It occurred to me belatedly that while I mentioned my reading about the differences between heroes, protagonists, and main characters, I didn’t actually state upfront what they were, or what I thought of them. Incidentally, my view has changed slightly since my original reading, and that’s fine, ’cause I’m going to write it all, here and now.

In many stories, the hero, protagonist, and main character are the same person. Sometimes you have a couple main characters, but the hero and protagonist are the same person. Main character is the easiest one to define: it’s who the story is about. They will often have their name in the title, and sometimes they can be a place or a thing. They’re the context in which the story is being told. Sometimes the narrator.

The main character is the filter through which we see the story. It’s possible (and not uncommon) to have one or more unlikeable viewpoint characters. They’re usually the ones we see the most of, and in stories where they aren’t the protagonist, they may not seem to do much. They can wind up being a passive observer, like the reader.

Protagonist is the next easiest to define, because they have one of the most important roles in the story, after context: they move the story forward. The protagonist is the driving character or force, which propels the story forward. They’re an agent of the plot, whether it’s because they have goals, or stuff happens to them.

A story without a plot has less use of one or more protagonists. Such stories are still possible (and can still be interesting) but less stuff happens in a predictable way. A protagonist can be a focal point for a story, with events swirling around them, and things tend to happen as a direct result of their actions.

The hero is a character who is an arc. The context (main character) should remain consistent for the events of a story to remain cohesive, and multiple protagonists can form the basis of a narrative combinatorial explosion, but the hero is made to change. They represent the audience’s growth through the events of the story.

The article I read that defined the hero put them as “the one you root for,” but I don’t agree with that assessment anymore. Possibly because it has its own trope, the hero is defined by their change. I think one problem some stories face with having villains more interesting than heroes, is the villains are the only ones to change in the story, even if that change is their own failure.

I want to call this phenomenon “hero confusion,” and I think it’s one of the reasons for the existence of darker works that focus on unhappy or outright villainous heroes, termed “anti-heroes.” Nerver mind that hero used to just mean “badass,” as opposed to boring, “invincible heroes” who “always win the day”. See enough bad writing, and some people will make the silliest assumptions.