Why Your Protagonist Might Not Always Be Your Hero


This week’s video uses the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty to help writers think outside the box when choosing protagonists.
Video Transcript: We often use the word “protagonist” interchangeably with “hero” or “heroine.” And this tends to conjure images of ogre-slaying, cape-wearing, entirely-dazzling-why-can’t-I-look-that-good people. But this is a little misleading. Sometimes the requirements of certain plots are going to lead you to look outside the box to find your true protagonist.
I got to thinking about this the other night while watching the old Disney classic fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. Now, if asked, “Who’s the hero of this story?”, most of us would probably look at the asker as if he’s a numbskull and say, “Sleeping Beauty.” But if we take a closer look, we realize that our fair princess has a sum total of eighteen lines, is onscreen for eighteen minutes, and, during that time, does nothing but sing, cry, and sleep. Not very heroic.
So, if pressed, we might rethink our original answer and say that the hero is really good ol’ Prince Phillip on that insanely ugly horse of his. He charges in to save the princess and her kingdom, kills the dragon—all that really good hero stuff. But turns out he’s not the hero of this story either.
So what does that leave us with? How about the three good fairies? The scriptwriters understood that their obvious protagonist choices just wouldn’t work for the unique needs of this story. Sleeping Beauty has no arc. Prince Phillip has no arc. And, even more importantly, neither of them are present from start to finish in the story. Without the fairies to hold this thing together, the plot would have lacked any kind of impetus or cohesion.
Most of time, if you have a hero type in your story, he’s probably going to be your protagonist. But don’t take this for granted. Analyze every character to discover which ones are actually the most important to your plot, which have the most dramatic character arcs, and which have the most at stake personally. The intersection of these three answers is where you’ll find your protagonist.

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