Why Protagonists?

Why protagonists? Why not simply leaders, initiators, or catalysts? The word protagonist, as a literary term, suggests to us that we are caught up in a story. It causes us to step back from the action, to ask certain questions: what is the story I find myself in? Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Who is the author, and what is he up to? It can be daunting to wake up and discover that you are the central character in an unfolding drama, because it means that forces outside of your control are acting upon you. Protagonists, by their nature, are required to act, to influence the world around them. They can’t remain in the background, hiding behind the ambitions and agendas of other, more powerful characters. Otherwise the story dies. Every great masterpiece of literature, every memorable film, has a fascinating protagonist, someone who changes the story, who gives it a soul.

If you want an intelligent and entertaining exploration of this idea, watch Stranger than Fiction starring Will Ferrell. Probably the strangest thing is that Ferrell nails the dramatic role. He’s nothing like the juvenile stock character he plays in his comedies. In the film, Ferrell wakes up to discover that he is the protagonist in an unfolding drama. Suddenly, his mechanical, isolated life as an IRS auditor is interrupted, and he sets off to understand the nature of the story in which he finds himself. He consults other characters and makes new friends. He tests out new ways of living, and discovers latent, unrealized passions in his soul. He begins to see the beauty in the simple things in life. Most importantly, he gets to know the author, and discovers the role the he plays in the story. I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will give you a hint, and this is something we know deeply through our Christian faith: all the best stories involve a sacrifice.

There are so many amazing stories out there, so many fascinating protagonists. It’s a cliche for Catholics to go to Tolkien and Lewis when we want to explore life’s mysteries through literature. Can we go further afield? What can the rest of the literary canon teach us about the deep hunger that lives in the heart of every protagonist?

 

 

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  1. Hey! 😐

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