You probably know about the protagonist – the main character in any story, the one everything revolves around. The deuteragonist is the secondary character, right behind the protagonist in importance.
The deuteragonist may be on the protagonist’s side: for example, a love interest or sidekick. Or the deuteragonist can be a villain, like the protagonist’s main rival. The deuteragonist could also be a neutral character. All that matters is that they’re the second most important character.
It’s often difficult to tell who the deuteragonist is in any given story – it’s very much open to interpretation which character is the “second highest” in importance. So in most stories this is a matter of opinion.
II. Examples of Deuteragonist and Explanation
Most of the Legend of Zelda games have Princess Zelda as a deuteragonist, while Link (the player character) is the protagonist. These two characters are by far the most important in the series, but Link is the one who gets the lion’s share of attention.
In the early episodes of South Park, Stan was the protagonist and Kyle was his deuteragonist (with Kenny and Carman filling more background roles). However, as the show evolved things have gotten more complicated. These days, Cartman is the protagonist of many episodes, with Kyle, Stan, or Kenny filling in as deuteragonist.
III. The Importance of Deuteragonist
Most stories get their power from the relationships and contrasts between characters – people are complex, and their interactions are even more complex! This, at the root, is what stories are all about. In many stories, there’s one relationship that’s especially important: the one between a protagonist and deuteragonist. By creating two main “focal points” for the story, the author draws our attention to the interactions between those two characters and highlights its complexities – whether they be passionate love scenes, epic battles, or just conversations.
Of course, there are many stories that don’t really have a deuteragonist – they have a single protagonist and several backup characters with no clear second-place. Firefly is a good example of this kind of set-up: Mal Reynolds is definitely the protagonist, but then there are 8 other people on the ship with him, and they’re all just about equally important to the story. This is called an “ensemble cast.”
IV. Examples of Deuteragonist in Literature
Lady Macbeth is the deuteragonist of Macbeth. The main character is her husband, whose slow descent into bloody madness is the central arc of the play. But all along Lady Macbeth is driving the action from behind the scenes, filling her husband’s head with ambition and controlling many of the major events.
Moby-Dick provides an interesting example of a deuteragonist. In the beginning, we’re led to see Ishmael as the protagonist and Queequeg as the deuteragonist. But as the ship gets further out to sea, attention shifts from these two characters and towards a very different pair: Ahab (protagonist) and Starbuck (deuteragonist).
V. Examples of Deuteragonist in Pop Culture
Who is the deuteragonist in the original Star Wars trilogy? The protagonist is clearly Luke Skywalker, but who’s the second-most important character? Many people would say it’s Darth Vader, who also happens to be the antagonist. But Han Solo is also a strong candidate. Each of these characters is extremely important, but it’s a matter of opinion which one is the deuteragonist.
In The Dark Knight, the deuteragonist is Harvey Dent. [SPOILER!] Harvey plays a complex role in the movie: he starts off as a kind of friendly rival to Bruce Wayne/Batman, then briefly impersonates Batman before becoming an ally, then a villain. He also competes with Wayne for the affections of Rachel Dawes. But throughout the movie, Dent/Two-Face is the second-most important character.
VI. Related Terms (with examples)
The antagonist is the protagonist’s main opponent. All stories revolve around conflict, and when the conflict is between two characters they’re called the protagonist and antagonist. Sometimes, the antagonist is also the deuteragonist (as in the Darth Vader example, §8), but this isn’t necessarily true. For example, in the original Pirates of the Carribbean movie, James Norrington is the major antagonist but the deuteragonist is Jack Sparrow. (In the later movies, Jack moves into the protagonist role and Will Turner slides down to deuteragonist. Various antagonists come and go throughout the series.)