Ever wondered why you’re so captivated by your favorite book, film, or video game? At the heart of every memorable story, lies an unforgettable protagonist.
These central characters can make us laugh, cry, and often, live vicariously through their journeys.
Let us unveil the fascinating world of protagonists, dissecting their roles, evolution, and significant influence on storytelling. Join us as we explore the dynamics of their creation and their pivotal role in crafting narratives that leave a lasting imprint on our hearts and minds.
Definition of Protagonist
The protagonist serves as the beating heart of a story, whether it unfolds in a novel, play, film, or other narrative form.
As the leading figure, the protagonist shapes the narrative’s trajectory with key decisions and actions, captivating the audience by eliciting their empathy and interest.
This character invariably confronts conflicts, embodying the story’s struggle and tension, and the journey towards their resolution often forms the narrative’s backbone.
The protagonist is not just a character in the story, but rather, the lens through which the audience experiences the story’s world and its challenges.
Origin of Protagonist
The term protagonist originates from Ancient Greek drama and is derived from the Greek word “protagonistes,” which translates to “the one who plays the first part”. The prefix “proto-“ means first, and “agonistes” refers to a competitor or actor.
In the context of Greek drama, the protagonist was the principal actor who performed the speaking parts of the play, often involving a dialogue with the chorus.
Over time, the term has evolved and its use has broadened. In modern literature, a protagonist is typically understood as the main character of any narrative, not just drama, around whom the events of the story’s plot revolve.
Protagonist vs. Antagonist
The protagonist and antagonist are two central roles in a narrative, each with distinct and important functions.
The protagonist is the main character or the leading figure in the narrative. This character is the one that the audience is meant to identify with and is often the one who faces a significant conflict that needs to be resolved. The protagonist’s journey, including their struggles and growth, forms the crux of the story.
On the other hand, the antagonist is the character or force that opposes the protagonist. The antagonist often creates or exacerbates the conflict that the protagonist must confront. This character or entity works against the protagonist’s objectives, providing tension and challenges that propel the story forward.
However, it’s crucial to note that these roles aren’t strictly confined to notions of ‘good’ or ‘evil’.
A protagonist isn’t always the hero, and an antagonist isn’t always the villain. Their roles are defined more by their relation to the narrative’s central conflict rather than any moral alignment.
Types of Protagonists
Protagonists come in a myriad of types, each offering unique perspectives and driving the narrative in different ways. Here are some common types:
Heroes and Heroines
Traditional heroes or heroines are central to a narrative, exhibiting virtues like courage, honesty, and selflessness. They encounter an antagonist, whose opposition forms the story’s central conflict, and their actions in resolving this conflict drive the plot.
They often induce significant change within the story, altering the status quo or causing personal or societal growth.
Although they embody admirable qualities, they aren’t flawless. Their mistakes or flaws make them relatable and add depth to their character, making their triumph more meaningful.
Here are some notable examples of heroes and heroines:
|Odysseus||The Odyssey by Homer|
|Harry Potter||Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling|
|Aragorn||The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien|
|Atticus Finch||To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee|
|Luke Skywalker||Odysseus from The Odyssey by Homer|
|Elizabeth Bennet||Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen|
|Katniss Everdeen||The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins|
|Wonder Woman/Diana Prince||DC Comics|
|Celie||The Color Purple by Alice Walker|
Anti-heroes are protagonists who deviate from traditional heroic qualities. They may be selfish, flawed, or even engage in criminal actions, yet their narratives remain central to the story.
These characters can invoke empathy as they often contend with complex struggles, providing a more realistic and relatable view of human nature.
Their moral ambiguity allows for intricate exploration of ethics and personal motivations. They wrestle with internal conflicts and may face significant challenges, which make audiences empathize with them despite their questionable actions.
Here are some notable examples of anti-heroes:
|Walter White||Breaking Bad|
|Tony Soprano||The Sopranos|
|Tyler Durden||Fight Club|
|Don Draper||Mad Men|
|Raskolnikov||Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky|
|Michael Corleone||The Godfather series|
|Thomas Shelby||Peaky Blinders|
|Lisbeth Salander||The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series|
|John Wick||John Wick series|
The term “false protagonist” refers to a narrative technique in which a character is introduced as the main character, but is then displaced, often quite early in the narrative, by the true protagonist.
This displacement can occur due to the false protagonist dying, disappearing, being demoted to a secondary role, or otherwise being removed from the central narrative action.
This technique is used to surprise the audience, to subvert their expectations, and to add complexity to the story. It can create dramatic tension or a shocking twist, as the audience is led to invest in one character only to have the focus shift to another.
Here are a few examples of the false protagonist:
|Ned Stark||Game of Thrones|
|Russell Franklin||Deep Blue Sea|
|Lori Quaid||Total Recall|
|Kenny McCormick||South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut|
|Mami Tomoe||Puella Magi Madoka Magica|
|Captain Phoebus||The Hunchback of Notre Dame|
|Robert Cohn||The Sun Also Rises|
Non-human protagonists are central characters that are not human. This type of protagonist can be found across various genres, including science fiction, fantasy, and children’s literature. They can be animals, robots, aliens, mythical creatures, or sentient objects. Here are some characteristics and examples:
Animal protagonists are prevalent, especially in children’s literature. These characters may display human characteristics, a technique known as anthropomorphism. Here are some examples of animals as protagonists:
- Bambi from Disney’s Bambi (1942)
- Marlin from Finding Nemo (2003)
- Judy Hopps from Zootopia (2016)
- Scooby-Doo from Scooby-Doo (1969–present)
- Tom and Jerry from Tom and Jerry (1940–present)
Robots and AI
Robots or AI can serve as protagonists, particularly in science fiction. These characters often explore them es of consciousness, humanity, and morality. Here are some examples of robots and artificial intelligence (AI) protagonists:
- Wall-E from Wall-E (2008)
- Iron Giant from The Iron Giant (1999)
- Ava from Ex Machina (2014)
- Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell (1995)
- Baymax from Big Hero 6 (2014)
Alien protagonists allow for the exploration of themes like otherness, identity, and the human condition from an outside perspective. Here are some examples of Aliens as protagonists:
- Mork from Mork & Mindy (1978-1982)
- Kal-El from Superman series by DC Comics (1939-2011)
- Steven from the Steven Universe (2013-2020)
- The Doctor from Doctor Who (2005–present)
- Thomas Jerome Newton from The Man Who Fell to Earth (2022)
Protagonists can also be mythical or fantastical creatures, such as dragons, unicorns, or monsters. Here are some examples of Mythical creatures as protagonists:
- Percy Jackson from Percy Jackson & The Olympians series by Rick Riordan (2005-2009)
- Ariel from The Little Mermaid (1989)
- Lucifer from Lucifer (2015-2021)
- Thor from Marvel Comics (1966-2011)
- Maleficent from Maleficent (2014)
Occasionally, inanimate objects or abstract entities can be given consciousness and become protagonists. Here are some examples of sentient objects as protagonists:
- The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks (1980): A plastic toy Indian comes to life when put inside a magical cupboard.
- The Brave Little Toaster by Thomas M. Disch (1980): The protagonists are household appliances, including a toaster, a vacuum cleaner, a lamp, a radio, and a blanket, who are able to talk and move on their own.
- Toy Story series (1995-2019): The movies revolve around sentient toys that come to life when humans aren’t around.
- Cars series (2006-2017): The movies take place in a world populated by anthropomorphic vehicles.
- Doomsday Clock series by DC Comics (2017-2019): Doctor Manhattan, who is portrayed more as a sentient force or entity than a traditional superhero.
Protagonists in Different Mediums
Protagonists in literature come in all shapes and sizes, but they all serve the crucial role of driving the story forward. Literature offers a uniquely deep and nuanced exploration of the protagonist’s inner thoughts, feelings, motivations, and development.
Here are a few examples of notable protagonists from literature, highlighting the diverse range of character types that can serve this central role:
|Winston Smith||1984 by George Orwell|
|Bilbo Baggins||The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien|
|Celie||The Color Purple by Alice Walker|
|Aomame||1Q84 by Haruki Murakami|
|Amy Dorrit||Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens|
|Tyrion Lannister||A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin|
|Paul Baumer||All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque|
|Dagny Taggart||Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand|
|Anne Shirley||Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery|
|Liesel Meminger||The Book Thief by Markus Zusak|
Plays and Theatre
The protagonists in plays and theatre are vital components to the story being told, providing the audience with a focal point for the narrative and often serving as the character through whose experiences and reactions the audience interprets the events of the story.
Here are more examples of notable protagonists in plays and theatre:
|Troy Maxson||Fences by August Wilson|
|Helen Keller||The Miracle Worker by William Gibson|
|Beatrice||Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare|
|Walter Younger||A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry|
|Eliza Doolittle||Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw|
|John Proctor||The Crucible by Arthur Miller|
|Winnie||Happy Days by Samuel Beckett|
|Jerry||The Zoo Story by Edward Albee|
|Jean Valjean||Les Misérables|
|The Phantom||The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber|
The protagonist in film serves a similar role to that in theatre, acting as the central character around whom the story revolves. However, the medium of film allows for different techniques and approaches to character development.
Examples of iconic film protagonists include:
|Dorothy Gale||The Wizard of Oz|
|Chihiro Ogino||Spirited Away|
|Ash Ketchum||Pokémon film series|
|Princess Tiana||The Princess and the Frog|
|Lara Croft||Tomb Raider series|
|Kevin McCallister||Home Alone|
Characteristics and Roles of Protagonists
Protagonists are central characters in any narrative, whether it be a novel, film, play, or short story. They play a crucial role as the story unfolds around them, driving the plot and serving as the primary point of contact for the audience. Here are some characteristics and roles of protagonists:
Throughout the journey, the protagonist’s reactions and choices in response to these trials help shape their character. They may develop new skills or change their perspectives and values, or they might grow emotionally and psychologically.
This growth is not always positive; sometimes, a protagonist may also succumb to their flaws or make mistakes, leading to negative character development. However, each change makes them a more rounded character and allows the audience to follow their transformation.
One key aspect of character development is consistency. While the protagonist may evolve considerably over the course of the story, it’s essential that their behavior, actions, and decisions remain consistent with their character.
If the character acts in a way that is not consistent with their previously demonstrated traits without any plausible explanation or reason, it may cause the audience to disconnect from the character and the story.
Flaws and Moral Ambiguity
Flaws and moral ambiguity in a protagonist play a significant role in creating intricate and engrossing narratives. They infuse realism and multi-dimensionality into characters, making them more human and relatable. This creates a compelling dichotomy for the audience between rooting for the protagonist while recognizing their shortcomings.
A flaw, or character defect, can range from a minor quirk to a deep-seated personality issue that hinders the protagonist in their journey. These flaws often drive the character’s actions and decisions, impacting the plot progression and shaping their development.
The struggle to overcome or accept these flaws forms a crucial part of the character’s journey, and it’s through this struggle that audiences often see the most profound character growth.
Relationship to the Plot and Conflict
The protagonist is central to the plot and often has a direct connection to the conflict. This character comes face-to-face with the antagonist, the opponent, or villain, who stands in their way of achieving their goals.
The story’s climax often involves an intense confrontation or struggle between the protagonist and antagonist, descending from the Greek word “agon” that denotes a contest or challenge.
The narrative’s structure focuses on the protagonist’s efforts to overcome obstacles and adversaries, thus creating an emotional connection with the audience.
Impact of Protagonists on the Audience
Protagonists have a significant impact on the audience, helping to draw viewers into the story and shaping their emotional engagement with the narrative. Here are some ways in which protagonists influence audiences:
The emotional connection a viewer or reader feels towards the protagonist of a story is a critical aspect of storytelling. This bond enables audiences to experience the narrative through the protagonist’s eyes, creating a deeper, more immersive experience.
A protagonist often acts as the vessel for the audience’s emotions. Their triumphs, defeats, fears, and joys are all lived vicariously through the protagonist’s journey. This emotional connection is why we cheer when our favorite characters succeed, and we feel devastated when they suffer setbacks or losses.
The creation of an emotional connection with a protagonist is done through a process of characterization, where writers infuse protagonists with relatable qualities, desires, and fears.
Characters with relatable struggles and ambitions resonate more with the audience, bridging the gap between the fictional world and reality.
Identification with a protagonist is a powerful narrative device that enhances the audience’s emotional engagement with a story. When audiences can see parts of themselves mirrored in a protagonist’s struggles and victories, the story becomes more than just a detached narrative; it becomes a personal journey that resonates on a deep emotional level.
When crafting a protagonist, authors often imbue the character with universal human traits and experiences. These can range from broad concepts like love, fear, or ambition, to more specific experiences like dealing with loss, facing discrimination, or striving for a dream. This shared humanity enables audiences to see themselves in the character, forging a bond of identification.
This identification is also facilitated through the character’s relatability. A well-rounded protagonist who is flawed, vulnerable, and real is easier for audiences to identify with than an unrealistically perfect character.
Empathy is a crucial aspect of the human experience and a significant part of storytelling. It allows audiences to emotionally connect with characters who may have entirely different lives, experiences, or backgrounds from their own. This emotional connection is typically fostered through the protagonist, who serves as the audience’s primary lens into the story.
A well-written protagonist gives audiences a chance to step into someone else’s shoes, exposing them to a range of experiences and emotions outside their own purview. This process helps to cultivate empathy as audiences begin to understand and relate to the feelings, motivations, and challenges of the character.
This empathetic connection can be particularly powerful when the protagonist’s experiences reflect those of underrepresented or misunderstood groups, offering insights that can broaden audience perspectives and challenge preconceived notions.
Perspective is a fundamental component of storytelling, and the protagonist serves as the primary lens through which the audience views the unfolding narrative. This viewpoint significantly influences the audience’s understanding, interpretation, and emotional engagement with the story.
The protagonist’s perspective determines how the story world is framed for the audience. The character’s attitudes, beliefs, and emotions color the narrative, subtly shaping the audience’s perception of events, other characters, and the story’s overall themes.
Whether the protagonist is an optimist or a cynic, a hero or an antihero, their unique viewpoint can dramatically alter the tone and direction of the story.
Protagonist’s Choices and Consequences
Protagonists, as central figures in the narrative, are often faced with difficult choices and significant challenges that drive the plot and reveal their personalities. Their decisions, and the consequences of these decisions, create conflict and tension, adding depth and complexity to the story.
The choices a protagonist makes can tell us a lot about their character. They provide insight into the protagonist’s values, motivations, strengths, and weaknesses.
For example, a protagonist who continually makes selfless choices is revealing a fundamentally altruistic nature, while a protagonist who frequently opts for the easier path may be showing a more self-interested or pragmatic side.
Protagonists serve as the core of entertainment in storytelling. They’re the characters that audiences spend the most time with, investing in their journey and rooting for their success. They draw audiences into the world of the story, making it vibrant and engaging.
A well-crafted protagonist can elicit a wide range of emotions from the audience. They can make us laugh with their wit and humor, gasp at their daring feats, or cheer for their victories.
The dramatic ups and downs of their journey, their struggles against adversity, and their triumphs against all odds can create a roller-coaster of emotions that keep audiences captivated.
Even in moments of quiet or introspection, protagonists can captivate audiences. Their inner struggles, dreams, doubts, and hopes can provide a rich exploration of the human condition, offering both entertainment and insight.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does the protagonist have to be a hero or a good person?
No, the protagonist does not necessarily have to be a hero or a good person. While the term is often associated with heroic characters, it’s possible for the protagonist to be an anti-hero or even a villain.
In these cases, the protagonist may have values that are different from conventional heroes, or they might go about achieving their goals in unconventional or morally ambiguous ways.
Can there be more than one protagonist in a story?
Yes, there can be more than one protagonist in a story. This is often seen in ensemble casts, where multiple characters share equal importance in the narrative.
These characters often have separate storylines that may intertwine and impact one another. In such stories, each protagonist might have their own goals, conflicts, and character development.
What is a protagonist’s ‘character arc’?
A character arc refers to the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story.
For the protagonist, this is often a critical aspect of the narrative. It’s the path of evolution they follow, marked by significant events that impact their beliefs, decisions, and actions.
This transformation can be positive (growth), negative (fall), or remain unchanged (static), depending on the story’s demands.
Can a story work without a protagonist?
While it’s theoretically possible, stories without a clear protagonist are rare and can be challenging to execute effectively.
Protagonists serve as the primary point of engagement for the reader or viewer, providing a throughline for the narrative and an anchor for the audience’s emotional investment.
That said, some experimental narratives might eschew a conventional protagonist in favor of a more ensemble or collective approach.
A protagonist breathes life into a story, driving its momentum with their aspirations and struggles. They’re human, flawed yet relatable, engaging our empathy as we journey with them.
As readers, we experience their triumphs, failures, growth, and transformations, and it is this intimate connection that makes a protagonist not just a character, but a reflection of ourselves.
The protagonist is the heart and soul of any narrative, serving as the crucial thread that weaves an unforgettable tale, ultimately reminding us of our own potential to be the heroes of our lives.
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