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Protagonist

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English Literature

The protagonist is the central character of a text, and they are essential to many works of literature as it is their journey that readers follow. However, there's much more to the protagonist than them being the main character. Let's take a further look into the meaning of the word 'protagonist', the roles a protagonist can play within texts, and some examples of famous protagonists.

What is a Protagonist?

A protagonist is the main character in a text who plays an active role in the plot. The reader follows the protagonist's journey most closely in comparison to other characters.

What is the purpose of a protagonist?

The protagonist is the driving force of a story, and it is the protagonist's attempts at pursuing a goal that are followed most closely, as their decisions are observed and followed by the reader. Other words for 'protagonist' include:

  • Lead
  • Proponent
  • Principal/lead/central character/figure/player

The etymology of the word 'protagonist' dates back to the Greek word, prōtagōnistēs, meaning 'actor who plays the chief or first part'. The word prōtagōnistēs is derived from prōtos meaning 'first' and agōnistēs meaning 'actor', or 'competitor'.

How do you develop a Protagonist?

What's one of the first things you have to think about before you can begin to really delve into the complexities of writing a story? Knowing who your protagonist (or protagonists!) is definitely one of these vital first steps due to their central position in the story's development.

However, although the protagonist is often the focal point of a text, this does not mean that the protagonist is always the narrator – the story can also be told from a third-person point of view, or even by characters who are not the protagonist.

Something else to keep in mind is that, if the protagonist is narrating the story, this does not necessarily mean that the contents of the story are being told in a factual or unbiased way – your protagonist could be an unreliable narrator. Often, not everything is made clear to the protagonist, as there may be information that the writer chooses to keep hidden from them. You can use this technique to develop the character of your protagonist as they gradually discover new information over the course of the story.

Tips for creating your own protagonist

1. Make your protagonist complex by giving your protagonist a multi-layered personality with a mixture of traits, both good and bad.

2. Make your protagonist relatable by observing the characteristics and behaviours reflected in yourself and the people around you to make your protagonist more human. Some writers want to make their protagonist unrelatable and that's perfectly fine! However, it is important to retain a human element so that readers can sympathise with your character and, as a result, want to follow their story!

3. Add stakes to your protagonist's story by creating an 'all or nothing' situation. Readers need to feel like the protagonist has to keep pushing forward with their progress. At the same time, the quest for the protagonist's development must feel achievable.

Protagonist examples

The Great Gatsby (1925)

Jay Gatsby is the protagonist in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby. However, even though Jay Gatsby is the protagonist of the novel, the novel is narrated by a supporting character, Nick Carraway. As the novel focuses on Gatsby's life through Carraway's viewpoint, the reader is only aware of the protagonist's thoughts, feelings, and experiences when Carraway is permitted to find out.

Why do you think the author may have chosen to narrate Jay Gatsby's experiences through Nick Carraway's perspective? What effect could this have on the reader's impression of the text?

The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

Offred is the protagonist and first-person narrator in Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale. Offred's real name is not made explicitly clear, but it is assumed by many readers to be 'June'. This is because, when the Handmaids whisper their names to each other in The Red Centre (where they are prepared for their roles as Handmaids), 'June' is the only name that never appears again. The name 'Offred' is given to her by the oppressive regime of the Republic of Gilead that she lives in. The reader is exposed to Gilead through the internal conflicts and thoughts of Offred, as she experiences it herself. Although Offred is the protagonist and narrator, this does not give the readers all the information that they would want. This is because Offred navigates this new society and the readers navigate it through and with her.

Why might an author use first-person narration to portray the experiences of their protagonist? How might this affect the reader's connection to the main character?

Romeo and Juliet (1597)

Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet are the protagonists in William Shakespeare's play, Romeo and Juliet. Although Romeo and Juliet are the protagonists, they are not the narrators of their own story in this play. It is not explicitly clear who the narrator is or to whom the narrator is speaking – this is called indirect narration. There are also elements of direct narration where the narrator speaks directly to the audience. The unknown, nameless narrator is used to explain the events of the play and sheds light on some of the play's themes.

Macbeth (1606)

Lord Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis and, later, the Thane of Cawdor, is the protagonist of another of William Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth. Although Lord Macbeth is the protagonist, he is not the narrator. The audience follows the story by observing Macbeth's actions and listening to the dialogue to gain more information about the plot. Macbeth also features three witches who narrate the tale by offering commentary on the events that unfold. However, since Macbeth is not the narrator, the reader must use skills of inference as his internal thoughts are not always explicit unless he or the narrators chose to voice them.

Types of Protagonists

A false protagonist

A false protagonist refers to a protagonist who readers assume is the main character in a text before it is revealed that this is not the case. After the focus on the false protagonist is interrupted in some way, the writer then switches to the 'true' protagonist. This changes the lens through which readers experience the plot, and can also serve to disorient the reader.

George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones (1996) follows the protagonist Ned Stark, and it is from his point of view that most of the story is told. However, Ned Stark is later killed off and replaced with various other protagonists.

A hero

A hero is a type of protagonist who does traditionally heroic acts. Amongst these heroic acts, questions of morality and good decision-making may be highlighted as integral to the performance of heroism. These acts of heroism may be beneficial not only to the hero but also to others, contributing to the idea that the protagonist is the 'good guy' or hero of the story.

The folklore tales of the legend of King Arthur features King Arthur as a hero because he defended Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th Century.


A female protagonist is called a 'heroine'. However, the term 'hero' does not exclusively need to be used for a male protagonist, whilst the term 'heroine' is exclusively used for a female protagonist.

An antihero is a type of protagonist who has characteristics not typically associated with a traditional hero. Antiheroes are protagonists because it is their story that is followed by the reader. The antihero's journey is documented by the writer. An antihero is a character that does not have typically 'heroic' characteristics such as being an unmatched warrior who is also humble, kind, and positive. Instead, an antihero could be cynical and a realist, they could have good intentions but show no remorse when their 'bad' methods have poor results.

Jay Gatsby is the antihero of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. His dreams of success are pursued through unsavoury acts and his rejection of his past. His greed fuels his actions, yet readers still root for him to achieve the aim of being with his love, Daisy Buchanan.

What is the opposite of a Protagonist?

An antagonist is the opposite of a protagonist. We do not necessarily follow the journey of the antagonist, but the antagonist is central to creating conflict in a text. The protagonist then reacts to the conflict that the antagonist creates, and the decisions the protagonist makes to deal with this conflict drive the story forward.

The antagonist is traditionally villainous. There may be a single antagonist or multiple antagonists. It is common for an antagonist to have opposing values to the protagonist, and it is this conflict in character or morals that causes friction between the protagonist and antagonist. The antagonist does not always have to cause direct conflict by having typically villainous traits, but there is something about them that provokes the protagonist.

Antagonists can be seen as an obstacle to the protagonist. With this in mind, the antagonist does not always have to be a character; the antagonist could also be an idea, concept, system or institution, for example.

Top tip: an easy way to remember the purpose of an antagonist in a story is to remember that the antagonist 'antagonises' the protagonist. By provoking a reaction in the protagonist, the antagonist aids in the development of the story.

Antagonist examples

The Great Gatsby

The main antagonist of The Great Gatsby is Tom Buchanan. He is the main obstacle between Jay Gatsby and the attainment of his goal: his reunion with his former lover Daisy Buchanan.

The Handmaid's Tale

The main antagonist of The Handmaid's Tale is the regime of the Republic of Gilead. The protagonist, Offred, must navigate her survival under the oppressive regime which prevents her from attaining what she wants from life.

Romeo and Juliet

The main antagonists of Romeo and Juliet are the Montague and Capulet families who keep the two protagonists, Romeo and Juliet, away from each other. The old feud between the two families serves as the obstacle that keeps Romeo and Juliet apart despite their love for one another.

Macbeth

The antagonist or antagonists in Macbeth can be multiple different characters depending on who you ask! In some cases, Macbeth can be considered his own antagonist because his ambition and greed provoke him to kill Duncan and Banquo on his quest to seize the throne. However, you could also consider Duncan, Banquo, and any other possible threats to Macbeth seizing the throne as antagonists, because they provoke Macbeth to carry out immoral actions.

Protagonist - Key takeaways

  • A protagonist is the main character in a work of literature. The protagonist plays an active role in the plot of the story, and it is the protagonist's journey that the reader follows most closely.
  • The protagonist is often the focal point of a text, but this does not mean that the protagonist is always the narrator of a text. The story can instead be told from a third-person viewpoint or from a character who is not the protagonist.
  • Compelling protagonists are complex in the way humans are: they have a mixture of good and bad traits, the reader can relate to them in certain ways, and they often have to face an 'all or nothing' situation that is nevertheless achievable so that readers are motivated to follow their development.
  • The three most common types of protagonists are the hero, the antihero and the false protagonist.
  • The opposite of a protagonist is an antagonist. The antagonist provokes the protagonist to do actions that drive the story and their personal development forward.

Protagonist

  • Jay Gasby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925).
  • Offred in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).
  • Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1597).
  • Lord Macbeth in Willam Shakespeare's Macbeth (1606).
  • King Arthur in the Arthurian Legends.

A female protagonist is called a heroine.

In a story, a protagonist is who readers follow. Readers witness the protagonist's journey and decisions.

The protagonist and antagonist are essential components in a text. The antagonist provokes the protagonist to drive the story forward with their actions and decisions in reaction to this provocation.  

A protagonist is the main character in a text. The reader follows the protagonist’s journey most closely in comparison to other characters.  

Final Protagonist Quiz

Question

What is a protagonist?

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Answer

A protagonist is the main character in a work of literature. The protagonist plays an active role in the plot of the story. The reader follows the protagonist’s journey most closely in comparison to other characters.  

Show question

Question

What is an example of a protagonist?

Show answer

Answer

  • The Great Gatsby (1925): Jay Gatsby
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (1985): Offred
  • Romeo and Juliet (1597): Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet
  • Macbeth (1606): Lord Macbeth

Show question

Question

What is a female protagonist called?

Show answer

Answer

A female protagonist is called a 'heroine'.

Show question

Question

What is a protagonist in a story?

Show answer

Answer

A protagonist is the main character in a work of literature. The protagonist plays an active role in the plot of the story. The reader follows the protagonist’s journey most closely in comparison to other characters.  A protagonist is a driving force in the story. It is the protagonist whose attempts at pursuing a goal are followed most closely. 

Show question

Question

How do you create your own protagonist?

Show answer

Answer

  • Give your protagonist a mixture of traits so they are complex in the way humans are. Avoid giving them moral extremes.

  • Make your protagonist relatable. What characteristics do you see in yourself or others that you think readers will have common ground with?

  • Add stakes to your protagonist’s story! Create an ‘all or nothing’ situation. Readers need to feel like the protagonist has to keep pushing forward with their progress. At the same time, the quest or the protagonist’s development must feel achievable

Show question

Question

What are the three most common types of protagonists?

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Answer

The three most common types of protagonists are heroes, antiheroes and false protagonists.

Show question

Question

What is a hero?

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Answer

Traditionally, a hero is a type of protagonist who does heroic acts

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Question

What is an antihero?

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Answer

An antihero is a type of protagonist who has characteristics that are not typically associated with a traditional hero

Show question

Question

What is a false protagonist?

Show answer

Answer

A false protagonist refers to a protagonist which readers assume is the main character in a text. The writer later switches to another protagonist, who one can assume is the true protagonist.  

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Question

What is the opposite of a protagonist?

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Answer

An antagonist is the opposite of a protagonist

Antagonists can be seen as an obstacle to the protagonist. With this in mind, the antagonist does not always have to be a character. It could be an idea or concept, or something more similar to an institution.  

Show question

Question

What are synonyms for 'protagonist'?

Show answer

Answer

Synonyms for 'protagonist' are:

  • Lead.
  • Proponent.
  • Principal/lead/central character/figure/player.

Show question

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