Protagonist

Definition of Protagonist

The protagonist is the main character of a work of literature, theater, or cinema. There may be more than one protagonist in a large piece of work or a work with several overlapping narratives. In some particularly sprawling works, like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it may be nearly impossible to identify the “main” character.

While the protagonist is often “the good guy” at odds with a villain or antagonist, the protagonist can also be an antihero. Whether or not the protagonist is good or evil, the audience is generally supposed to empathize with this person and understand the motivations that propel the character to do what he or she does.

The word protagonist comes from the Ancient Greek for the “one who plays the first part” or “chief actor.” In the theater of Ancient Greece, three actors played every main role, with the second and third actors called the “deuteragonist” and the “tritagonist.” Though those terms have fallen out of use, “protagonist” has remained a key term in literary analysis.

Difference Between the Protagonist, Antihero, Antagonist, Narrator, and False Protagonist

There are several terms for important characters in a story, which can—but do not necessarily—overlap.

  • Antihero: The antihero is always the main character of a story, which fits the protagonist definition. However, this type of protagonist lacks the traditional heroic values of morality and bravery. As the main character, though, the audience is still expected to understand the mental calculations of the antihero even if they object to the actions the antihero takes. A popular recent example of an antihero is Walter White from the television show “Breaking Bad.”
  • Antagonist: The antagonist may lack heroic qualities, like the antihero. However, the antagonist is not the main character of the story, and thus the audience is not privy to the antagonist’s inner life and will generally not empathize with the antagonist’s motivations. The antagonist is the chief instigator of conflict with the protagonist, but is not necessarily an evil person. Antagonists may be just the person or group of people who present an obstacle to the protagonist, whether or not that obstacle is unjustified or cruel. For example, if the protagonist of the story is a criminal the antagonist may by a police officer trying to track down the protagonist. Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello is a famous antagonist who is quite evil, while Severus Snape is one of the primary antagonists from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, yet is not evil himself and works against the ultimate villain.
  • Narrator: The narrator is the one telling the story. In a first person or limited omniscient third person point of view story the narrator is often the protagonist. This is because the audience discovers the story through the narrator’s perspective, and generally sides with the narrator. However, in some cases the narrator is an actor in the story and yet not the main character. This is the case in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which is narrated by Nick Carraway but focuses on Jay Gatsby.
  • False Protagonist: The usage of a false protagonist is a technique of starting a story with one character that appears to be the main character, only to have that person disappear or die unexpectedly. George R.R. Martin, the author of the popular series A Song of Ice and Fire (known as “Game of Thrones” on television), uses this device frequently.

Common Examples of Protagonist

In a solipsistic sense, each of us may consider ourselves to be the protagonist of our own stories (meanwhile playing supporting roles in the lives of others, or even being antagonists at different times to different people). We all have many other examples of protagonists from real life. These may be inspiring political figures, artists, athletes, historical people, religious figures, and so on.

The judgment of a person as a protagonist is dependent on who is telling the story and what story, exactly, is being told. For example, Christopher Columbus was for many generations taught to be the protagonist of the story of the “Discovery of America” to schoolchildren in the United States. Due to the vast destruction he inflicted on the native people of the land, he is more often now considered either to be the antihero of the story, or the antagonist of a different story, i.e. the story of the loss of land and freedom of the native people. Meanwhile, to Ferdinand and Isabel, the rulers of Spain who funded his journey, Columbus was only a supporting actor in their conquest of the New World.

Significance of Protagonist in Literature

All stories have characters, and some characters play larger roles than others. While modern and post-modern authors have tried to play with the conceit of needing a protagonist, such as telling stories through the perspective of an inanimate object or not naming the characters of a story, it is not possible to have no actors whatsoever. Therefore, the presence of a protagonist is one of the true uniting characteristics of works of literature from around the world since the creation of story. Some of the most famous protagonists from literature, such as Don Quixote, Hamlet, and Humbert Humbert, are explored further below.

Examples of Protagonist from Literature

Example #1

Don Quixote from Miguel de Cervantes’s The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha

Cervante’s work Don Quixote is considered to be one of the earliest novels in the world, and is still one of the most influential works of literature ever written. The novel centers on a man named Alonso Quixano who wants to revive chivalry, and takes on the name Don Quixote to make himself sound like a knight. He recruits Sancho Panza to be his “squire” and together they go forth on adventures to prove their bravery. Don Quixote’s lack of true heroic qualities makes him an antihero, but since he so desperately desires to be heroic this fact is one of the key comedic aspects of the novel.

Example #2

Hamlet from Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Of all of Shakespeare’s protagonists, Hamlet is arguably the most psychologically complex. He struggles throughout the play with the possibility of avenging his father’s death and along the way causes many other deaths. Hamlet delivers some of the most famous lines in the history of theater, including the monologue that begins with “To be or not to be” as he contemplates death. The audience gains a profound understanding of Hamlet’s interior life and motivations and develops an empathetic attitude toward his struggle.

Example #3

Humbert Humbert from Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita

Humbert Humbert is an example of a truly despicable protagonist, as well as an unreliable narrator. The middle-aged literature professor tells the story of his obsession with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, with whom he becomes sexually involved after the death of her mother. Knowing that he will be judged harshly for his actions, Humbert Humbert appeals to the empathy of his readers, though Nabakov makes no such attempt to portray him as a likeable character. In this way he is a relatively unusual protagonist for whom the audience has almost no sympathy.

Example #4

Coronel Aureliano Buendía from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude

The epic work One Hundred Years of Solitude spans several generations of the Buendía family. Throughout the generations many names are repeated, complicating the reading experience and also the sense of the passage of time. The primogenitor of the family is José Arcadio Buendía, and therefore he can be considered one of the main characters of the novel. However, the opening line of the novel concerns Coronel Aureliano Buendía (José Arcadio’s son), and many of the novel’s subplots include him. He is arguably also the character who most strongly feels the eponymous solitude, and therefore is the true protagonist of the novel.

Test Your Knowledge of Protagonist

1. What is the correct definition of protagonist?
A. The main character of a story.
B. A character who has no flaws.
C. The narrator of the story.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Why is Severus Snape from Harry Potter an antagonist?
A. Because he is truly evil
B. Because he foils protagonist Harry’s plans several times over throughout the series.
C. Because he is morally ambiguous.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following protagonist examples is also an antihero? 
A. Hamlet
B. Humbert Humbert
C. Don Quixote
D. All of the above

Answer to Question #3 Show

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