A protagonist () is the main character of a story. The protagonist makes key decisions that affect the plot, primarily influencing the story and propelling it forward, and is often the character who faces the most significant obstacles. If a story contains a subplot
, or is a narrative made up of several stories, then each subplot may have its own protagonist.
The protagonist is the character whose fate is most closely followed by the reader or audience, and who is opposed by the
An antagonist is a character in a story who is presented as the chief foe of the protagonist.
The English word antagonist comes from the Greek ἀνταγωνιστής – ''antagonistēs'', "opponent, competitor, villain, enemy, ri ...
. The antagonist provides obstacles and complications and creates conflicts that test the protagonist, revealing the strengths and weaknesses of the protagonist's character, and having the protagonist develop as a result.
The term ''protagonist'' comes , combined of (, 'first') and (, 'actor, competitor'), which stems from (, 'contest') via (, 'I contend for a prize').
The earliest known examples of a protagonist are found in
Ancient Greece ( el, Ἑλλάς, Hellás) was a northeastern Mediterranean civilization, existing from the Greek Dark Ages of the 12th–9th centuries BC to the end of classical antiquity ( AD 600), that comprised a loose collection of cult ...
. At first, dramatic performances involved merely dancing and recitation by the chorus. Then in ''
Poetics is the theory of structure, form, and discourse within literature, and, in particular, within poetry.
The term ''poetics'' derives from the Ancient Greek ποιητικός ''poietikos'' "pertaining to poetry"; also "creative" an ...
Aristotle (; grc-gre, Ἀριστοτέλης ''Aristotélēs'', ; 384–322 BC) was a Greek philosopher and polymath during the Classical period in Ancient Greece. Taught by Plato, he was the founder of the Peripatetic school of ...
describes how a poet named
Thespis (; grc-gre, Θέσπις; fl. 6th century BC) was an Ancient Greek poet. He was born in the ancient city of Icarius (present-day Dionysos, Greece). According to certain Ancient Greek sources and especially Aristotle, he was the first pe ...
introduced the idea of one actor stepping out and engaging in a dialogue with the chorus. This was the invention of tragedy, and occurred about 536 B.C. Then the poet
Aeschylus (, ; grc-gre, Αἰσχύλος ; c. 525/524 – c. 456/455 BC) was an ancient Greek tragedian, and is often described as the father of tragedy. Academic knowledge of the genre begins with his work, and understanding of earlier Greek ...
, in his plays, introduced a second actor, inventing the idea of dialogue between two characters.
Sophocles (; grc, Σοφοκλῆς, , Sophoklễs; 497/6 – winter 406/5 BC)Sommerstein (2002), p. 41. is one of three ancient Greek tragedians, at least one of whose plays has survived in full. His first plays were written later than, or c ...
then wrote plays that included a third actor.
A description of the protagonist's origin cited that during the early period of Greek drama, the protagonist served as the author, the director, and the actor and that these roles were only separated and allocated to different individuals later. There is also a claim that the poet did not assign or create the protagonist as well as other terms for actors such as ''deuteragonist'' and ''tritagonist'' primarily because he only gave actors their appropriate part.] However, these actors were assigned their specific areas at the stage with the protagonist always entering from the middle door or that the dwelling of the '' deuteragonist'' (second most important character) should be on the right hand, and the '' tritagonist'' (third most important character), the left.
In Ancient Greece, the protagonist is distinguished from the term "hero", which was used to refer to a human who became a semi-divine being in the narrative.
In literary terms, a hero (masculine) or heroine (feminine) protagonist is typically admired for their achievements and noble qualities. Heroes are lauded for their strength, courage, virtuousness, and honor, and are considered to be the "good guys" of the narrative.
Examples include DC Comics'
Superman is a superhero who appears in American comic books published by DC Comics. The character was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, and debuted in the comic book ''Action Comics'' #1 ( cover-dated June 1938 and pub ... (hero) and Katniss Everdeen
Katniss Everdeen is a fictional character and the protagonist of ''The Hunger Games'' trilogy written by American author Suzanne Collins. Her name comes from a plant with edible tubers called ''Sagittaria'' (katniss), from Sagittarius the Arche ... from '' The Hunger Games
''The Hunger Games'' is a series of young adult dystopian novels written by American author Suzanne Collins. The first three novels are part of a trilogy following teenage protagonist Katniss Everdeen, and the fourth book is a prequel set 6 ...'' (heroine).
An antihero (sometimes spelled as anti-hero) or antiheroine is a main character in a story who lacks conventional heroic qualities and attributes such as idealism, courage, and morality.
Holden Caulfield (identified as "Holden Morrisey Caulfield" in the story "Slight Rebellion Off Madison" , and "Holden V. Caulfield" in ''The Catcher In The Rye'') is a fictional character in the works of author J. D. Salinger. He's most famous ... from '' The Catcher in the Rye
''The Catcher in the Rye'' is an American novel by J. D. Salinger that was partially published in serial form from 1945–46 before being novelized in 1951. Originally intended for adults, it is often read by adolescents for its themes of angst ...'', Scarlett O'Hara
Katie Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler is a fictional character and the protagonist in Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel '' Gone with the Wind'' and in the 1939 film of the same name, where she is portrayed by Vivien Leigh. She also is the ... from '' Gone With the Wind'' and Jay Gatsby from '' The Great Gatsby
''The Great Gatsby'' is a 1925 novel by American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Set in the Jazz Age on Long Island, near New York City, the novel depicts first-person narrator Nick Carraway's interactions with mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby ...''.
A tragic hero is the protagonist of a tragedy.
Examples include Oedipus from ''
''Oedipus Rex'', also known by its Greek title, ''Oedipus Tyrannus'' ( grc, Οἰδίπους Τύραννος, ), or ''Oedipus the King'', is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles that was first performed around 429 BC. Originally, to the ancient G ...'' and Prince Hamlet
A prince is a male ruler (ranked below a king, grand prince, and grand duke) or a male member of a monarch's or former monarch's family. ''Prince'' is also a title of nobility (often highest), often hereditary, in some European states. The ... from Shakespeare's '' Hamlet
''The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark'', often shortened to ''Hamlet'' (), is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare sometime between 1599 and 1601. It is Shakespeare's longest play, with 29,551 words. Set in Denmark, the play depic ...''.
The protagonist is not always conventionally good. Contrasting the hero protagonist, a villain protagonist is a protagonist who is a
A villain (also known as a " black hat" or "bad guy"; the feminine form is villainess) is a stock character, whether based on a historical narrative or one of literary fiction. ''Random House Unabridged Dictionary'' defines such a character ..., driving the story forward regardless of the evil qualities the main character has. These traits can include being cruel, malicious, and wicked.
Examples include Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov's '' Lolita
''Lolita'' is a 1955 novel written by Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov. The novel is notable for its controversial subject: the protagonist and unreliable narrator, a middle-aged literature professor under the pseudonym Humbert Humber ...'' and Richard III in William Shakespeare's
William Shakespeare ( 26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) was an English playwright, poet and actor. He is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's natio ... eponymous play.
When a supporting protagonist appears, the story is told from the perspective of a character who appears to be minor. This character may be more peripheral from the events of the story and are not as involved within the "main action" of the plot. The supporting protagonist may be telling the story while viewing another character as the main influence of the plot.
Examples include Nick from ''
The Great Gatsby
''The Great Gatsby'' is a 1925 novel by American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Set in the Jazz Age on Long Island, near New York City, the novel depicts first-person narrator Nick Carraway's interactions with mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby ...'' and Bilbo Baggins from '' The Hobbit
''The Hobbit, or There and Back Again'' is a children's fantasy novel by English author J. R. R. Tolkien. It was published in 1937 to wide critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the ''N ...''.
Euripides (; grc, Εὐριπίδης, Eurīpídēs, ; ) was a tragedian of classical Athens. Along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, he is one of the three ancient Greek tragedians for whom any plays have survived in full. Some ancient scholars at ...' play '' Hippolytus'' may be considered to have two protagonists, though one at a time. Phaedra is the protagonist of the first half, who dies partway through the play. Her stepson, the titular Hippolytus, assumes the dominant role in the second half of the play.
In Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Johan Ibsen (; ; 20 March 1828 – 23 May 1906) was a Norwegian playwright and theatre director. As one of the founders of modernism in theatre, Ibsen is often referred to as "the father of theatrical realism, realism" and one of the mo ...'s play '' The Master Builder
''The Master Builder'' ( no, Bygmester Solness) is a play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.
It was first published in December 1892 and is regarded as one of Ibsen's more significant and revealing works.
The play was published ...'', the protagonist is the architect Halvard Solness. The young woman, Hilda Wangel, whose actions lead to the death of Solness, is the antagonist.
In Shakespeare's play '' Romeo and Juliet
''Romeo and Juliet'' is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare early in his career about the romance between two Italian youths from feuding families. It was among Shakespeare's most popular plays during his lifetime and, along with ''Ham ...'', Romeo is the protagonist. He is actively in pursuit of his relationship with Juliet, and the audience is invested in that story. Tybalt, as an antagonist, opposes Romeo and attempts to thwart the relationship.
In Shakespeare's play '' Hamlet
''The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark'', often shortened to ''Hamlet'' (), is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare sometime between 1599 and 1601. It is Shakespeare's longest play, with 29,551 words. Set in Denmark, the play depic ...'', Prince Hamlet, who seeks revenge for the murder of his father, is the protagonist. The antagonist is the character who most opposes Hamlet, Claudius (though, in many ways, Hamlet is his own antagonist).
Sometimes, a work will have a false protagonist, who may seem to be the protagonist, but then may disappear unexpectedly. The character Marion in Alfred Hitchcock
Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock (13 August 1899 – 29 April 1980) was an English filmmaker. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of cinema. In a career spanning six decades, he directed over 50 featur ...'s film '' Psycho'' (1960) is an example.
A novel may contain a number of narratives, each with its own protagonist. Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. (11 December 1918 – 3 August 2008) was a Russian novelist. One of the most famous Soviet dissidents, Solzhenitsyn was an outspoken critic of communism and helped to raise global awareness of political repr ...'s '' The First Circle'', for example, depicts a variety of characters imprisoned and living in a gulag
The Gulag, an acronym for , , "chief administration of the camps". The original name given to the system of camps controlled by the GPU was the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps (, )., name=, group= was the government agency in ... camp. Leo Tolstoy
Count Lev Nikolayevich TolstoyTolstoy pronounced his first name as , which corresponds to the romanization ''Lyov''. () (; russian: link=no, Лев Николаевич Толстой,In Tolstoy's day, his name was written as in pre-refor ...'s '' War and Peace
''War and Peace'' (russian: Война и мир, translit=Voyna i mir; pre-reform Russian: ; ) is a literary work by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy that mixes fictional narrative with chapters on history and philosophy. It was first published ...'' depicts fifteen major characters involved in or affected by a war.
Though many people equate protagonists with the term hero
A hero (feminine: heroine) is a real person or a main fictional character who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through feats of ingenuity, courage, or strength. Like other formerly gender-specific terms (like ''actor''), ''her ... and possessing heroic qualities, it is not necessary, as even villainous characters can be protagonists. For example Michael Corleone from '' The Godfather
''The Godfather'' is a 1972 American crime film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mario Puzo, based on Puzo's best-selling 1969 The Godfather (novel), novel of the same title. The film stars Marlon Brando, Al ...'' (1972–1990) film series (1978–1983).
In some cases, the protagonist is not a human: in Richard Adams' novel '' Watership Down
''Watership Down'' is an adventure novel by English author Richard Adams, published by Rex Collings Ltd of London in 1972. Set in Berkshire in southern England, the story features a small group of rabbits. Although they live in their natural ...,'' a group of anthropomorphised
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.
Personification is the related attribution of human form and characteristics t ... rabbits, led by the protagonist Hazel, escape their warren after seeing a vision of its destruction, starting a perilous journey to find a new home. [Adams, Richard, 1920–2016. Watership Down. London: Rex Collings Ltd, 1972. Print.]
Ancient Greek theatre