The Illogical Protagonist and Why Your Story Needs One


In the movie The Godfather, two characters in the opening scenes are presented as possible protagonists:

Vito Corleone, the presumptive title character, who from the first scene is shown as the powerful head of a Mafia family.

Sonny Corleone, his hot-headed son, has been groomed as his father’s successor and loves the Mafia life.

On the surface, both seem a logical choice as protagonist of the story. They are the ones who fit into the world of the story, who want to prevail in it. In the beginning, it’s easy to assume that the story will be primarily about one of them.

Then we are introduced to Vito’s youngest son, Michael.

He is a Marine who won the Navy Cross during World War II. His photo appeared in Life Magazine as a hero. He has a non-Italian girlfriend and nothing to do with his father’s illegal businesses. After the war, he returns to college. In one of the earliest scenes in the movie, Michael tells his girlfriend Kay how his father coerced someone to do his bidding with threats of violence. He assures her that’s what his family is like, but he’s different.

It’s easy to come to the initial conclusion that Michael is a potential antagonist who will end up working against his family.

Vito is wounded in an assassination attempt and forced to retire. Sonny takes over. After making several poor decisions, he incites a war among the various organized crime families.

When his father is threatened again with assassination, Michael steps in and insists on taking out the men who are trying to kill him.

It is at this point where it becomes clear that not Vito, not Sonny, but Michael is the protagonist of The Godfather. His own father wanted him to become a legitimate businessman outside of the family business. Instead, Michael, the war hero, the one destined to escape the taint of organized crime, becomes the most ruthless crime lord of them all.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but many stories benefit greatly from having a protagonist who, at least on paper, seems the illogical choice for the role.

There are exceptions, of course. James Bond, Batman, and Ferris Bueller are examples of characters that are totally logical choices for their respective stories.

But think for a moment about some other familiar protagonists:

A simple farm girl vanquishes two witches, sets a society free and exposes a leader as a fraud.

A bitter and cynical bar owner gives up his one true love to become a freedom fighter during WWII.

A man who uses Jewish slave labor to run his factories gives up his fortune to save them from the Holocaust.

An outsider who has a deep fear of the water destroys a killer shark terrorizing a community.

One of the reasons stories benefit from an illogical protagonist is because it’s a solid foundation on which to form a character arc. Michael Corleone arcs from hero to crime lord. Rick Blaine in Casablanca arcs from cynic to idealist. Oskar Schindler arcs from exploiter to savior. If a protagonist fits into the story from the beginning, there’s little room for an arc.

This also sets up contradictions in your protagonist, which is one way to make her more complex. Elizabeth Bennett is intelligent yet makes erroneous judgments about people. It would seem more logical to make her silly and shallow like her younger sisters. By making her intelligent yet capable of jumping to wrong conclusions about people, Austen gave us a far more compelling character.

As in The Godfather, most stories with illogical protagonists have secondary characters that would make more logical protagonists for the particular story.

In The Hunger Games, both Peeta and Gale are more logical protagonists. Not because they’re male, but because Gale strongly believes in revolution, and Peeta has the personality to captivate and unite people to his cause. Katniss, in fact, wants to save Peeta’s life because she feels he is a much better at inspiring people. In Casablanca, Victor Laszlo is an idealist willing to risk his life to vanquish the Nazis. In Jaws, Quint and Hooper have the expertise and experience in the environment that Brody lacks.

A note of caution: though you want an illogical choice for your protagonist, you don’t want one that strains credibility. Katniss is a reluctant revolutionary, but she is also shown as a rebel in the beginning, breaking the Capitol laws from the first page of the book. Michael is a war hero, but also loves his family with a fanaticism he uses to justify his ruthless acts later on. Brody is a policeman from the streets of New York. He has a fear of the water, but the implication is he has been brave in other situations. Rick Blaine was once an idealist who fought for underdogs before the abrupt end of a romance turned him bitter and apathetic.

Dorothy is an interesting case because on the surface she seems to be an “accidental” hero. She doesn’t mean to kill or expose anyone. But she is brave and guileless, two qualities that serve her well on her journey.

The best part of choosing the illogical protagonist for your story is it allows you to peel away layers that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Think of the tangible elements of your character–what makes him seem like the illogical choice–as a mask or layers of skin that need to be peeled away to find what makes him tick, what makes him the perfect person to anchor your tale.

I think even Mr. Spock would agree that’s a logical approach to a story.

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