Using Protagonists in Visual Media to Tell a Story

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Visual media is often about telling a story, and every story needs a protagonist. In this lesson, we'll look at protagonists in visual storytelling, including how to use common design elements to highlight your protagonist.

Visual Media

Felicia is a graphic designer. She's been asked to create an advertisement for a brand of workout clothes for women. She'll need to design an image that captures the way the clothes make a woman feel.

As a graphic designer, Felicia is working in visual media, or ways of communicating using images. Whether it's still photographs, video, infographics, or another medium, Felicia's task is to tell a story or share information through images.

For Felicia's current project, she'll need to tell a story about how the clothes help women. To do that, she first has to create a protagonist and then use design elements to illustrate the protagonist's role in the story.


Felicia's task is to show the benefits of the workout clothes in a visual story. First, she has to come up with a protagonist, or the main character of the story. For example, perhaps Felicia decides to show an ordinary woman achieving something extraordinary, like crossing a finish line or reaching the summit of a mountain. In that case, the ordinary woman is the protagonist.

Ideally, the protagonist in a visual story should be relatable and/or aspirational to the audience. When other women see the ordinary protagonist of Felicia's story, they should think, ''She's just like me.'' At the same time, when she does extraordinary things, the audience should think, ''I'd love to do that.'' Even if they aren't ready to climb a mountain or run a race yet, the protagonist should make them feel like they could.

Why is relatability and aspiration important? It allows the audience to live vicariously through the protagonist in a story. Whether that visual story is an advertisement like Felicia's or a graphic novel or an infographic, the viewer will connect to the piece more deeply if they are able to live vicariously through the protagonist.

Design Elements

Now that Felicia has her protagonist for her visual story, she has to figure out how to show the protagonist. How can she make clear that this woman is the most important part of the image?

There are certain design elements that can help Felicia. These are simply tools that visual artists use to create their image. There are many design elements, and they can be used in a way that not only conveys Felicia's story, but also identifies and highlights her protagonist.

It starts with figure, or the thing(s) in the image that is most predominant, and ground or the field on which the figure(s) exists. For example, if Felicia is showing her protagonist summiting a mountain, the protagonist is likely to be the main figure in the image, the person summiting the mountain. The mountain itself and the view beyond it are likely to be the ground.

The protagonist in a visual story is usually the main figure in the image. There are many ways to make a protagonist visually dominant. For example, Felicia might put her main character in focus while the world around her is more fuzzy.

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