What happens when a leading character is not the protagonist?
Brandi Spencer (formerly B. C. Marine), CAO Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Last week, we looked at protagonist and main character. (Check it out here for a refresher on what a protagonist is. I’ll be talking about it a lot.) If you’ll recall, there is only one protagonist in a story. But most stories have multiple characters who are major players in the plot. How does that work?
Two Kinds of Deuteragonists
There are actually lots of roles that deuteragonists can fill, but they all tend to fall within two major types: leaders of their own plots and support for the protagonist.
These are the characters that are often mislabeled as additional protagonists. They legitimately drive their plotlines on their own. However, the plotline they are driving happens to be secondary to the main plotline that the protagonist is driving. If it’s hard to tell which is which, look at the climax of the whole story, the biggest, most important moment in the book. The deuteragonist’s actions may move pieces toward this event, but the protagonist is directly responsible for it.
This could be a lover, sidekick, relative, or teammate of the protagonist. They work so closely with them that it’s hard to separate their plotlines because they end up running simultaneously—or so it seems. The protagonist is the leader, the one calling the shots. Even when the deuteragonist appears to be working side-by-side with them instead of following, when you break down their actions, one will emerge as the first to act or the one steering major decisions.
This one is very simple. As I’m sure you’ve probably guessed, the tritagonist is the third major player. They follow the same forms as deuteragonists, just one more level removed from the protagonist. Most stories don’t go past these three since things get more complicated as you add more major storylines. However, in very complex plots, it’s possible to have multiple deuteragonists or tritagonists who aren’t quite the main drivers of the story but are essentially equal to each other.
Still a Main Character
It’s important to note that both deuteragonists and tritagonists can be and often are main characters. Being secondary to the protagonist is mostly useful for examining plot movement. It’s not about the most interesting or strongest character or the most page time; it’s a matter of mechanics. In fact, in one of my stories, my deuteragonist technically has a slightly higher word count in his point of view than my protagonist does.
What do I do with this?
Much like the main character vs protagonist label, determining the protagonist vs deuteragonist can help you focus on plotting effectively. You want the right character’s actions to line up with when you want your climax to happen. If you set up your protagonist at the start but focus on the deuteragonist for the climax, readers may feel shortchanged. That may seem obvious, but when both are main characters, it can be easy to accidentally swap roles in the story.
It’s also important that deuteragonists complement the protagonist's journey, rather than distract from it. If the deuteragonist’s—or worse, the tritagonist’s—story is more interesting than the protagonist’s you may want to examine if you’re telling the right story or version of that story.
Join us the week after next as we finish off this series with the characters below tritagonists: secondary and tertiary characters. As for next week, look out for our interview with Diane Anthony about her upcoming release The Rare.
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