29 April 2016

Protagonists are not Always Good

In my Introduction to Literature course, one of the first things we learn are the elements of plot, specifically protagonist, antagonist, internal and external conflict, and Freytag's Triangle. I argue that they need to understand what happened before they can delve into why it all happened.

When we start talking about protagonists and antagonists, they immediately tell me it's good guys and bad guys. I don't know who is teaching it this way in high school (grade school?), but I want to find this person and have a nice sit-down with him or her. This idea is so ingrained in their heads that I swear half of them still are running with it at the end of the semester despite my continual protests and awesome handouts.

Just so we are all on the same page:

Protagonist: main character
Antagonist: person or thing that works against the protagonist

So at its most traditional, Harry Potter is a protagonist and Lord Voldemort is an antagonist. Harry being all "I want a normal life" and Voldemort being all "I must kill you Harry" which, obviously, prevents Harry from that normal life fantasy. This is an example of a traditional external conflict.

But not all books follow such a traditional structure. For example, some stories have internal conflicts where the protagonist and antagonist are the same person. Think Hamlet and his non-stop pontificating over what he should do about his father's murder. It's Hamlet v. Hamlet ladies and gentleman.

Also, a pro does not have to be a good person. Actually a pro can be a very, very, very bad person like in American Psycho or Lolita. Here are 18 more books with nasty protagonists if you are interested.

Who do you think they left off the list? Who are your favorite bad guy protagonists?

20 comments:

  1. I *hate* that protag/antag are split into good/bad in so many people's minds. NOT COOL. And really, when you get right down to it, it's possible for the antagonist to be a concept, or a problem, or the same person as the protagonist. There can be multiple protagonists, with each other as antagonists or each with their own antagonists. Fiction and literature is so much more complex than the toddler-concept of good vs evil.

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  2. I think it is very interesting when authors choose to have "bad guy protagonists" because it then becomes a challenge to get readers to want to continue reading! At least it is a challenge for *this* reader. Yes, I loathe Lolita, and never wanted to read American Psycho! LOL Although I have to say, I don't much like unrealistic all-*good* protagonists either. I think readers can relate so much better to someone more nuanced. And I like the point Amanda makes too that the antagonist can be a concept or problem as well.

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  3. Oo, how about the characters in The Secret History? The author does such a wonderful trick of making you root for them to get what they want (i.e., um, not being arrested and imprisoned for the murder they committed), even though you know the whole thing's totally amoral.

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