If you’ve been around my tiny corner of the internet for long enough, you know how much I poke fun at the lingo that writers share amongst themselves. Be it terms, metaphors, or similes that only we are capable of understanding, I’ve always found it joyful to peruse through the countless interpretations of these concepts. Of course, as with all glorious things in life, there is bound to be setback to all of this. What is that, you ask?
Well, to put it bluntly, language is confusing. Really, REALLY confusing.
I don’t know what’s up with the people who enjoy coining terms or metaphors that makes them careless as to how easy it is to conflate two unrelated concepts with one another. And nowhere is this semantic conundrum more visible than in the unrelated, yet popularly synonymous concepts of a Hero and a Protagonist.
So, if you haven’t guessed already, I find that using these terms as though they were equivalent to one another is erroneous at its best and limiting in its worse. But before I drag you along through another one of my barely coherent rants (don’t worry, I sympathize with you), let’s first define these terms.
In a nutshell, a protagonist is any random schmuck that somehow managed to become the center of a story. It can be a dashing knight in shining armor, a slimy thief whose favorite hobby is stealing candy from children, or just a normal, and completely boring person. It might come as shocking to some of you that have never thought of it that way, but that is the simple truth.
Any character, no matter what personality, belief, ideology, or actions is fully capable of being a protagonist.
The only requisite to be a protagonist is that you are the center (at least for most of the time) of the story. Being a Hero, however, neccesitates a whole other set of parameters..
A Hero is a character that is meant to embody is certain degree of virtue or be on the moral side of a conflict. Now, a discussion with regard to which would be the moral side of a conflict or what virtues the character ought to hold is an entirely different conversation. So for the purposes of keeping things brief, let’s just say that a Hero is anything that the Author would consider to be a “Good” guy.
Assuming that most human beings are capable of achieving a basic level of moral decency (Post-Modern society has made me doubt this notion more than once), we can safely say that heroes tend to have a certain level of similarities with one another. For example, most heroes would never step on a puppy’s tail with no good reason, most heroes would not be willing to kill for an unjustified cause, and most heroes tend to be pleasant people to be around. The reason I don’t make these statements wholly categorical is because, while morality is objective, many people have different perceptions of it. Many of which are wrong, but nonetheless, this affects what they’d consider to be a hero.
The requisites to be a Hero could be a huge list of things, but to wrap it all up into one short sentence, a Hero must align with the good side of the Author’s Moral compass in order to be a hero in the story.
If you’re one of the brighter members of my audience, you may have noticed that all this time I’ve said Author’s instead of reader’s. This is because I’m talking about a character’s function within a novel, and that is solely determined by the author himself. While a reader might identify a character whom the author intended to be a hero as a villain, that does not change the fact that the created function for that character was that of a hero–whether you believe he’s a hero or not.
What is that you ask? You want me to start giving you a guide on how to identify a Hero? Well, I’m afriad that would be impossible for me to do. That is a more philosophical disscusion that is best conversed amid an intellectual atmosphere with a profuse amount of coffee, and a group of friends that would be willing to listen to your senseless drivel.
I am not that friend.
Despite my personal dislike of the Grimdark movement in fantasy, I find that this movement has been the inspiration for the resurgence of this concept in the modern fantasy community. Elric of Melnibone is the protagonist of the Elric Sequence of stories by Michael Moorecock, and to say the least, the best one could say about Elric is that he’s an anti-hero. I mean, he LITERALLY wields a blade that sucks the souls out of people. So if we were to believe the traditional narrative of the Hero only needing to be the center of the story, we would have no idea how to label Elric.
And the same could be said for the likes of Jalan from Red Queen’s War by Mark Lawrence, Jezal from the Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie, and the plethora of morally grey characters in fiction. And once again, although I don’t like the overall effect that this new brand of dark fantasy has had on the genre as a whole, I’ll give credit where credit is due.
The Grimdark Movement, for all its flaws, has opened up dialogue on what we consider to be heroes in our fiction. Even if you’re like me and believe that they took it a step too far, it goes without saying that we owe them this much to be thankful for.
So what did we learn? Quite a bit to say the least.
The terms Hero and Protagonist are not one and the same. And considering the confusing literary environment in which we currently live in, it would only complicate our lives further if we continued to believe this lie. So I repeat for one last time. A protagonist can be a Hero and vice versa, but this is not always the case.
Did this make you look at this issue from a new perspective? Do you differ with me in some of my definitions of Hero or Protagonist? Do you find my disdain for the Grimdark Movement to be immensely annoying? Then feel free to send all your love (or hate) in the comments!
As always, this has been the QuestingAuthor. Keep writing, my friends.