Elements of Storytelling: The Protagonist

Once a USAT team has their theme figured out, it’s time to decide who is going to star in the story and how they relate to that theme.


The literary world uses the word “protagonist” rather than “hero” to talk about the main characters of books because a “true hero” is a type of character with specific traits (honor, morality, selflessness, and sometimes a cape), but a protagonist is simply the character at the center of a story. They may have other people around them who are helping them out, but the protagonist is going to be the person (or sometimes people) who is pivotal to how events unfold. Most often, protagonists are heroes, but that’s not always the case. Basically, the protagonist is the one in a story who has goals that need to be accomplished, and consequences if those goals aren’t reached.

So, how do you choose a protagonist? We try to keep our themes for PA.R.T.Y. in a Box challenges open-ended to allow room for creativity, but they are always going to suggest different kinds of characters that are necessary to address them. Sometimes, they are even specified in the scoring guidelines! Over the years, we’ve asked students to create everything from aliens to zebras, and if we require a certain character we always let you know. Plus, the judges will be paying extra attention to anything that is mentioned specifically in the scoring, so it’s a good idea to give extra attention to those costumes and props during prep.

In general, protagonists tend to be people who are “outsiders” for some reason. This might be because they were chosen for quest, are new to town, experienced a tragedy, or any other reason a person might feel different from those around them. Their place on the fringe allows them to see what others don’t, do what others can’t, and search for things that others won’t dare to find. And that’s why they get to be at the center of it all.

Brainstorming prompt: Set the clock for two minutes and write down as many protagonists as you can!


I am the Creative Director and Webmaster for US Academic Triathlon. I write the curriculum for Meets, as well as the enrichment activities and articles for this site. Peggy Sheldon, the Founder of USAT, is my mother so I have been living and breathing the program since it was founded over 30 years ago.

Posted in Elements of Storytelling, For Coaches and Teachers, For Kids, Resources
4 comments on “Elements of Storytelling: The Protagonist
  1. […] far in this series, we’ve covered themes and protagonists. This post is to help our Triathletes get a little insight into crafting the perfect villain for […]

  2. […] far in Elements of Storytelling, we’ve addressed the importance of themes, protagonists, and antagonists. Now, it’s time to take a look at how to structure a story and use the five […]

  3. […] to examine the idea of ingroups and outgroups, and the power of groups to shape our actions. If the protagonist experiences an inciting incident where they are faced with a decision to hang out with the soccer […]

  4. […] about the Midpoint of a story and how it must be either a false peak or a false collapse for the protagonist(s). The story needs to illustrate the consequences of the Midpoint and how it drives the hero to […]

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