In the last few years, I’ve read several manuscripts where the writers have misunderstood that the role of their protagonist is split between two characters: the main character and the hero.
The role of the protagonist
Typically the protagonist in a story is the character who:
- the reader experiences the story through
- whose choices/actions drive the plot and have the greatest affect on the climax of the story.
Occasionally the story is told through the eyes of a more passive character who is swept up into the world of a more interesting and enigmatic character.
Consider the film Rain Man, where the character played by Tom Cruise (Charlie Babbitt), is propelled by the needs and goals of his unfathomable brother (Raymond) played by Dustin Hoffman. Clearly, the subject of the film is Hoffman’s character Raymond, but the main character is Cruise’s selfish and abrasive Charlie.
In these instances, the Main Character is the storyteller, the character the audience empathizes with and experiences the story through.
I like to refer to the subject of a story like this as the Enigmatic Outsider, a term coined by screenwriting expert Linda Aronson. This is the character whose choices and actions determine the twists and turns, and it is their actions that typically culminates in the resolution.
Other examples include:
- The Great Gatsby: Gatsby (EO) to Nick Carraway (MC/narrator)
- Wuthering Heights: Heathcliff (EO) to Mr Lockwood (MC/narrator)
- Silence of the Lambs: Hannibal Lectre (EO) to Agent Clarice Starling (MC)
- Shawshank Redemption: Andy Dufresne (EO) to Red (Morgan Freeman = MC/narrator)
- Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock (EO) and Watson (MC/narrator)
The Enigmatic Outsider and the Innocent Abroad
The most interesting character in these stories is always the Enigmatic Outsider (EO).
The EO is the compelling character who is somewhat impenetrable to the main character (and hence to the reader). They usually take a less interesting but normal person on a quest or adventure, sometimes physical, emotional, or both.
The Innocent Abroad is the normal person dropped into a strange world they don’t understand.
Although they are normal, less interesting, and reactive, they function as the reader proxy — asking the questions and navigating their way in this unfamiliar world, and discovering it for themselves and the reader. It is through this normal person’s eyes that we experience the Enigmatic Outsider and the extraordinary story that unfolds, and it is the Innocent Abroad character who grows through the experience.
The Mentor Antagonist
Linda Aronson writes extensively about the specific case where the Enigmatic Outsider also takes on the role of the Antagonist, and in so doing, acts as a mentor to the Main Character, facilitating their transformation and growth.
“Mentor antagonists are strange, unpredictable outsiders, sometimes sinister, sometimes benign, who take a less interesting but normal person on some quest or adventure, sometimes physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes both.” ~ Linda Aronson
It is the Antagonist who stands in the way of the Main Character achieving their goal.
In Rain Man, it is Raymond who unknowingly foils his brother’s desire to take control of their father’s fortune, yet it is through Raymond that Charlie becomes a better person.
In Silence of the Lambs, it is Hannibal Lectre who toys with Clarice Starling and impedes her investigation into Buffalo Bill. Yet it is also Lectre who helps Starling crack the case and resolve her emotional need for approval.
Mentor antagonists don’t appear in all stories, only in stories about a normal person being caused problems by an intriguing, yet unfathomable stranger.
The power of clearly defined roles
Why is any of this important? Well, I’ve found that without a clear understanding of this, some stories with enormous potential fall a little flat. Neglecting the distinct strengths of each role means that the story is not as strong as it could be.
Firstly, as Aronson notes, the Enigmatic Outsider (EO) must be seen from the outside so that they remain mysterious, unpredictable, (and perhaps terrifying). We cannot really understand their motives, their history, what drives them or what they’re about to do next. It is often the case that the EO is not changed by events of the story (they are a force or law unto themselves).
The EO is the character that the reader should admire, but never quite understand. They’re larger than life, not necessarily sympathetic, but absolutely compelling. We’re reading the story to find out what happens to this character. There’s also the tension that anything can happen to the EO, for example they might well die in the pursuit of their goals (it’s much harder to effectively kill off the MC/storyteller).
I’ve seen instances when the writer has tried to get into the head of the EO, which humanises them and makes them less enigmatic, easier to understand, and therefore less interesting. I’m sure that this can be done well, but in most instances, it’s better to keep the EO… well enigmatic.
Secondly, the Innocent Abroad needs to be the person that the reader connects with emotionally, and empathises with. I too often see manuscripts which relegate this character to the back seat of the story, and depict them with thin characterisation, murky motivation, and tepid actions when the exact opposite is necessary. This character must be as fully fleshed out as the Enigmatic Outsider because it is this character who will be permanently changed by their experiences in the story.
The Innocent Abroad is not just a witness to the Enigmatic Outsider’s actions. They are dragged along by them and are constantly reacting to the strangeness of the EO, they provide a degree of opposition, and sometimes (especially in the case of Mentor Antagonist) attempt to outright rebel against and thwart the EO’s goals.
Leveraging the strengths of these roles, the Enigmatic Outsider and the Innocent Abroad can form a formidable story duo, as Sherlock Holms and Watson can attest to.