos / Establishment of Ethos. A play is considered complete when the audience is cleansed morally or emotionally by the closure of the tragedy. The catharsis is intended to fortify the ethos, the cultural framework, of the audience.

In Moby Dick – Ahab dies and the whale goes away, leaving the survivors alone. Which proves that the whale had more honor than Ahab. The whale does not attack innocent bystanders -- unlike the insane sea captain.

And Ishmael? He's left behind, floating in the sea after witnessing the entire battle.

Aristotle in a Nutshell:
  1. Glorious Hero does something he really shouldn't do.
  2. Not-so-glorious Hero realizes that it's his own damned fault.
  3. Hero crashes and burns. (He dies, she dies, everybody dies...)
  4. The audience feels good because they didn’t make the protagonist’s mistakes.
So - who is the REAL Protagonist -- In Moby Dick?
  • In Moby Dick, the White Whale is fighting FOR his Life. He’s the Protagonist.
  • Ahab is fighting AGAINST the whale’s right to live. He’s the Antagonist.
So, what was Ishmael?
Ishmael did not agree with either the Whale, for its fierce attacks, or with Captain Ahab’s reasons for chasing Moby Dick. He possessed an opposing opinion to both. He was an Obstacle Character, but he worked for Ahab, technically putting him on Ahab’s side.

Ishmael did not affect the plot in any major way. He was merely an Observer, the official witness to the epic battle between the whale and the sea captain – he was the ALLY.

Moby Dick is a prime example of modern literature proving that Protagonists are Not always heroic, Antagonists are Not always the bad guys, and the designated Victim (the Ally,) is not always a damsel in distress – or even a Victim.

-- And yet, literary professionals INSIST that Ishmael is the Protagonist - on the grounds that Ishmael Told the Story, therefore he HAD to be a Main Character: the Protagonist.

Um... WRONG! (Go back and read your Aristotle, K?)

The accepted ‘literary’ definitions for Antagonist and Protagonist just don't FIT the modern day Anti-Hero, Honorable Villain and Heroic Ally.

But ~ No One wants to admit that a Protagonist might be the Villain, and an Antagonist might be the Hero – despite the reams of modern fiction and hundreds of popular movies that have such characters. It takes a PHD or a Master's Degree to change an educated opinion -- something I don't have the time to get. (I'm too busy writing Fiction.)

So, let’s go around that particular literary road-block and re-label those character positions a bit more closely to their sources -- according to *Roget's New Millennium™ Thesaurus, First Edition (v 1.1.1)

Proponent – Adversary – Ally

ADVERSARYAnti-establishment; the main character attempting to go against the status quo, by breaking the rules of their society.
  • Definition: Opponent,
  • Synonyms: antagonist, attacker, bad guy, bandit, competitor, contestant, enemy, foe, match, opposer, rival
PROPONENT Pro-establishment; the main character in support of the status quo and the rules of their society.
  • Definition: Advocate
  • Synonyms: backer, champion, defender, enthusiast, exponent, expounder, friend, partisan, patron, protector, second, spokesperson, subscriber, supporter, upholder, vindicator
ALLYThe main supporter of one or the other; usually a lover. (It’s not unusual for both the Proponent and the Adversary to each have an Ally, but only one Ally actually turns the plot.)
  • Definition: Friend
  • Synonyms: accessory, accomplice, associate, co-worker, coadjutor, collaborator, colleague, confederate, friend, friendly, helper, partner
VILLAIN - The main Bad-Guy.
- The main character that faces the Bad-Guy at the climax.
- The Buddy, Love-interest, Friend, Victim, and official witness to the heroic struggle between the Hero and the Villain.

So, to answer our earlier question: Who is What?

Hero – Companion – Villain
Proponent – Adversary – Ally

The answer is: Take your pick. The three main characters can be ANY combination.

In the ‘Tomb Raider’ movie series...

Proponent Heroine
Adversary Villain
Ally Hero

Lara Croft is a Proponent Heroine with Adversarial Villains and Paramour Allies. (Nice and simple.)

Reversed Characters
Anti-Heroes vs. Heroic Villains
The one who has the most battles with the ADVERSARY is your PROPONENT. The one left over, and normally instigating a lot of the tension between the P&A, is your ALLY. This does not change. However, the labels: Hero and Villain are Interchangeable!

In the movie: The Crow...

Adversary Hero
Proponent Villain
Ally Heroine

Eric Draven was dead. He and his love were murdered. He came back from the Dead with a motive: to get revenge. He attacked the people that killed him and then the boss that sent them to kill him and his love. Eric was the Motive-driven ADVERSARY of this story – and yet the HERO too!

The Villain in this story was busy keeping order in his little Kingdom of Crime. Eric instigated a war between himself and the Ruler of the city. The Villain was bothered into defending himself against Eric. In this story, the Villain was the Action-Driven PROPONENT.

The Next-door neighbor girl, Nell didn’t want the Villain burning down her neighborhood – but she didn’t want Eric seeking revenge either, because she cared about him, he was her FRIEND.

Nell was the Emotion-Driven ALLY – the Middle-Man in opposition to both the Hero & the Villain. Like a true Middle-Man, she gets trapped between the Proponent and the Adversary in the Climax – as a Victim. Nell was also the Viewpoint Character. Most of the movie is shown from her POV, a trademark of an Ally.

In the movie: ‘Leon: The Professional’...

Adversary Heroine
Proponent Villain
Ally Hero

12-year-old HEROINE Mathilda, is looking for a safe haven from the very Villainous and temperamental Stansfield, a police officer, (a society-supporting PROPONENT,) that wiped out her family and intends to get her too. Mathilda takes matters into her own hands and bothers professional assassin Leon, into taking her in – and becomes his FRIEND.

Much of the story was filmed from Leon's POV -- trademark of an ALLY, additionally, Leon has the opposing opinion. Leon doesn't want her there, and doesn't want the attention of the police either. He tries to get her to keep her head down and forget, but Mathilda utterly refuses. She bullies him into teaching her how to use a gun because as far as she's concerned, she has a Reason to use one.

Like a true ADVERSARY she stalks Stansfield to his office fully intending to shoot him dead. Mathilda was obviously a Motive-Driven ADVERSARIAL HEROINE going after emotionally unstable Stansfield a PROPONENT VILLAIN. Like a true Middle-Man, Action-Driven Leon is caught between them.

However -- even though the entire plot for ‘Leon: The Professional’, was set up to let the Adversarial Heroine face her very personal Villain, the under-aged Heroine is taught to use a gun and other assassin's tools, the Anti-hero Ally ended up actually taking the villain out. I suspect that, at the very last second, someone changed their mind about letting a kid kill.

And the deciding factor for a story's Villain?
The Villain’s INABILITY to Change is what makes them the VILLAIN and the reason WHY they LOSE.

The Hero Crashes, Burns, Learns from his mistakes, and Rises Again.
The Villain merely Crashes and Burns. He does NOT learn from his mistakes. He does Not rise again.

Morgan Hawke


  1. ARe you peeking at my WIP's?? This is perfect timing. Thanks Morgan!

    BTW, Nice banners. :)

  2. Hey Sasha,
    - No, I’m not peeking. (Well, only a little.) I’m glad I could help!

    Oh, & I’m glad you like my banners. I'm pretty proud of them. I do my own personal graphics.

    Morgan Hawke

  3. re:Leon
    That leaves Stansfield to be the emotions-driven character. But can we state that his unstableness is enough for that?

    The inability to change was also the reason for the Hero's fall in the ancient Tragedy.
    Good ending: hero overcomes flaw
    Tragic ending: flaw overcomes hero

    Although, a funny thing, in most thriller/mystery types the protagonists are pro status quo, thus, against the change (yes, this is not the flaw-related change but the situation-related change), still curious.

  4. re: Leon - That leaves Stansfield to be the Emotion-driven character. But can we state that his unstableness is enough for that?

    - Yes we can! Every action Stansfield makes is the result of an emotional impulse, normally a fit of temper. Even his slaughter of the girl’s family was an impulsive. His original plan was just to arrest the girl's dad -- 'til Dad opened his mouth and threatened to blab.

    Stansfield does not choose his actions and act. He Reacts to what's happening around him -- Emotionally, from beginning to end.

    The inability to change was also the reason for the Hero's fall in the ancient Tragedy.
    - Good ending: hero overcomes flaw.
    - Tragic ending: flaw overcomes hero :)


    - YES! Very much so! But a happy ending Does NOT skip the fall and end in act three...

    Act One - Hero rises to glory.
    Act Two - He smacks into his own ego.
    Act Three - He stops before it's too late! (X)

    – To have a Happy Ending you ADD an Act - making FOUR.

    Act One - Hero rises to glory.
    Act Two - He smacks into his own ego. (Flaw overcomes Hero)
    Act Three - He crashes & burns.
    Act FOUR - HERO Rises from ashes of his mistakes to KICK BUTT!

    The Hero must Still CRASH before he rises. He learns NOTHING without the Crash & Burn.

    Although, a funny thing, in most thriller/mystery types the protagonists are pro status quo, thus, against the change (yes, this is not the flaw-related change but the situation-related change), still curious.

    - Correct. In most Mysteries & Thriller stories, the Protagonist IS a true (by definition,) Protagonist seeking to Right a Wrong.

    The Hero's Character Flaw is a VITAL part of the Character Driven story, but Action/Plot driven stories tend to skip it. However, the flaw is STILL present in EVERY VILLAIN in Every Genre of story. The Villain's Flaw is what allows the Hero to Win.


  5. I'll answer the rest a bit later, but I remember our discussion about mystery.
    What would you say about Classic Cozy Mystery? In relation to your character theory? I know it's not your favorite genre, but the uniqueness of it is that in classic cozies, say, Agatha Christie's books, the main character, the Investigator, does not undergo any noticeable character change. Say, her private eye Poirot. Yes, sometimes he feels his pride is wounded because he let something happen, or he is going to retire, then goes back to work, but those are big huge changes complete with an arc. As a character, Poirot didn't change throughout more than twenty books.

    (I also noticed this is the reason why many romance readers don't like classic mystery much. Romance = emotional read. The reader is drowned in the emotions of the main character. Here, it's the opposite of that).

  6. "What would you say about Classic Cozy Mystery? In relation to your character theory?"

    Hey Daria,
    - Well, some Mysteries (Cozy or not,) Are Character-driven, but the bulk of them are NOT. They're Plot-driven.

    I'm NOT saying that the Character isn't driving the Plot - I'm saying that most mysteries focus on the events happening TO them (the plot) and the character's resulting Actions, NOT the Emotional-drama happening Within the Character, (character-growth.)

    "I also noticed this is the reason why many romance readers don't like classic mystery much. Romance = emotional read. The reader is drowned in the emotions of the main character. Here, it's the opposite of that".

    - Correct. Those that read ordinary Romances are LOOKING for Emotional drama. The character's adventures are secondary -- until you get to Erotic Romance.

    Unlike ordinary Romances, the Plot in an Erotic Romance is just as important as the Emotional Drama. You need the action-adventure Plot to balance out all that sex-action. This is why I call Erotic Romance: "Women's Adult Pulp Fiction".


  7. So you are saying that the character rules don't apply to plot-driven books? Otherwise, it wouldn't be possible for a story to work with the protagonist having no change -- yet, they do.

    Yes, I totally agree--he must crash before he rises... like a phoenix from ashes. Like a second birth, and birth ought to be painful.

  8. I love your erotic romance theory, by the way. And I'd actually prefer to see the genre that way -- with lots and lots of plot :)