I. What is a Protagonist?
Protagonist (pronounced pro-TAG-oh-nist) is just another word for “main character.” The story circles around this character’s experiences, and the audience is invited to see the world from his or her perspective. Note that the protagonist is not necessarily a “good guy.” Although most of the time the protagonist is some kind of hero, sometimes we see the whole story from the perspective of a villain.
Most stories have only one protagonist, but it’s entirely possible to have a story that weaves together multiple different perspectives. In such a story, the different narrative threads should all get tied together in the end.
II. Examples of Protagonist
The word “hero” originally derives from Heracles, the Greek name for Hercules. So many of our heroic protagonists are based in some way on this archetypal hero whose tremendous strength allowed him to slay monsters that no one else could defeat. In modern stories, our heroes tend to be more complicated than the classical monster-slayer – not always, though! Plenty of modern super heroes can be seen doing battle with giant, destructive monsters.
Villain protagonists are often created by re-telling classic stories from the perspective of the villain. For example, John Gardner’s Grendel tells the story of Beowulf from the monster’s perspective. In the story, Grendel starts out as merely misunderstood, not evil. Years of abuse, however, ultimately turn him into the monster we see in Beowulf.
Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit is a good example of a supporting protagonist. The major events surround Thorin Oakenshield, the exiled Dwarf King, trying to reclaim his kingdom. But Bilbo, a simple member of Thorin’s company, is the main character in the narrative as told by Tolkien and Peter Jackson.
III. Types of Protagonist
Most protagonists are heroes. That is, they are “good guys” and have the audience’s full sympathy. The hero is morally upstanding, and usually some kind of leader, either of a small ragtag band or a massive army. Either way, a hero is morally right, and generally less in need of development than other characters.
An anti-hero is one who has characteristics completely opposed to those of an ordinary hero. This may apply to the character’s psychology (i.e. loners and mentally ill people), ethics (i.e. a hero who does not follow ordinary moral codes) or just personality (i.e. sarcastic, cynical, or ironic). An anti-hero may be in a moral grey area, or make us feel uneasy in some way, but such characters are ultimately redeemed. They’re still heroes, after all.
C. Villain Protagonist
Unlike an anti-hero, a villain is never redeemed – this character is just a “bad guy.” But in some cases, the villain is also the protagonist, or the main character of the story. For example, the protagonist of American Psycho is the serial killer Patrick Bateman, whose actions are in no way justified by the plot.
D. Supporting Protagonist
Most protagonists are major characters in their own right – whether they are heroes, anti-heroes or villains, they are central to all the action that takes place in the story. Occasionally, though, a writer will experiment with a supporting protagonist, or a main character who is more peripheral to the events. For example, the most important person at the White House is clearly President Obama. But you might have a story set in the White House in which the main character is the president’s Chief of Staff, or one of his aides. In this case, the protagonist has a “supporting” role in the events, despite being the central figure of the story.
IV. The Importance of Protagonists
Protagonists give the audience someone to focus on and lend narrative unity to the story. Without a protagonist, the story’s various elements would have nothing to tie them together. And if the protagonist is boring, then the story will not be compelling and readers will not care what happens next.
In general, the protagonist is the person that the audience relates to – we imagine ourselves in her shoes, suffer with her failures, and exult in her successes. Of course, this is definitely not the case with a villain protagonist. In those cases, we want the protagonist to lose in the end.
V. Examples of Protagonists in Literature
The protagonist shifts somewhat in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings In the first book, it’s clearly Frodo Baggins whose perspective defines the trajectory of the narrative. However, in the later books Frodo parts ways from the rest of the Fellowship, and for several books there are at least two distinct plotlines: one with Frodo as the protagonist, and the other with Aragorn as the protagonist.
Sherlock Holmes straddles the line between hero and anti-hero. He uses cocaine, which makes him seem somewhat edgy and dangerous to modern audiences (although Victorian readers would not have been fazed by this). In addition, he sometimes oversteps his role as a detective by letting perpetrators go free if he sympathizes with their actions, and threatening them with death rather than arrest. Watson, in these books, is the narrator, and, some readers would argue, the protagonist as well – but at most he is a supporting
VI. Examples of Protagonists in Popular Culture
The two classic superheroes, Superman and Captain America, are so influential as heroes that they have begun to seem boring and generic to many audiences. They are morally uncomplicated, fearless, and possess all the qualities of strength and leadership that we expect from a classic hero. As the comic book world has grown increasingly cynical and ironic, these characters have decreased in popularity and writers have begun to subvert their heroism in various ways. For example, recent depictions of Captain America have shown him as an egotistical meddler; someone who struggles to be a leader and often earns resentment from his followers rather than loyalty.
The Star Wars movies exemplify many of the tropes seen in this article. In the original trilogy, the protagonist is Luke Skywalker, a pretty typical hero. Notice that Luke’s personality is fairly generic throughout the films, making it easy for people, especially young people, to relate to him. The deuteragonist, however, is Han Solo, who hovers somewhere in between a hero and an anti-hero.
Eric Cartman from South Park often comes in as a villain protagonist. He’s pretty irredeemable, and usually does evil things out of sheer narcissism and spite rather than out of any sense of justice. Yet he’s clearly the main character of many episodes.
VII. Related Terms
When a story is told in first person (with “I”), the narrator is often the protagonist – either a hero of some kind or a supporting protagonist. But this isn’t always the case! In Moby-Dick, for example, the narrator is Ishmael. In the first few chapters, the story is about Ishmael’s experiences, and so he is both narrator and protagonist. Once he boards Captain Ahab’s ship, he becomes a lowly deckhand and a good supporting protagonist. Over time, however, Ishmael stops narrating what’s happening in his own life and focuses more and more on what’s happening with Ahab. By the end of the book, Captain Ahab is clearly the protagonist, although Ishmael is still the narrator. [Nick is a somewhat ambiguous example, so I’ve changed it. Does this make more sense?]
The antagonist is the opposite of a protagonist – this is the enemy, the character who opposes the main character. Typically, this is the villain, but not always. Note that not every story has an antagonist – in some stories, the protagonist is struggling against circumstance, natural disasters, or some other impersonal force. In these stories, the source of conflict is not an antagonist.
A secondary main character, less important than the protagonist but still essential to the story, is called a deuteragonist. Examples might include Sam Gamgee from Lord of the Rings, or Han Solo from Star Wars. These characters are not protagonists in any sense – they are not at the center of the events, nor are they at the center of the story, as a supporting protagonist would be.
Deuteragonists can also be heroes, villains, or anti-heroes, just like protagonists. However, when people talk about “the hero” (of a story), they’re usually talking about the protagonist rather than a deuteragonist.