It’s very easy to confuse the Central Character, the Hero and the Protagonist.
The explanation for this muddle is simple really. Too many writers use the terms interchangeably – proving that they don’t know the difference – and unfortunately perpetuating the turbulence that stirs up the mud that clouds the issue.
Are they all the same character?
Clarity comes when you define the three separately, and begin to understand that a character can be one, two or all three at once. The important point here being that they do not have to be all three. After doing this breakdown, you will recognise that almost all stories only have one Protagonist. They may have more than one Central Character or Hero, or combinations of both.
So here’s how to differentiate between the three, who may, or may not be the same character. Once you appreciate the differences between them, you’ll be well on your way to creating unique, complex and rich stories.
To start with, the Protagonist always has both an easily recognisable inner and outer journey. This is the character that makes the decisions that initiate the major turning points in the story, thereby raising the stakes. And when the story is finally told, the Protagonist is the character that has experienced the greatest transformation.
The transformation of the Protagonist is usually referred to as personal growth which usually involves the character finding the wherewithal to overcome their flaw. Typically the transformation is aligned to the premise.
The Central Character
The Central Character on the other hand, is the character that drives the action of the film. More often than not, this is the character that commands the most screen time, and the actor that plays this character is likely to be nominated for a “leading” actor/actress award.
And finally the Hero is simply the character that does heroic things. By definition, these are acts that are bold, brave, courageous and fearless.
In short, you recognise a Hero by their actions, the Central Character by their dominance of “screen time”, and the Protagonist by their inner journey or transformation.
Point of View
An additional note on the subject is not to allow “point-of-view” to add to the confusion when breaking these roles down. The character through which we experience the story does not need to be the Central Character, the Hero or the Protagonist, but of course they may be.