One of my resolutions (not just for this year, but for life) was to become a better story-maker and word-smith. To that end, I've begun my mornings every day so far this year with a writing podcast called "Writing Excuses" and a chapter or two from a book on writing, in this case literally "On Writing" by Stephen King. The podcasts have so far been very enlightening, so I thought I'd share them and what I learned with some of my own examples.
Here's a link to the podcasts that inspired this post:
Writing Excuses Episode 5: Heroes and Protagonists
Writing Excuses Episode 6: Flaws vs Handicaps
In the first podcast, they talk about the differences between heroes, protagonists, and main characters. They explained that a main character is the person you follow, that a protagonist is the character that changes throughout the story, and the hero is the person whose actions move the story. They can all be the same person, or not so much. For example, the main character may tell the story and change as a person while following the hero around, a la Sherlock Holmes, without being the hero. Another example I thought about as this concept rattled around my noggin is Beauty and the Beast.
Belle remains the same person throughout. She doesn't really change for she always had it in her to love the beast and pretty much gave him a chance from the beginning. She sees a person for who they are on the inside--making her the only person in her "PROVINCIAL TOOOOOWN" who doesn't care for Gaston.
We follow her from the beginning though, so I would say she is the main character. I would also say she's the hero because, through falling in love with the Beast, she saves the day and breaks the curse. The Beast has his part to play, too--in this case as the protagonist because he begins the story selfish, spoiled, and self-involved. By the end of the story he has learned to love and think of someone else before himself (the scene exemplifying this being the one where he lets Belle go to be with her father.)
Next subject: Flaws.
I've always struggled with this. I don't know if I have a mental block or if this particular highway was never built in my brain, but I simply couldn't think of flaws for my characters.
Well, back to Beauty and the Beast for my example. The Beast has plenty of flaws, as I stated earlier. The really great part about his flaws are that they add to the conflict. After all, it's infinitely difficult for a selfish person to give up what they want most for the happiness of someone else, but that's exactly what the Beast does. Interestingly enough, I didn't hate the Beast for his horrible actions--the constant yelling, spoiled behavior, and--oh, yeah--throwing Belle's dad in a freakin' DUNGEON(!!). That's pretty harsh and, in the right circumstances (such as if I gave a fig about Belle's father*) I would be pretty pissed at him.
(*Disney has a pretty bad problem when it comes to useless fathers, given Belle's dad, Jasmine's dad, the King from Cinderella, etc. They're just there to facilitate the story and that's bad in writing, I would say).
So, why don't we hate the Beast for his flaws? I argue that it's because of the side characters--Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Pots all care deeply for him. Since they're cool characters, I think what happened was I assumed there must be something to like. Also, Belle obviously made it cool to give people a chance.
At this point, I would like to make the assertion that a flaw is not necessarily a weakness, nor a virtue necessarily a strength. I'll give a non-Beauty and the Beast example for this.
The Joker: flawed? Yes. He's a sociopath who has absolutely no empathy for others whatsoever. Is this a weakness? No. In fact, it possibly makes him the most untouchable villain in Batman's Rogue's Gallery because there is nothing in the world the Joker cares about.
Iron Man. Flawed? Oh, yes. But for the sake of this observation, we'll ignore his many flaws. His virtue is love--he loves Pepper Pots (Potts?). Let's say the Joker took Pepper Pots and held her hostage, would she temporarily become Iron Man's weakness? I say yes.
I think this is why (and how) flaws are important. They definitely add to the conflict (if you choose the right ones) and add depth to the character because their flaws can become both a strength and a weakness and how the character treats their flaws tells you a lot about them.
The anti-hero, for example, is often heavily flawed. Do these flaws help them? Oh yes. Ruthlessness, hate, anger, a lack of empathy--these are all flaws that can make anti-heroes pretty tough to take on. Examples that come to mind are The Crow and Red Hood. They're doing things we can root for--getting revenge on a lost loved one and abolishing crime--through means that wouldn't necessarily sit well with us. Meanwhile, in the The Crow example, he is the main character because we follow him and the hero because his actions move the story (or anti-hero, as I pointed out) but not really the protagonist. His change is the inciting incident and from there he pretty much just gets his revenge in horrible and interesting ways and moves on.
So there you are. It's important to know exactly what your characters are (main, pro, or hero) and what their flaws and virtues are. Properly manipulating both make for a stronger story.