What is a Protagonist?
The term “protagonist” is thrown around very casually in the reading and writing world, but are we clear on the concept? What is a protagonist? It’s the main character of a story, or TV show, or movie. Or are they something more?
According to Dictionary.com, “protagonist” is also defined as the leader, principal person, proponent for, or advocate of a political cause, social program, movement, cause, etc. The word’s etymology is Greek in origin, and was originally used to describe the actor who plays the first part (in a play), or literally, the “first combatant”.
Heads up: The Protagonist is not always the “good guy”
Say whaaaat? Yup. I know that this may seem contradictory to general knowledge. But the protagonist is the main character, and the main character is always fighting off the evil antagonist, right?
Like the etymology of the word suggests, the “protagonist” isn’t necessarily good or evil. It’s simply the center character, and more often than not is the first character introduced in a story (excluding prologues).
And I want to make a little clarification here. I’m not just talking about anti-heroes (like Kaz Brekker from Six of Crows, or Vlada from And I Darken). A protagonist can be a low-down, dirty, scheming person. News flash: your protagonist can actually be the bad guy in the story.
Want some examples? Check out protagonist Light Yagami in the anime Death Note for one of my favorite examples. Tons of YA authors also like to write their protagonists as villains. Check out V.E. Schwab’s Vicious and Marie Lu’s The Young Elites. Additionally, many classic stories are written from the perspective of the villain. Check out The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Paradise Lost by John Milton, and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
A “main character” might not be the Protagonist
Now I know I’m contradicting myself. I said earlier that the protagonist is the main character. But what I mean to say is that the protagonist is one of the main characters. And, more importantly, the story might not even be told by the protagonist – but instead by another main character, acting as the narrator.
Remember, the protagonist is is “first actor”, the “leader/principal person” for a “cause” – or, the story’s goal (plot). This is the character that’s pushing the story’s plot along, creating actions and reactions and fighting against the story’s antagonist. The conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist is what creates the plot of the story. The protagonist propels the story forward.
On the other hand, the main character is the character with the most exposure to the reader. Often, that is the narrator of the story. But the main character is not necessarily the narrator, nor is the narrator necessarily the main character.
Take, for example, the narrator of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Snicket is the narrator of the story, and snippets of his life are told throughout the books, but it is not the main character. The main character is never simply the story’s narrator. The main character is always involve in the story’s plot, and is connected to (and affected by) the protagonist in some way.
Additionally, books with multiple POVs (points of view) often have multiple main characters, telling multiple narrations (take a look at A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, and this handy article that looks at the numbers of A Song of Ice and Fire by The Id DM).
Looking for further examples? Check out The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose main character is Nick Carraway, though the protagonist is Jay Gatsby.
The protagonist always appears in the story’s Hook
Being essentially the first scene of any book, the hook has the important task of introducing the story’s goal as well as the protagonist in a characteristic way.
If you are struggling to determine who the protagonist of any book is, look no further than the hook. The protagonist will show up there, if not physically, then through narration by the main character.
For example, consider the opening scene of The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway introduces himself as well as Gatsby, before the opening scene of him moving into New York begins. During that scene, Carraway’s interactions with other characters center around Gatsby again.
The question of what is a protagonist is one that should be discussed more frequently between writers, as well as readers. Understanding the role of the protagonist – as the character who stands in opposition to the antagonist, and drives the story’s plot forward – is crucial to crafting characters and correctly reviewing books. Considering the protagonist as something other than the good guy, or the main character and narrator, leaves room for many creative writing possibilities.
Let’s talk about it
Have you been confused about what a protagonist is? Did any of these facts surprise you? Are there any books that you’re struggling with when trying to determine who the protagonist is? Please leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.