Protagonist vs. Hero – A Provocative Suggestion

Sometimes students ask me if the protagonist of a book has to be “good’. I tell them certainly not, while pointing out of course, that it’s best if they are likable in some way. Then they will sometimes say “But he’s the hero. Aren’t heroes always good?” There follows a discussion of the relative interchangeability of the terms “protagonist” and “hero” and the confusion that sometimes entails.

I say “relative” interchangeability because I have little theory, that like most good theories can best be expressed by saying something controversial about Harry Potter. Really, try it, any theory will work this way. For example, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution: “How would magic evolve etc?” But I digress.

Here’s my controversial statement: The real hero of The Harry Potter Series is Neville Longbottom.


A “hero” is incorruptible. Harry is corrupted over and over in the books – he breaks rules, lies, conceals things, is driven by ambition, blinded by love and repeatedly endangers himself due to his competitive spirit and pride. Ron and Hermione also both fall prey to some or all of these temptations. Neville never does. Neville is pure of heart through the whole series, not only through lack of opportunity either. JKR gives him very clear opportunities to be a prat and he never is. He’s humble and just. It was no surprise to me when he finally got his heroic moment with the sword of Gryffindor. I would go so far as to say that Neville might just be the chosen one after all.

This is not limited to Harry Potter either. In The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, all the members of the fellowship are shown to be corrupted, one (Boromir) to the point of death, everyone except Sam. Certainly Sam is the only one who even had a chance of possessing the ring (he even held it for a while) that was never really tempted by it (OK, well a little bit, but it IS the Ring of Power). Once again, it is Sam who does the crucial thing to defeat Sauron; he gets Frodo and the ring to the fires of Mount Doom. Sam never loses hope, never. And we see at the end, that of all the ring bearers, Sam is the only one who is able to truly return to The Shire and be as he was – uncorrupted.

So, question: who are the “heroes” in some other well-known books? I’d like to consider The Hunger Games Trilogy (the comments contain spoilers) for example. Who is the hero? Not Katniss – she lies and conceals and is eventually motivated by vengeance in a very unheroic way. Certainly not Gale with the whole bomb-making thing. Is it Peeta? Haymitch? Cinna? Finnick? Any opinions?

Do you have a hero in your book, as well as a protagonist?

8 thoughts on “Protagonist vs. Hero – A Provocative Suggestion

  1. Just this morning I blogged about heroes in MG, but my take on heroes (for the purpose of my post) is ‘who saves the day?’ Yes, a protag and hero are certainly different things–although difficult for younger kids to see that. For MG, I use them interchangeably, even if it is incorrect.

    I agree with you on Neville. He was my hero in Harry Potter.

  2. Excellent points all around and I agree with your heroes in HP and LTR. This is a wonderful way to think about characterization. I’m having a hard time deciding for Hunger Games, but perhaps it was Prim, even though she died in the end.

      1. I don’t know; that’s a hard one. I do agree with you on the other two ( nooo, take me with you, perfect Hermione!) but the Hunger Games. I’ll have to sit on that. I like the Haymitch idea, though. The alchohol may pose a problem, though. Could you imagine? Haymitch stumbling up onto a podium to get the “hero award” and being so drunk he passes out? There might be doubts about ” incorruptancy” then.

  3. I don’t think alcoholism is necessarily a deal-breaker for Haymitch. It doesn’t make him immoral does it? Just sad. Sad people can be heroes, can’t they? I would say Finnick, if it wasn’t for…

    But I think Shell might be right. I think it’s Prim.

    1. Yeah. She stays so innocent the whole time, and she seems to be Katniss’ anchor the whole time, in person or in spirit.

      1. See? I think we might be onto something. I think perhaps the hero is more than just incorruptible, they are a reflection of the protagonist, like their mirror. Oooo, I like that.

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