Why do most books and videos on creative writing refer to the protagonist as the hero and the antagonist as the villain such as with thrillers, action or crime stories?

I am writing a novel which doesn't have either. It's historical fiction with a current day romance.

These are my problems:

  1. I'm struggling to work out where my hero and villains would fit in.
  2. After reading several online blogs and books, and watching many videos, I'm not sure what my back story really is and how it fits into my main storyline.
  3. Most say flashbacks are a no-no, however it's not possible to have an historical novel without flashbacks.

The synopsis is:

A present day woman inherits an apartment in Paris from her mother. Her Jewish mother was 4 years old in 1942, orphaned during the Second World War and hidden in a small village in the south of France. She then emigrated with her adoptive parents to Australia. The mother couldn't or didn't want to remember about her childhood and never spoke about it. Thus the daughter follows the trail of her ancestors in Paris under occupation to discover an incredible story of survival. Along the way, the woman's goal is to find romance in the "City of Love", which she does eventually.

  • You have two questions here. Could you please break this into two questions? (We'd edit the answers to follow suit.) Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 17:00
  • And welcome to the site! Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 17:01
  • Hero=protagonist, villain=antagonist is a common trope, but not even a rule, just a thought shortcut. Don't sweat it. The morality of the protagonist is arbitrary, and through some not even very elaborate gimmicks, the protagonist can even be the antagonist too!
    – SF.
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 22:18
  • 1
    The first 'question' is an exclamation, not a question, second is also not really a question. If you're writing about Paris in 1942, your villains are probably Nazis.
    – user16583
    Commented Oct 21, 2014 at 15:30
  • 1
    And of course you can have a historical novel without flashbacks if your entire novel is set in the past. If you never go to the "present," there's nothing to flash back to. Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 0:01

4 Answers 4


In real life, there is no universal plot structure that is common to all fiction. But when you read a lot of books, you will recognize certain elements that appear and reappear in several works of fiction – simply because books generally deal with people, and people act in relation to other people and have similar problems and lives insofar as they all love and hate and survive and die and so on. If you collect these similarities and try to join them together, something like a common plot structure appears.

No intelligent person would claim that all books follow the same structure, but since human beings seem to prefer a simplified version of the world to the real world, books describing this simplified common plot structure and "finding" it (i.e. finding parts of it and projecting the missing rest and ignoring any deviations) are very popular, especially among those that have no clue or are gifted with only little brain power or find it unbearable that the world is not kind and not comprehensible.

"Protagonist" (literally the main or primary actor, besides the "Deuteragonist" and "Tritagonist", the second and thrid actors in classical Greek theatre) is the name given to one of these structural elements: the person, whose story is being told. In another traditon, which does not derive from philology and the study of ancient drama theory but from ethnology and the study of magic and religion, the name for this person is the "hero".

A "hero" in this sense is not a hero in the sense of a person performing heoric feats, but simply the person whose life is disrupted by a call to adventure. The hero is not up against an antagonist, but against his own need to grow and transform. Unlike the hero, who only wants to return home and live the life he has always lived, but must change to preserve that life and thereby changes himself and it, the protagonist has an outward goal, he wants away from the life he as always lived, and the antagonist is the force or person that attempts to keep him from getting there. So we have two traditions of the simplification of literature, and they propose completely differing views of what goes on in fiction, and yet there are people who are not satisfied with that and try to merge these two structures into one even more simple one. They identify the antagonist with the hero's own inner obstacles to growth, but, as I said earlier, this identification (and all others) are caused by a need for simplification that has no correspondence in a complex reality.

In short, the hero is one way of simplifying literary diversity, the protagonist is another, and both are not true in the sense that all literature has a hero or antagonist.


This sounds like an interesting story. Some writing books tend to "dumb down" the components of stories, using words like "hero" and "villain". They can still be useful, if viewed from an angle, especially for more down to earth stories like yours.

I would be inclined to think the mother is actually the protagonist (hero) for a lot of this story and the Germans the villains (antagonists). The daughter would have her own moments of course, being the one doing the searching and finding romance in Paris.

If you can maintain a relevancy and emotional connection between the three characters (mother, daughter and romantic interest), I think this could be an interesting read.


Oh, wow, where to begin.

There are people who differentiate between protagonist and hero, and there are some who use these words as synonym. That really shouldn't stop you.

In most (genre) novels there is a person who wants something really badly and you want this person in the spotlight. And on the other side there is someone who wants really badly that the person does not succeed. Two boys want the same girl. No one needs to be a villain here.

Don't struggle to fit something in. Write your novel. Write it like you think it is right. If you do not have an opinion about "being right" or if you are unsure, just ignore your insecurity and write. Listen to your heart, not your brain, have fun!

Every novel, no matter the genre, can be written without flashbacks. Every single one. Easiest solution is to put everything in the correct chronological order. If that is a good idea, is a different question.

We have questions about flashbacks here, search them. You can use flashbacks all over the place. Best option is to do it in a way that does not puzzle your readers. But you can think about that, after finishing your first draft. Write the damn novel. Put in every flash you want.

Your back story is what you have made up for your story, but will not necessarily show up in your book. Let's say a character was a priest. You show in your story that he is a religious man without mentioning that he was priest. And it is totally irrelevant for the plot if he was a priest or a butcher, then being a priest is his back story, but not part of the storyline. I hope you get the idea.

Now go and write your novel.


Labels like "hero" and "villain" are terms intended to simplify, but your story does not have to be so cut and dry. As with any craft, there's not so many hard and fast rules as there are guidelines. Use your bets judgment; choose what feels right for your story.

I would stick to terms like "protagonist" (the lead character that takes the journey) and the "antagonist" (the character that keeps the protagonist from getting what he or she wants). Though your story is a historical fiction, it has an element of mystery to it too: your main character sets off on a journey to discover a truth that can change her life in some way.

As far as backstory goes, you should only incorporate it if it reveals something about your character that the reader didn't already know, and/or if the information will somehow move the plot forward.

If flashbacks are integral to your plot, you could possibly have alternating chapters: one set in the past and one set in the present. It would be an interesting way to weave the mother and daughter's story together.

Some historical novels that I would reference for inspiration would be "The Historian" by Elizabeth Kostova and "Possession" by A.S. Byatt. "The Thirteenth Tale" by Dianne Setterfield would be good read as well, since it has to do with unraveling the past.

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