Over the last few years I’ve noticed people seem to have forgotten what the basic elements of a story are. I’ve also noticed certain terms misused by both avid book readers and fans of TV and movies during discussions. At first I dismissed this as people getting terms mixed up in the heat of the moment during a debate. But the more I hear this confusion, the more I pondering maybe it’s not a simple brain fart. Over the next few weeks I’ll be going over the basic literary elements in an effort to help people keep things straight.
First, let’s start with what makes up a story. We’ve got characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. Most of these elements have many components to them which is where I think people get confused and mix up terms. Keep in mind that any information I’m presenting is quite basic and doesn’t apply 100% to every story. Many books exist which don’t follow these “rules” exactly which is what makes it’s fun for the reader.
Let’s start with one of my favorite parts of a story and what I personally start with and that is Character.
Each story has at least one character known as the protagonist. Most of the time it is a human but can be an animal or even an inanimate object. Most people associate the term protagonist as the main character is good. This is regardless of genre and for the most part, stories do revolve around what we would consider a good person.
Many stories have one protagonist whom the story revolves around. However, it’s important to keep in mind not all stories have only one protagonist. Other characters can be used and some novels exist where it’s hard to define who the protagonist is. Usually this happens in an epic series, such as A Song of Ice and Fire, but can happen within a standalone novel. Family sagas are another example where there may be multiple protagonists.
The opposite of the protagonist is the antagonist. Usually this character is thought of as the bad guy or girl as they are trying to prevent the protagonist from achieving something. Again, the antagonist doesn’t have to be human as it could be nature, an animal, or even the protagonist if the story is the character’s internal struggle. Just as it is possible for a story to have multiple protagonists, it’s possible to have multiple antagonists. Perhaps the lead character is facing several adversaries on his or her journey. Or if the story has multiple main characters, each will more than likely have their own antagonist.
One thing I’d like for more people to realize is that although terms like protagonist and antagonist set up a good vs. evil connotation, this isn’t always the case. What it means is we have a main character who has an adversary of some kind. Stories exist in which the protagonist is evil and their opponent is good. These are rare, but they are out there.
Next we move into minor characters. Simply put, a minor character serves to help advance the story along in some way. A majority of stories have at least one minor character. Either minor characters can play a small, ancillary role, such as the briefly seen parents of a protagonist, or they can play a significant role such as a sidekick, advisor, comic relief, eventually dead best friend, etc.
A very important component for a character’s story is determining what point of view in which to tell their story. Most stories use first person or some form of third person whether it’s limited (strictly from one and only one character’s point of view but not using words like “I” or “me”) or omniscient (telling the story via more than one character). Very rarely is second point of view used in which the narrator uses “you” as a way to distance himself or herself from the story.
Generally a story is told from the protagonist’s point of view whether that be first person or third person. However, like everything else in literature, there are exceptions. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the narrator is Chief yet the main character is Randle Patrick McMurphy. In the Harry Potter series, Harry is the main character and the story is told through third person limited. More complicated novels will frequently employee multiple points of views in order for the reader to see the big picture.
Although these are some of the basics that go into the character element, it’s easy to see how quickly an author can complicate things. Even turning one of these components on its head can vastly change the complexion of a story before factoring in the other pieces such as setting, the plot, conflict, and resolution.