How To Identify The Protagonist Of A Story

By Aditya Savnal. Posted on March 20, 2015

Okay. So, whether you believe it or not, I just watched the two Terminator movies, for the first time in my life. And let me admit it, I enjoyed them thoroughly. 'The Terminator' (1984) was engaging and exciting. 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' (1991) went beyond that. It was emotionally moving. And I think it is one mainstream, popular, genre stuff I won't mind watching again and again. This post, however, is not on my opinion about these two movies. It is an attempt to answer a very fundamental question - identifying the protagonist in a story. I hope some of my concepts will be tested and, in the end, consolidated as I discuss the issue below.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Who is a 'protagonist'? Simply speaking, it is the main character in a story. But this vague definition, 'main character', can be gravely misleading. Who is the main character in 'The Terminator'? Is the title character, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the main character? And if he is the protagonist, then who is the antagonist? If we do not go into any definition, clearly, the Terminator in this movie is the antagonist, the villain - we fear him, we don't want him to succeed, we are glad when he is 'terminated' in the end. And if he is the antagonist, who is the protagonist? We have two more 'main' characters in the movie - Sarah Connor, the woman whom the terminator wants to kill, and Kyle Reese, the human resistance fighter sent from the future to protect Sarah. Before we try to solve this protagonist puzzle further, let us have some basic discussions about the features of a protagonist in a movie.

The word 'Protagonist' literally means 'the one with the main or primary agony'. In other words, the character whose conflict is central to the story and is of the biggest concern to the audience is the protagonist. The film is actually the protagonist's active and conflicted journey, pursuing something (which is often defined as his or her "want") and/or undergoing a significant change by the end. We care for, admire, and love the protagonist. We look up to him or her. The protagonist also drives the plot, by indulging in active, visible action, and by taking strong, irreversible decisions at significant moments in the film that become 'plot points'.

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In 'The Terminator', Kyle Reese has a lot of traits of being a protagonist. He, unlike Sarah, is active in the story since the beginning, he is more dynamic than her and is pursuing a "want" (to save Sarah), and we admire him and trust him and look up to him (as does Sarah). He also takes several key decisions in the film and guides the comparatively passive Sarah, who is clueless about the happenings for the major part of the film.

However, I believe, despite all this, Reese is not the protagonist. Sarah, despite being unaware of the main plot, being comparatively passive, and clinging to Reese for survival, eventually comes across as the protagonist of this film.We definitely care for her more than anyone else, and the film is her journey of discovering her importance and that of her unborn child. From being a usual and inconspicuous waitress in an LA cafeteria, she realises that she is a 'legend' and the only hope for mankind some 45 years from her day. By the end, she decides to take care of herself, and her child, and make sure that the hope lives on. It won't be wrong to liken her with the journey of Harry Potter in the first book of the series or of Neo Anderson in 'The Matrix' (1999).

At times, we must conclude, the protagonist is not as active and dynamic as we expect them to be when the story begins. But by the end, he or she goes through a life-changing journey, and adopts the centre-stage, defeating the antagonist, with the help of a powerful secondary character. In my opinion, Sarah Connor is the protagonist of 'The Terminator', unless we settle down for a safer conclusion that both Sarah and Kyle Reese are the protagonists, as in most love stories. And 'The Terminator' is very much their love story as well.

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'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' has four main characters. The film has an amazing twist in the 25th minute when we realise that the character played by Schwarzenegger is actually there to save the child - John Connor, and defeat T-1000, the advanced prototype liquid-metal terminator who clearly is one of the most menacing and strong antagonists in film history. Sarah Connor returns in the film as well and she is determined to save her child, John, for the sake of humanity. She is not only more dynamic, active, and controlling the course of the story than her character in the first film, but also in comparison with her son, John, who in this movie plays the 'Harry Potter' or the 'Neo Anderson' - a legend who has just discovered that he is way more special than he thought he was. Both Sarah and John are extremely endearing - we completely care for them and we admire them as they take key decisions in the film. For most part, I felt John is the protagonist, very similar in nature to his Mom's protagonist character from the first movie.

But in the final act of the film, my opinion changed. I suddenly realised that the Terminator has been pursuing his want most actively in the film, fighting this invincible antagonist and having a journey of his own - learning common sense and colloquial speech, understanding emotions, and fulfilling promises. In the final act, he is almost destroyed, when he rises again, and overcomes the final and the most frightening conflict - the climax, where he saves John and Sarah, terminates T-1000, and most importantly, takes the most vital decision of terminating himself for the sake of humanity.

In the closing moments when we see him going away, we may not have tears running down our faces like John, but we do feel a strong sense of gratitude and attachment with this machine that was our hero throughout the film. And the final image, of his fingers curling to form a 'thumbs-up' as his entire body disappears just locks it for us - a cinematic image that will live forever. Perhaps it was the trickery of the title of the last movie that caused this little confusion in me. But in 'Terminator 2', unlike the first movie, the title character is very much the protagonist, like in most movies.


This article written by Satyanshu Singh was earlier published on his blog and has been republished with his due permission. Satyanshu Singh is a National Award-winning director, screenwriter and teaches subjects pertaining to cinema.  The poems written by him have featured in Vikramaditya Motwane’s ‘Udaan’ (2010). Besides this, he also written lyrics for films like ‘Ferrari Ki Sawaari’ (2012) and ‘Sulemaani Keeda’ (2014).  

‘Tamaash’ a Kashmiri short film directed by him has won awards at multiple films festivals across the world. 


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