Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're casting a protagonist spell…
Q: Hi AWC, I've been having a discussion with a friend about the Harry Potter books.
Q: She says that Harry is the main protagonist, but I'm all about Hermione being the central protagonist.
A: Well, you're both wrong.
Q: It was Snape? I knew it!
A: No, you're wrong about how you're using “protagonist”.
Q: Enlighten me then. Lumos Maxima!
A: In a book (or a film), the protagonist is already defined as the main character – usually the hero.
Q: Isn't that what we were saying?
A: Yes, except that saying “main protagonist” is wrong. That's like saying “main main character” – a tautological faux pas.
Q: Remind me about tautology again?
A: That's when you say redundant extra words. Like “free gift”, “ATM machine”, “final conclusion” or “dishonest car salesman”. Okay, maybe not that last one.
Q: And what's a “faux pas” again?
A: It's when you make an awkward etiquette blunder. It's French for “fox fur” because that would be a blunder if you wore it to an animal welfare charity ball.
A: No. It actually translates as “false step”.
Q: Oh okay. So, if I said that Hermione was the protagonist, rather than the “central protagonist” I'd be right.
A: No you still wouldn't be because everyone knows that Harry is the protagonist of the Harry Potter series. It's pretty clear from the title of the series – he's the eponymous hero!
A: “Eponymous” has nothing to do with ponies or mice. It's an adjective that describes the title character of a book or film. That said, we'll concede that the title character isn't always the protagonist – sometimes it's the antagonist. But we'll get to that shortly.
Q: Okay, so a protagonist will be the one whose point of view we follow the most through a book?
A: Yes. The main person we empathise with.
Q: So the protagonist is the “goodie” of the story?
A: Well, not always. Take the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter and its TV series Dexter. He was a killer but we still empathised with him.
Q: Can there be more than one protagonist?
A: Technically, the purists would say that a drama should have just one protagonist. But some books are discussed as having multiple protagonists, such as A Game of Thrones. However, they're really just a stack of central characters. In Harry Potter – Harry is the one protagonist, but there are other main characters too.
Q: And this Q&A – I suppose I'd be the protagonist in that.
A: Um, I think you'll find that neither of us has a greater backstory for the reader to empathise or engage with.
Q: You're right. I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me. Perhaps it was when I brushed my teeth by candlelight this morning. Or my disappointment from not completing the junior Sudoku before unicycling here in the rain – the rain that reminded me of when I was young. It's been so difficult since my mother died…
A: Stop trying to make yourself the protagonist. That's not how it works.
Q: Hmmm. Okay. You don't have to be so antagonistic.
A: Ah, nice segue. So, an “antagonist” in a story provides the main opposition to the protagonist. Not all books have one – but you'll know if one is there. It's their job to disrupt the protagonist. So for the Harry Potter series, the antagonist is Voldemo—
Q: He who must not be named.
Q: Too soon.
A: Right, so yeah it's him. Or in The Hunger Games, it's Lord Snow to protagonist Katniss. Or Moriarty to the eponymous protagonist in Sherlock Holmes. In The Lord of the Rings, the antagonist is actually the title character (Sauron). You get the idea?
Q: I get it.
A: So outside book land, the word “antagonist” and “antagonistic” gets used a fair amount to mean someone opposing or hostile to something or someone.
Q: So, can someone be a “protagonist” or “protagonistic” in everyday life?
A: Not really – it seems that usage-wise, “protagonist” is really only reserved for books/films. The noun does include a definition for someone who is a champion of a cause, but to avoid confusion we'd suggest opting for synonyms like “supporter” or “advocate” instead.
Q: Thanks for that. Now, where did I put that unicycle?
Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you'd like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!