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Who is the protagonist?


Several years ago, my writer colleague Max Adams introduced me to the idea of the ‘protagonist’ in non-fiction writing. I have been playing with this idea since, especially when working with doctoral students and academic staff.

Drawn from the world of creative writing – plays, novels, radio and film – the protagonist is the person, usually a central character, who is most changed during the course of the story. In James Cameron’s film Titanic, Rose (played by Kate Winslet) is the  protagonist. Through her encounter with steerage passenger and aspiring artist Jack (Leonardo diCaprio), and their experiences before and after the sinking of the Titanic, she rejects her upper-class origins and goes on to lead a life of independence and adventure.

How does the notion of the protagonist play out in non-fiction writing? Here, a protagonist could be a person, a group, an idea or an object. Imagine this scenario. In a remote part of the world, a World Health Organisation representative arrives and discovers a high incidence of malaria among the population, as yet undocumented. She returns to base and puts out a tender for a team to research and devise an effective response. Your research team wins the tender. The solution involves a bottom-up approach, drawing upon the insight and practices of the local population. Stakeholders, from regional to international, are involved in dialogue and decision-making, drawing upon best practice at all levels. The project is a success. After five years, the incidence of malaria has plummeted. If you were writing a report documenting the project’s triumph, who or what would you choose as the protagonist? Would it be your research team? The local community who were actively involved and benefited? The mosquito that transmits the malaria and is thwarted by the new practices? You choose your protagonist to match your purpose and audience.

Deciding who is the protagonist helps you tell your story with greatest impact. Thinking about the protagonist can help you write an essay, a report, a dissertation or a thesis. In reflective writing, you may be the protagonist. And here is a radical thought. Think of your reader as the protagonist. After all, it is him or her you are trying to convince – perhaps even to change or to take action.

23 April 2020

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