What Is a Protagonist?

Definition & Examples of a Protagonist

Luke Skywalker / Mark Hamill / Star Wars

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The protagonist is the main character in a story. This character acts as a catalyst to the story's plot by moving it forward in some way.

Learn more about what protagonists are and how they're used in stories told in literature, film, theater, and more.

What Is a Protagonist?

Characters in a story have many roles and purposes, all of them dictated by the writer's intent and style. The protagonist helps move the story along and is usually a character that readers or audiences empathize with, or at least cheer for—whether they're rooting for their success or demise.

The term "protagonist" comes from ancient Greek and roughly translates to "one who plays the first part." Ancient Greek playwrights such as Thespis, Aeschylus, and Sophocles all incorporated protagonists as plays evolved to feature complex plots and characters with different dramatic purposes.

Alternate names: Main character, principal character, leading character, central character

Alternate definition: A supporter of a cause

How a Protagonist Works

A protagonist is usually central to the development of a story. However, there is no one right way to present and use a protagonist, and many storytellers have found creative ways of doing so over the years.

In many stories, the reader experiences the tale through the protagonist's eyes. But in some instances, several different characters describe their perspectives to the reader or the audience. In these cases, there is usually more than one protagonist.

An example of a story with more than one protagonist is "As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner. The story is told from several family members' different but equally important perspectives.

The protagonist's nature and moral fiber can also vary. They don't necessarily need to be the hero of a story or even be likeable. They may be an anti-hero or another character whom the reader or audience dislikes.

For example, Becky Sharpe is one of the main protagonists in "Vanity Fair," but she's extremely flawed. By the end of the book, Becky is almost unlikable. In this way she's a very good example of another truth in literature: well-written protagonists are well-rounded characters.

The protagonist should not be confused with another important lead character in a story, the antagonist, who opposes the protagonist. In the most archetypical of narratives, this dynamic boils down to good versus evil.

In "Hamlet," the titular character is also the protagonist. He seeks revenge for his father's murder and takes action to find and punish the killer.

Many literary arguments exist about who serves as Hamlet's antagonist: Is it his uncle, the murderous Claudius, or is it Laertes, son of Polonius, who seeks revenge for his own father's death at Hamlet's hand? Some scholars even have argued that Hamlet himself is his own antagonist, i.e., his own worst enemy.

A prime example of a protagonist and antagonist in modern-day cinema is ​Luke Skywalker going head to head with Darth Vader in the "Star Wars" movies.

However, one also could make the argument that two other characters in the "Star Wars" universe could be considered protagonists: Princess Leia and Han Solo. After all, if not for Leia sending a coded message to Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke would likely have remained a farmer on Tattooine. And if not for Han Solo's ship the Millennium Falcon, Luke and Obi-Wan would not have gotten very far.

But since the story is told primarily from Luke's point of view, he's probably the strongest example of a protagonist in the original "Star Wars" trilogy.

Usually, the audience sees the action through the protagonist's eyes.

False Protagonists

Sometimes a character who appears to be a story's main protagonist is abruptly removed from the plot. These characters are usually known as false protagonists. They often appear in mysteries and are usually killed off at the beginning of the story. A false protagonist usually represents an author's deliberate attempt at deception in hopes of surprising or shocking the reader.

An example of a false protagonist in modern cinema is the character of Dallas in the 1979 sci-fi horror film "Alien." Played by actor Tom Skerritt, Dallas is captain of the doomed ship Nostromo, which is infested with a malicious alien creature. Once the alien is loose, however, Dallas is one of the first to be killed.

Another example of a false protagonist is the character Ned Stark in George R.R. Martin's "Game of Thrones" series of novels and TV episodes. The very beginning of the series is told from Stark's point of view—until he's suddenly executed.

Key Takeaways

  • A protagonist is the main character in a story and is central to the development of the plot.
  • Stories can have more than one protagonist.
  • Protagonists don't have to be the hero of the story or even be likable.
  • Writers may trick readers by presenting a false protagonist who is abruptly removed from the plot.