Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Difference Between Heroes and Protagonists

This is a sequel to the post "The Difference Between Villains and Antagonists." If you haven't read it yet, please go check it out.
Last week we went over the typical baddies, villains and antagonists. Now we'll turn our attention to the light side and go over the difference between a hero and a protagonist.
I give you Tom Hiddleston as a king. You're welcome. (Image not mine.)
Classic heroes aren't very popular nowadays. They were used more often in mythology and legend, but the difference is still important to know since the term is still widely (and often incorrectly) used.
As before, let's start with some Google dictionary definitions of the terms:

The definition for "heroine" is exactly the same except gender-swapped.
Allow me to direct attention to those wonderfully highlighted phrases (said wonderful highlighting added by me in Paint). Protagonists are characterized by playing a lead role in the plot. Heroes (and heroines), on the other hand, are defined by their good and noble qualities and achievements.  Was there a hint of "lead character" in there? Nope. Was there a hint of "noble quality" in the definition of protagonists? Nope. Clearly, "protagonist" refers to a simple plot role, while "hero" refers to a character with certain attributes.
As with antagonists and villains, protagonists and heroes are often one and the same. Some characters who fit both descriptions are people like Hercules of legend and the Disney movie, Superman from the comics and various movies, Aeneas of the Aeneid, Gilgamesh from the Epic of Gilgamesh, Harry Potter from the Harry Potter series, the Prince in Sleeping Beauty, Percy Jackson from the Percy Jackson books, Robin Hood from just about any of the movies, books, and legends; and plenty others. Heroes have grown more flawed as literature has progressed, but they used to be highly idealized in myth and legend - the ancient Greeks loved their demigod heroes. Still, they typically have moral compasses pointed directly north - there's nothing skewed about their motives (which sets them apart from anti-heroes). 
However, these two words do have unrelated definitions, which means they cannot both always be applied to the same character. There are protagonists who are not heroes, and heroes who are not protagonists. 
A few protagonists who I don't think of as classic heroes include Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean movie series,  Neal Caffrey from White Collar,  Yarvi from Half a King, Finn from the Incarceron series, Darrow from the Red Rising trilogy, Sherlock from the BBC Sherlock series, and Sophie from The School of Good and Evil. A lot of these guys are anti-heroes, but every now and then a villain takes the role of protagonist. You'll notice that a lot of these protagonists have a more "the end justifies the means" mindset. They're not as pearly-white morally as a classic hero. Some of them would be downright unlikeable except for whatever little lovable quirk the writer gave them (haven't we all hated Sherlock at one point or another for how insensitive he is?).
*strangles Sherlock through the screen*
Heroes who aren't protagonists include Doctor John Watson from the BBC series Sherlock, Horace (for the majority) of The Ranger's Apprentice series, Luke from The Darkest Minds series, Neville Longbottom from Harry Potter, Obi-wan Kenobi from the original Star Wars movies, Henry from The Chronicles of Vladimir Todd, and possibly Grover from the Percy Jackson series. If they're not protagonists, heroes seem to pop up most often in a role which allows them to be very close to the protagonist. Reason? They're there to help guide the protagonist along paths of righteousness. This means quite a few mentors and sidekicks are typical heroes, with straight-laced morals and a clear idea of what's really going on in the conflicts. (Note: Especially if your protagonist is an anti-hero, you may want to make a supporting character a classic hero to provide contrast and conflict, and to help make the protagonist make decisions readers can vouch for. Red Rising had an anti-hero protagonist and no character with a straight moral compass to help guide the main character, and it left me feeling like I couldn't really fully vouch for any of the characters.)
It ends up like that.
So to recap, a protagonist is:
  • a lead/main character
  • just a plot role, saying nothing about the actual characteristics of the character
And a hero is:
  • any character in the story with . . .
  • noble qualities, outstanding achievements, and a working moral compass
Ah, I love definitions and clear distinctions. Makes things so neat and organized.
Next Tuesday I'll post something about anti-heroes and anti-villains, which are the grey areas I haven't really spoken of yet. Should be exciting. *rubs hands together eagerly* As a further note, this week's posts are scheduled because I'm away, so I won't be around to answer comments until the weekend.

So tell me your opinions. Who are your favorite classic heroes? Do you think that the classic hero is sort of out-of-style right now? What about non-hero protagonists? Who are some of your favorites and why? Did you hate Sherlock at least once too? Have you read a book without a single morally straight character, and did it bother you? 

12 comments:

  1. So I was reading through your lovely post here and having and grand time and then....you mentioned Horace from Rangers Apprentice! *dancesindelight* He is one of my favorite characters of all time! I like him better than I like Will most times! (slight fangirl moment there) Really now, you've hit the nail on the head with your article. There's a huge difference between protagonist and hero. I have a weakness for good old fashioned hereos like the bully-turned-knight Horace. Awesome post, and extra points for reading Ranger's Apprentice and loving Horace like I do.

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    1. RANGER'S APPRENTICE. *gives chocolate to fellow fan* Personally I love Halt, but I think all the characters are pretty cool. Horace makes me laugh a lot. :) Thanks for the comment!

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  2. Mehhhhh I'd disagree with you on the Red Rising point, but I won't go into it. xD This is a good point, and I always do appreciate a classic hero as long as he's not always squeaky-clean and perfect. Because let's face it, no one is like that. (I'd consider Darrow a hero but that's just me. xD I do think he's as moral as one could possibly be in that world, and has many noble qualities, and so on, but that's also my endless love for the series talking. *shrugs*) One of my favorites is probably Simon from Firefly or Peeta from The Hunger Games or, obviously, Captain America.

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    1. Hahaha, the world would be boring if it weren't for disagreement. I agree that Darrow is pretty moral compared to everyone else - I just feel like he's a bit too brutal to be classified as a hero. *shrugs* It's a fine line. I have never seen Firefly, but I've heard that it is good. And MARVEL. Captain America IS pretty cool.

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  3. Good point!There have been many times when talking about a book/movie and started saying "hero" only to stop halfway through the word and change it to "protagonist" because I couldn't bring myself to refer to the lead as someone particularly noble or admirable, morals-wise. :P Thanks for explaining this issue so clearly!

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    1. I do the same thing. :) Most other people wouldn't be bothered with the difference though. xD Just us writers and word nerds, I think. Thank YOU for reading and commenting!

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  4. Okay, I'm not sure if this is a weird question or not, but uh, can I quote you? This post (and it's counterparts about villains and antagonists and anti-heroes and anti-villains) have been super helpful with my writing of late and I'd like to mention you on my blog. That okay or no?

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    1. Yeah, it's definitely alright! That's actually really nice of you. Just, would be mind linking back to my blog when you quote it? (Not that I thought you wouldn't).
      That's actually one of the best compliments I've gotten on the blog so far. :) Thanks! I'm really happy they were helpful.

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  5. This is a really neat point. I don't think it's logical for someone to be without flaws, but I don't think it's illogical to have someone who is good as in they don't get their hands dirty even if the end justifies the means. I admire characters who don't do that and I wish the "heroes" didn't do that as much in stories nowadays. It's nice to know there is some form of nobility out there still.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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    1. Yes, I think that it's pretty much impossible to find the perfect heroes from legend in modern stories. But I do like it when a character has a certain moral nobility. You're right - it is encouraging. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  6. Hi, this is the first time I've come across your blog, but I'd just like to say I love the way you've written and explained things, it's very helpful! I was just wondering if I'd be able to quote you in my A Level English Language coursework - a full link to this page will be in the bibliography, along with the date I accessed the page. Would that be okay?

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    1. Yes that would be fine! I'm so happy you found it that helpful! ^_^ Good luck with your assignment!

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