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What is a Protagonist?

By Licia Morrow
Updated May 23, 2024
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A protagonist is the leading character in a work, often playing the role of the hero or heroine. The word "protagonist" comes from the Greek word protagonistes, meaning “first combatant,” and referred to the leading character, aided by the chorus, in classical Greek tragedy. Examples of classic literary protagonists are Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse, and Howard Roark in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.

If the main actor is foiled by conflict with another character, that character is referred to as an antagonist. An evil antagonist is often referred to as a villain, and this battle between the protagonist and malefactor is often what puts the storyline of the work into action. For example, in his play Antigone, Sophocles utilizes the classic struggle between the antagonist and the protagonist. The main character, Antigone, must fight against Creon in an attempt to give her brother a decent burial. King Creon declares that by law her brother is a traitor, and must be left to decompose without burial, thus attempting to stymie Antigone’s progress. Her struggle to achieve a decent burial for her brother is what puts the characters and plot into motion.

A developing change in character is often seen in a protagonist from the beginning of the word to the end. A tragic flaw, or hamartia, can be found in a character operating in a tragedy. This flaw often brings about his or her downfall. For example, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet suffers his downfall due to his tragic flaw of indecision when he hesitates to kill his evil uncle. Hamlet’s indecision and struggle against his antagonist sets the plot in motion. In this example, the main character accompanies the plot from order to chaos, resulting in tragedy.

In comedy, a protagonist’s development also follows the plot, but instead is carried from chaos into order. For example, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Katarina improves and develops her character from that of a shrew to that of an obedient wife.

A protagonist may also carry many of the traits of a villain. For example, readers follow the progression of Becky Sharp, the main character in William Makepeace Thackery’s Vanity Fair, who often schemes to make her way in the world, achieving her own fortune at the expense of others.

In many works, especially those with an ensemble cast, there is not one defined protagonist. In William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying, Addie Bundren’s death leads her family on a long journey to bury her. Because the story is told from the perspectives of several different characters, all of which can be considered main characters in the struggle, several protagonists can be identified.

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Discussion Comments

By abiane — On Sep 30, 2010

@bigblind - That is definitely a great point to make. The whole persona of a protagonist is a great way to develop the story, but not many people consider them to be a person they can relate to... which I think is why Lord Byron came up with this solution - in order to make the story not only more interesting, but to develop the characters further.

By bbpuff — On Sep 30, 2010

@babyksay - No, it is not the same concept. The use of a false protagonist is normally to make the story more interesting. The first example that comes to mind (and I don't know if you are going to know what I'm talking about) is the game Final Fantasy XII. In FFXII you think the main character is really Ashe or Vaan, but it's not - the story really turns out to be about Balthier. This made a lot of hardcore gamers and Final Fantasy followers more than annoyed. Ashe and Vaan were more of passive protagonists while Balthier was really the character that you saw develop and become more familiar with over time.

By babyksay — On Sep 30, 2010

@bbpuff - Many authors also use their protagonist as a narrator as well. This "false" protagonist thing - what is it? Is it the same as an anti-protagonist or an antagonist would be?

By bbpuff — On Sep 30, 2010

In many stories you will find what is called a "false" protagonist. This technique of making a plot more memorable is more often used as a video gaming technique rather than actual print.

By bigblind — On Sep 15, 2010

The British romantic poet, Lord Byron, is known for having helped develop the anti-hero (also called the Byronic hero, in literary studies). This is a character who is very clearly a protagonist, but has a number of shortcomings and rebellious impulses blur the line between good and evil. This character type has become a mainstay of literature and western popular culture ever since. Some have suggested that the modern rockstar is something of a personification of this now iconic character type.

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