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Your Protagonist Doesn’t Have to Be Your Main Character

Pay attention to Shawshank Redemption for the distinction and find out why separate characters work so well in some stories


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Nihan Kucukural

4 months ago | 17 min read
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Pay attention to Shawshank Redemption for the distinction and find out why separate characters work so well in some stories

Shawshank Redemption (1994) Source: Columbia Pictures

First of all, let me be clear: I am here to spoil Shawshank Redemption (1994) for you!

This is the eleventh piece of Story Bones. I haven’t thought of using spoiler warnings earlier, believing that my readers would already know these stories. But after reading 

Simon Dillon’s rant about people who spoil classic films, I changed my mind. Anyone can click on these stories for any reason, and if you did click, you should know that I will reveal the killer in this article!

So yes, consider yourself warned, and please watch Shawshank Redemption if you haven’t seen it a number of times already.

Who are the “main character” and “protagonist”? And how about “hero”?

In my stories I have been using these words interchangeably because they are usually the same thing, especially in movies.

Many screenwriting and storytelling books don’t talk about any distinction. In literature, point of view is more complex than film, so the distinction between the main character and protagonist is clearer. But many movies have separate main characters and protagonists too.

There are no agreed definitions of these terms but Dramatica has established the concepts as follows:

A Main Character is the player through whom the audience experiences the story first hand.

A Protagonist is the prime mover of the plot.

A Hero is a combination of both Main Character and Protagonist.

One way to determine the main character is to ask “Which character changed and learned the most from the events of this story?”

In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch drives the plot; he is the protagonist. But do we directly connect with him? Do we know what’s in his head? No. We experience the story through Atticus’s daughter, Scout.

She narrates the story to us; feels the emotions, learns, grows, and transforms throughout the story. This is why she is the main character. There is no hero in this book (and the movie) since the Main Character and the Protagonist are separate characters.

A few other examples are The Great Gatsby, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, and Shawshank Redemption in which we don’t connect with the protagonists directly but through a separate character who narrates the events.

This doesn’t mean that all narrators are main characters. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Dr. Watson is the narrator and he represents the audience. He merely observes the events and doesn’t go through major transformations in each story; thus we don’t consider him as the main character.

The same is true for Ishmael from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick who narrates the events driven by the protagonist, Captain Ahab. David Lynch’s movie The Elephant Man (1980) is experienced through Dr. Treves, the actual person who wrote the original book.

Notice all examples are novels and movies adapted from books?

In fiction, we literally get into character’s heads; thus using a separate character as a narrator can be useful to keep a distance from the protagonist for the sake of protecting the mystery.

For instance, if the audience were allowed in Sherlock Holmes’s head, they would observe the events step by step through his eyes and would know his thinking. In that case, the resolution at the end wouldn’t come as surprising.

When we are working with quirky, intriguing, and compelling protagonists, we may choose not to allow the audience to empathize with them; and to reveal the character piece by piece like a puzzle.

In film, you don’t necessarily need a narrator to create this effect. But in literature, having a narrator’s point of view is a more natural way to observe and reflect only certain aspects of the events.

Stephen King used this duality effectively in his novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption from his 1982 collection Different Seasons. The novella was adapted to screenplay by Frank Darabont who also directed the movie in 1994.

In the movie, Tim Robbins’ character Andy Dufresne drives the story but we never know what goes on in his mind. Morgan Freeman’s character Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding on the other hand, narrates the events, and he changes and grows the most in the end. Andy stays more or less the same drawing a “flat arc”.

Let’s have a look at the story beats based on Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat!

Shawshank Redemption — The first act

Stephen King subtitled his novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption as Hope Springs Eternal. The theme of Shawshank Redemption the movie is hope too.

In the first act, we meet the protagonist Andy Dufresne in a desperate situation. He is accused of a double murder, his wife and her lover; and all evidence is against him. He denies the crime, yet he is given two life sentences and finds himself in Shawshank Prison. He begins his terrible new life as a convict.

Opening image

Andy sits in his car in the dark, listening to an old love song, devastated and drunk. He takes a gun and bullets out of the glovebox. He walks out of the car with the loaded gun. Is he going to murder someone?

Setup

The prosecutor’s voice accusing Andy of murder falls on the opening image. Andy denies it and says that even though he confronted her because of her affair, he sobered up and didn’t commit the crime. No one believes him.

The judge says “You strike me as a particularly icy and remorseless man, Mr. Dufresne. It chills my blood just to look at you,” and orders him two serve two life sentences.

We meet Red in front of the parole board at Shawshank Prison. He has served 20 years of his life sentence and tells the board he is a changed man, but he seems cynical and not very sincere. The board doesn’t believe him and rejects his application. Red is not surprised at all; he doesn’t have high hopes anyway.

After this point, Red begins to narrate the events. He is our “Main Character” through whom we experience the events. He is someone who can get things.

Andy comes to the prison and we immediately face the fact that life is terrible here. On his first night, one other inmate who came at the same time with him gets beaten to death by a guard. Soon after Andy gets targeted by a gang called The Sisters.

Andy approaches Red and they talk for the first time. Andy knows that Red can get things, and asks for a rock-hammer. When Red brings the tiny hammer, he jokes that it would take one about six hundred years to dig a tunnel with it. At this point, Andy’s plan is to make a chess set out of rocks and we don’t know if he has something else in mind.

Inciting Incident (Catalyst)

A catalyst is an event that starts the chain of events and forces the protagonist to make a move to break into the second act.

I believe that the catalyst happens in the scene when the convicts cover the ceiling of the number plate factory with tar. Guard Hadley says that he has inherited thirty-five thousand dollars but can’t get much of it because of the taxes. This seemingly little news will change Andy’s life in prison drastically.

Debate

Andy leaves what he has been doing and begins walking towards Hadley. This is an unexpected move. What is he doing?

He asks the guard if he trusts his wife, attracting his anger. Hadley grabs Andy by his collar and holds him above the edge of the roof, threatening to drop him to the ground. Will Andy be able to say something to save his life?

Source: Columbia Pictures

Break into II

Andy says that there is a way to keep the thirty-five thousand dollars. Hadley can gift it to his wife, tax-free. But he needs a lawyer to fill in the forms. He suggests doing it for free for Hadley in exchange for a few beers for his friends. Important detail: Andy himself doesn’t drink anymore, he has quit after his wife’s murder.

Andy’s risky move towards Hadley works. This is the point of no return. With his bold action, Andy gains control of his life.

Second act

In the second act, Andy is no longer a victim who keeps his head down to get by. He turns his life around by establishing good relationships in the prison and carries out a few “projects.”

B story

B story carries the theme. For Shawshank Redemption, B story is Andy’s relationship with Red which involves a friendship and their main conflict about hope. Andy thinks hope is valuable, whereas Red thinks it is a dangerous concept. They both value each other and try to tell push their version to the other in the name of friendship.

Fun and Games

Fun and games is also known as the promise of the premise. What happens when an unlikely convict suddenly gains power, makes friends, and begins making the most of his time in prison?

Bogs and his gang The Sisters try to attack Andy yet again, but this time Andy fights back so strongly that they can’t rape him. They beat him so badly that he has to spend a month in the infirmary.

However, their action has a consequence this time because Andy now has Hadley on his side. Hadley and the other guards beat Bogs to a pulp and he can never walk again; he spends the rest of his life in a hospital, drinking his food with a straw. No one can touch Andy after that point.

Andy finds himself promoted as an assistant to Brooks, an old convict responsible for the library. This is a position that hasn’t existed before Andy. He soon realizes that the guards and the warden expect to use him as a financial advisor after he helped Hadley keep his money. Andy gladly helps all of them.

The warden Samuel Norton, although he quotes the Bible at every opportunity, makes illegal money selling convicts’ cheap labor. Andy keeps his books.

The library is old and decaying, so Andy asks for funds to buy new books and make it better. But the warden says there is no grant for that. When Andy asks if he can write a letter to the State Senate asking for many, he says he sure can, and he will post it for him. So Andy writes a letter every week for six years.

Brooks goes crazy one day and takes a prisoner hostage. The reason is that he is going to be released out of prison on parole after serving 50 years. He only knows the prison life, and he is old and respected as a librarian. He is afraid of the outside world where he probably can’t even get a library card.

Brooks gets released and begins working at a supermarket where he is berated by customers. He can’t take it and hangs himself in his room one night. He has written a letter to his friends in prison. This event, in favor of Red’s cynicism, symbolizes the loss of hope.

Andy receives $200 from the state senate and a truckload of used books and items for the library. They have also donated a box with a gramophone and used records in it. He finds Mozart’s “Le Nozze de Figaro,” locks himself in the guards’ room, and broadcasts the music to the whole prison. This stuns everyone.

Midpoint (+theme stated)

Midpoint is where the story reaches a peak, a false victory or false defeat. It’s false because it means the main character hasn’t learned the lesson yet.

As a result of his stunt, Andy goes to solitary confinement for two weeks. But when he is out, he is still full of hope. This is a win for Andy’s thesis of “hope.” It’s the opposite of Brooke’s suicide, which supports Red’s thesis of “no hope.”

In fact, this is where Andy and Red mention the theme for the first time.

ANDY

... there are places in the world that

aren’t made out of stone. There’s something

inside you that they can’t get to,

that they can’t touch. It’s yours. RED

What are you talking about? ANDY

Hope.

RED Hope? Let me tell you something,

my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing.

Hope can drive a man insane. It's got

no use on the inside. Better get used

to the idea.

ANDY

(softly)

Like Brooks did?

Bad guys close in

After the midpoint, time passes and it’s the thirtieth year of Red in prison and the tenth year of Andy’s. Life in Shawshank has reached a balance for our characters. Red predictably gets rejected by the parole board, after telling them the exact same words about being a changed man.

Andy has finally convinced the state senate to grant them regular funds for the library and he has transformed the old library into the best prison library in New England. He also educates prisoners so that they can get their high school diplomas.

Warden Norton’s scam has grown to epic size and Andy launders the money, does all his paperwork covering the tracks by making up a person who doesn’t exist in real life. By providing him this wealth pain-free, Andy has become indispensable for the warden.

The balance of the story’s universe gets disturbed again by a new character. Tommy Williams is a charming young thief who has done time in all prisons of New England. Andy suggests he finds a new career.

Tommy doesn’t like that at first, but later he decides to get his high school diploma with Andy’s help because he has a new wife and a baby.

Tommy can’t even read. Andy turns him into his new passion project like rock carving and library building. Tommy works hard too, but after completing his test he gets frustrated and believes he flunked it, so throws out his paper into the rubbish can and storms out. But Andy takes the paper out.

Later Tommy feels bad and talks to Red about Andy. When Red tells him how he has ended in prison, Tommy has a revelation: He has met a guy named Elmo Batch in another prison who brags about killing a banker’s wife and her lover.

This gives Andy hope to prove his innocence and get out of jail. He thinks with Tommy’s testimony he can get a new trial.

However, when he goes to the warden and tells him about this development, Norton doesn’t care. When Andy calls him “obtuse,” Norton gets angry and sends Andy to solitary confinement for a month, which is the longest period someone has ever got.

During that time Tommy gets his high school diploma thanks to Andy who believed in him and sent his test even after he gave up.

All is lost

Warden invites Tommy for a chat, and when he finds out that Tommy is determined to testify for Andy, he gets him shot and killed. This is the moment we see how evil the warden really is; he only thinks of his corrupt wealth and he doesn’t hesitate to kill to protect it.

Andy’s hopes of proving his innocence and getting released are crushed permanently. Still in the solitary, Andy tells Norton that he will no longer launder his money but the warden threatens to place Andy with rapists and burn his library.

After that, he orders one more month of solitary confinement. Hadley shuts the door leaving Andy depressed, at his lowest point in the darkness.

Dark night of the soul

One month later, Andy sits alone against a grey wall in the yard in deep thoughts, and Red approaches him. This is a six and half minute long scene of the two characters that includes both “Dark night of the soul” and “Break into three” beats.

It is the crisis point that seems like the ultimate defeat for Andy’s thesis of hope and victory for Red’s dark worldview.

In the scene, Andy tells Red that he was guilty of his wife’s death. He hadn’t pulled the trigger, but he had been such a closed book that he had drove her away and that was the reason she got killed.

Here we realize Andy believed deep down that he deserved this punishment. But now he believes he has paid for his mistakes and more.

Then he begins talking about his hopes and dreams of going to Zihuatanejo, a place in Mexico by the Pacific ocean, and even dares to invite Red there. To Red, and to us the audience (who watches the movie for the first time), he sounds like a mad man, proving Red’s thesis who earlier said “hope drives a man insane.”

Red tells Andy that he had lived most of his life in prison and he can no longer live outside. He also calls Andy’s words pipe dreams and tells him he shouldn’t do this to himself. They both get vexed and the conflict between the two friends surfaces clearly for the first time.

Break into three

Slightly agitated, Andy says “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying,” and he stands up to leave. This movement marks the break into the third act.

Red gets up too, concerned for him. Then Andy turns and asks Red to promise something. He wants him to go to a specific place and checks under a specific rock if he ever goes out. He doesn’t say what is there.

The third act

Through the resolution of the story, we are in Red’s, the main character’s point of view the whole time, observing Andy’s actions only in flashbacks and imagined scenes. This is where the distinction of main character and protagonist pays off and makes the story work like a clock.

The third act begins with Andy’s crisis through Red’s eyes: what is he going to do?

In The Nutshell Technique, Jill Chamberlain explains Andy’s crisis:

The CRISIS typically puts the protagonist in between two bad options, a rock and a hard place, and the audience should feel that there is no other way out of this dilemma. At Andy’s CRISIS his two bad options are: abandon all hope and accept that he will die behind bars for a crime he did not commit, or commit suicide.

However, the two choices both reflect Red’s thinking, which is the objective storyline, same as the audience’s vision. Protagonist Andy’s storyline is in fact different and it hasn’t been revealed to anyone as yet!

The five-point finale

Gathering of the Team: Red tells the other prisoners he is concerned for Andy, that he spoke funny. They decide to keep an eye on him but what can they do when he is alone in his cell? Then one guy remembers Andy had asked for six feet long rope earlier supporting Red’s claim that he could commit suicide.

Red, of course, doesn’t want Andy to commit suicide. But he thinks he will, because he doesn’t see any choice other than the obvious two (keep living the horrible life or commit suicide).

Executing the Plan: In Red’s point of view, everything goes according to plan. Andy goes and completes his final “duties” at the warden’s office, including shining the man’s shoes. He has a mysterious, bitter smile on his face, we know that something is coming — is it suicide?

Later he sits in his cell with the rope in his hand. Red doesn’t see this, but it is how he imagines the scene. He doesn’t imagine, thus we don’t see, any of the other things Andy probably did before executing his actual plan!

High tower surprise: In the morning, Andy doesn’t come out of his cell during the morning inspection. His buddies including the audience are convinced that he has hung himself. But when the guards enter his cell, he is nowhere to be seen!

The warden is called and Red is also brought in, but no one has any idea where Andy could be. Out of his anger, Norton throws a rock at the large poster (Raquel Welch) on the wall and the rock goes through. That’s when we all discover the tunnel, and realize the storyline was different the whole time!

Image source: Columbia Pictures

The warden finds out that he has lost his goose that laid golden eggs. But more importantly, look at Red’s expression! He receives the biggest shock of his life and his worldview gets a hit!

Dig Deep Down: In the flashbacks, Red explains Andy’s plan; how he dug his tunnel in 20 years, how he replaced and stole the warden’s books, how he crawled out of his tunnel and the sewer pipe to end up in a river as a free man.

Andy then goes to the bank as his made-up personality and withdraws the scam money just before exposing the evidence of the scam at Shawshank Prison. As a result of this, police arrests the guard Hadley but the warden shoots himself rather than facing conviction himself.

The real “dig deep down” scene comes when Red faces the parole board a third time in his thirtieth year.

This time he doesn’t repeat the same words claiming he is a changed man as before, but this time he gives an honest and vulnerable answer admitting he regrets committing murder as a young man, but he no longer cares to be free. As a result, he is released from jail as an old man!

Executing the New Plan: When Red gets released, he follows the footsteps of Brookes. Red already believes that his fate will be the same as Brookes’.

He stays at the same place and does the same job at the supermarket, and feels the same way. He begins looking at guns to either shoot himself or commit a crime so that he can go back to prison.

The only thing that stops him is the promise he made to Andy. So he goes to the place where Andy wanted him to go and looks for that special rock, which he finds. Under the rock is an envelope for himself. It contains some money and a letter from Andy who says that hope is a good thing!

Red finally gives in. He goes to Zihuatanejo, Mexico, where his friend lives his dream life.

Final image

A sunny beach, a run-down boat, the opposite of the dark opening image. A healthy and tanned Andy fixes his boat on the Pacific beach in Zihuatanejo when Red turns up. The two friends hug each other and start their new free life!

Transformation is an important aspect of storytelling. All stories are about change. It’s satisfying to watch an incomplete character go through adventures, learning, and growing. We share the fun and the wisdom without having to go through it all.

But sometimes, we have amazing characters who don’t have a lot of room for improvement. They don’t need to change a great deal!

We don’t want Mary Poppins to change, she is already perfect. We want to observe her from the outside, not to get into her head. For this reason, when we have such a protagonist, it’s best to have another main character to represent the audience and make it easier for them to connect with our story.

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Nihan Kucukural

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Turkish copywriter and screenwriter, lover of stories, living in New Zealand


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