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Definition of protagonist

Did you know.

Struggle, or conflict, is central to drama. The protagonist or hero of a play, novel, or film is involved in a struggle of some kind, either against someone or something else or even against his or her own emotions. So the hero is the "first struggler", which is the literal meaning of the Greek word prōtagōnistēs. A character who opposes the hero is the antagonist , from a Greek verb that means literally "to struggle against".

Example Sentences

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'protagonist.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback .

Word History

Greek prōtagōnistēs , from prōt- prot- + agōnistēs competitor at games, actor, from agōnizesthai to compete, from agōn contest, competition at games — more at agony

1671, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Dictionary Entries Near protagonist


Cite this Entry

“Protagonist.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/protagonist. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

Kids Definition

Kids definition of protagonist, more from merriam-webster on protagonist.

Nglish: Translation of protagonist for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of protagonist for Arabic Speakers

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about protagonist

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I.  What is a Protagonist?

Protagonist (pronounced  pro-TAG-oh-nist) is just another word for “main character.” The story circles around this character’s experiences, and the audience is invited to see the world from his or her perspective. Note that the protagonist is not necessarily a “good guy.” Although most of the time the protagonist is some kind of hero, sometimes we see the whole story from the perspective of a villain.

Most stories have only one protagonist, but it’s entirely possible to have a story that weaves together multiple different perspectives. In such a story, the different narrative threads should all get tied together in the end.

II.  Examples of Protagonist

The word “hero” originally derives from Heracles, the Greek name for Hercules. So many of our heroic protagonists are based in some way on this archetypal hero whose tremendous strength allowed him to slay monsters that no one else could defeat. In modern stories, our heroes tend to be more complicated than the classical monster-slayer – not always, though! Plenty of modern super heroes can be seen doing battle with giant, destructive monsters.

Villain protagonists are often created by re-telling classic stories from the perspective of the villain. For example, John Gardner’s Grendel tells the story of Beowulf from the monster’s perspective. In the story, Grendel starts out as merely misunderstood, not evil. Years of abuse, however, ultimately turn him into the monster we see in Beowulf .

Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit is a good example of a supporting protagonist. The major events surround Thorin Oakenshield, the exiled Dwarf King, trying to reclaim his kingdom. But Bilbo, a simple member of Thorin’s company, is the main character in the narrative as told by Tolkien and Peter Jackson.

III. Types of Protagonist

Most protagonists are heroes. That is, they are “good guys” and have the audience’s full sympathy. The hero is morally upstanding, and usually some kind of leader, either of a small ragtag band or a massive army. Either way, a hero is morally right, and generally less in need of development than other characters .

B. Anti-Hero

An anti-hero is one who has characteristics completely opposed to those of an ordinary hero. This may apply to the character’s psychology (i.e. loners and mentally ill people), ethics (i.e. a hero who does not follow ordinary moral codes) or just personality (i.e. sarcastic, cynical, or ironic). An anti-hero may be in a moral grey area, or make us feel uneasy in some way, but such characters are ultimately redeemed. They’re still heroes, after all.

C. Villain Protagonist

Unlike an anti-hero, a villain is never redeemed – this character is just a “bad guy.” But in some cases, the villain is also the protagonist, or the main character of the story. For example, the protagonist of American Psycho is the serial killer Patrick Bateman, whose actions are in no way justified by the plot.

D. Supporting Protagonist

Most protagonists are major characters in their own right – whether they are heroes, anti-heroes or villains, they are central to all the action that takes place in the story. Occasionally, though, a writer will experiment with a supporting protagonist, or a main character who is more peripheral to the events. For example, the most important person at the White House is clearly President Obama. But you might have a story set in the White House in which the main character is the president’s Chief of Staff, or one of his aides. In this case, the protagonist has a “supporting” role in the events , despite being the central figure of the story .

IV. The Importance of Protagonists

Protagonists give the audience someone to focus on and lend narrative unity to the story. Without a protagonist, the story’s various elements would have nothing to tie them together. And if the protagonist is boring, then the story will not be compelling and readers will not care what happens next.

In general, the protagonist is the person that the audience relates to – we imagine ourselves in her shoes, suffer with her failures, and exult in her successes. Of course, this is definitely not the case with a villain protagonist. In those cases, we want the protagonist to lose in the end.

V. Examples of Protagonists in Literature

The protagonist shifts somewhat in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings In the first book, it’s clearly Frodo Baggins whose perspective defines the trajectory of the narrative. However, in the later books Frodo parts ways from the rest of the Fellowship, and for several books there are at least two distinct plotlines: one with Frodo as the protagonist, and the other with Aragorn as the protagonist.

Sherlock Holmes straddles the line between hero and anti-hero. He uses cocaine, which makes him seem somewhat edgy and dangerous to modern audiences (although Victorian readers would not have been fazed by this). In addition, he sometimes oversteps his role as a detective by letting perpetrators go free if he sympathizes with their actions, and threatening them with death rather than arrest. Watson, in these books, is the narrator, and, some readers would argue, the protagonist as well – but at most he is a supporting

VI. Examples of Protagonists in Popular Culture

The two classic superheroes, Superman and Captain America, are so influential as heroes that they have begun to seem boring and generic to many audiences. They are morally uncomplicated, fearless, and possess all the qualities of strength and leadership that we expect from a classic hero. As the comic book world has grown increasingly cynical and ironic, these characters have decreased in popularity and writers have begun to subvert their heroism in various ways. For example, recent depictions of Captain America have shown him as an egotistical meddler; someone who struggles to be a leader and often earns resentment from his followers rather than loyalty.

The Star Wars movies exemplify many of the tropes seen in this article. In the original trilogy, the protagonist is Luke Skywalker, a pretty typical hero. Notice that Luke’s personality is fairly generic throughout the films, making it easy for people, especially young people, to relate to him. The deuteragonist, however, is Han Solo, who hovers somewhere in between a hero and an anti-hero.

Eric Cartman from South Park often comes in as a villain protagonist. He’s pretty irredeemable, and usually does evil things out of sheer narcissism and spite rather than out of any sense of justice. Yet he’s clearly the main character of many episodes.

VII. Related Terms

The antagonist is the opposite of a protagonist – this is the enemy, the character who opposes the main character. Typically, this is the villain, but not always. Note that not every story has an antagonist – in some stories, the protagonist is struggling against circumstance, natural disasters, or some other impersonal force. In these stories, the source of conflict is not an antagonist.

A secondary main character, less important than the protagonist but still essential to the story, is called a deuteragonist . Examples might include Sam Gamgee from Lord of the Rings , or Han Solo from Star Wars . These characters are not protagonists in any sense – they are not at the center of the events, nor are they at the center of the story , as a supporting protagonist would be.

Deuteragonists can also be heroes, villains, or anti-heroes, just like protagonists. However, when people talk about “ the hero ” (of a story), they’re usually talking about the protagonist rather than a deuteragonist.

List of Terms


Protagonist definition.

A protagonist is the central character or leading figure in poetry, narrative , novel or any other story . A protagonist is sometimes a “ hero ” to the audience or readers. The word originally came from the Greek language, and in Greek drama it refers to the person who led the chorus. Later on, the word started being used as a term for the first actor in order of performance.

Examples of Protagonist from Literature

Example #1: hamlet (by william shakespeare), example #2: vanity fair (by william makepeace thackeray).

A protagonist can sometimes be very controversial because of some evil traits. One of the good examples of protagonist who is controversial would be Becky Sharp from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair , who is occasionally be very manipulative in order to achieve her own interests.

Example #3: As I Lay Dying (By William Faulkner)

Protagonist examples from cinema, example #4: star wars (by george lucas), function of protagonist.

Some stories weave many characters into an ensemble story, but even in such stories there is often one character that is more important to the story than the rest. For instance, in The Lord of the Rings trilogy there are many characters that have great significance to the story, but Frodo Baggins is the one who stands out, because everyone else’s destiny rests in his hands.

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“Hero” vs. “Protagonist”: What Is The Difference?

Many stories have one thing in common: a brave main character who ends up saving the day. But does slaying the dragon or defusing the bomb make this person a hero or a protagonist ? And can the two words be used interchangeably?

The correct answer to both is yes, with the caveat that the words are not always synonymous. Both nouns have multiple definitions and some, but not all, overlap so it depends on the intended meaning. Although protagonist isn’t a synonym for hero when describing a hero sub sandwich, it can be if referring to that courageous dragon killer who saved everyone in the story.

Let’s take a closer look.

What does  hero  mean?

Hero is a noun that means a brave person who is “noted for courageous acts or nobility of character.” For example: The fire department has deemed her a hero for running into the neighbor’s burning house to try to save the sleeping family. 

Hero can also be defined as “a person who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities, or personal qualities and is regarded as a role model or ideal.” For example: His soccer coach is his personal hero for all that he accomplished in his career before retiring. 

But a hero can also refer to a story’s principal male character (and traditionally, heroine for a main female character). Although hero was originally strictly used for a man, it’s important to note that the word is becoming more gender neutral with time and is no longer completely reserved for just males.

In classic mythology, the hero is someone who is deemed as a godlike being and honored as a divinity; a talented warrior- chieftain with special strength; or an immortal being.

And then in a different category from demigods , but still possibly just as important to foodies, a hero can also be a type of sandwich as well as the specific bread used for a hero sandwich.

First recorded in 1605–15, hero originated from the plural Middle English heroes via the singular Latin  hērōs and Greek hḗrōs.  Some synonyms for hero include  icon , idol , and don’t forget, hoagie .

Go Behind The Words!

WATCH: What Did The Word "Hero" Used To Mean?

What does protagonist mean.

Like hero , protagonist is a noun that can mean the leading character in a story. However, unlike hero , which historically has only referred to a male characters, a protagonist is defined as “a hero or heroine of a drama or other literary work.”

For example: throughout much of the play, the protagonist struggles with guilt related to his brother’s death.

A protagonist can also mean someone who is a proponent for or advocate of a political cause. Protagonist can also refer to the leader or principal person in that movement or cause. For example: After the Valentine’s Day school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, many of the students became unlikely protagonists in the battle for gun control. Or: The new presidential candidate stole the limelight from the usual protagonists with a plan for a universal four-day workweek.

But in the context of an ancient Greek drama, the protagonist is the first actor who plays the main role as well as other characters when the lead is offstage.

The word protagonist was first recorded in 1665–75 and derives from the Greek word prōtagōnistḗs (“an actor who plays the first part”) and is equivalent to prôtos, meaning “first,” and  agōnistḗs, meaning “one who contends for a prize, combatant, actor.” In addition to hero or heroine , some other synonyms for protagonist include combatant , idol , advocate , lead , principal , and warrior .

How to use each word

If you are talking about the main character in a story, you can correctly use both hero and protagonist (taking into consideration the lead’s gender and noting that hero originally meant a male character).

But if you’re describing someone who has proven to be universally brave, like doctors on the frontline treating COVID-19 patients without proper personal protective equipment , then the correct word is hero and not protagonist . The same is true for someone who isn’t being praised as courageous but is still a personal role model that a person looks up to. For example: F or as long as he can remember, his older brother has been his hero , and he can’t help but idolize him. 

Someone who is fighting for a political cause and sparking change can be either a hero or a protagonist — depending on the intended meaning. This activist could be a hero to many for the cause he or she is fighting for, but if you are simply describing this person as an advocate for the cause, then only protagonist can correctly be used. For example: Greta Thunberg is a hero to many for taking a protagonist’s role advocating for climate change at such a young age. 

And if you’re talking about your lunch? Sure, you can say that hero sandwich is your hero for saving you from a hungry afternoon.

I f you’re still hungry, find out the difference between macaroons and macarons. Or, see if you have a firm grasp on the difference between using figuratively and literally, here!

Mixed-up Meanings

literary definition protagonist

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Mar 15, 2023

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Posted on Sep 17, 2018

Protagonist vs. Antagonist: A Must-Know Literary Pair, Defined

If there’s one thing every story needs, it’s conflict. And while conflict takes many forms , some of literature’s most beloved stories involve conflict in the classic form of the protagonist and antagonist.

Without the white whale, Moby Dick is just a book about a guy who goes sailing and comes home. If there were no Voldemort, Harry Potter  would simply follow the title character through seven boring years of school. Without Sauron and the Ring, the Fellowship would have just been an odd sight-seeing group touring Middle-earth.

And as enjoyable as that may have been for them,  it wouldn't have made a very good story for the rest of us! That's why it's so important to have some kind of conflict — and furthermore, to have real people be involved in some way. This article will look at those people: protagonists and antagonists. Let's find out who they are, how they oppose each other, and what you can do to craft memorable rivalries fo your own stories.

What is a protagonist?

The protagonist is the lead character of a story. The term derives from classical Greek drama, literally meaning “first actor.” Though often referred to as the “hero” of the story, the protagonist isn’t necessarily virtuous, and also may be just one of many protagonists.

Every narrative will have at least one protagonist, who may serve as the narrator as well. If not, the story will typically follow them in third person limited. Alternately, if there are multiple protagonists, the POV often shifts back and forth, whether that's in first person or third person limited . It may be difficult to identify the protagonist(s) immediately, but you usually know within a few chapters.

literary definition protagonist


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Is the protagonist always the main character?

99% of the time. Some people differentiate between “protagonist” and “main character,” saying that the protagonist moves the story forward, while the main character may be anyone who features heavily — but doesn't necessarily drive the narrative.

For example, Scout is the main character of To Kill a Mockingbird,  but some might say Atticus is the true protagonist: his actions drive the story, while Scout is ultimately more of an observer. The same could be said of Nick and Gatsby in  The Great Gatsby,  as Gatsby is the truly active participant in the story, as Nick mostly observes what happens.

However, for almost all intents and purposes, “protagonist” and “main character” are synonymous terms. Then again, if you're a writer, it may be helpful for you to think of your protagonist purely in terms of what they do! If you find yourself with less of a protagonist and more of a passive main character, you might want to reconsider that character's true role and purpose in your story.

Speaking of which, how many ways can protagonists manifest in different narratives? Let's take a look at the three most common types of protagonists in action.

Types of protagonists

1. lonely hero.

The lonely hero is the standard strain of protagonist, probably because it's seen as the most “heroic” type. As the name implies, the lonely hero is the one and only person who can stop evil from triumphing and save the day. Though they’re usually helped by a team of supporting characters , the ultimate burden of the quest falls squarely on the shoulders of the lonely hero. They are the one who must sacrifice the most in order to accomplish their goal.

Examples of lonely hero protagonists:


2. Group hero

With group hero protagonists, multiple people are equally involved in the story’s main events and conflict. They may not all serve the same purpose or perform the same tasks but pull together to accomplish a single goal. No one person stands out beyond the rest — or if they do, it's only because the group helped them get there. (Whereas the lonely hero can, and ultimately does, rise to the occasion alone.)

Examples of group hero protagonists:

Learn more about what your protagonist is like by downloading this character questionnaire:

literary definition protagonist


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3. Anti-hero

Although protagonists are usually shown as selfless, kind, and courageous heroes, they can also be bitter, sarcastic, and perhaps less-than-morally-upright. In other words, they might be an anti-hero : a hero without typically “heroic” traits.

An anti-hero often starts out as either an impartial party or a lesser villain who begrudgingly engages in conflict with the main  antagonist — usually because there's something in it for them. However, their lack of truly malevolent convictions typically means that they end up in more neutral or even good territory, if only by accident. (Anti-heroes frequently feature in works of grimdark , which specialize in morally gray characters and situations.)

Examples of anti-hero protagonists:

literary definition protagonist

Can the protagonist be the bad guy?

Yes! Though not as common as traditional, heroic protagonists, or even anti-heroes with complex motivations, there are some fully malevolent villains that serve as the protagonists of their own stories. Here are some examples of villainous protagonists:

Sometimes an evil protagonist undergoes a transformative character arc to become good in the end (as with the Grinch). However, sometimes they remain just as monstrous as ever (often a sign of sociopathy, as in the first two examples).

If you're writing a villainous protagonist, just remember that, even if they don't get a redemption arc, they still need to be compelling to readers in some  way. Perhaps they have a delightfully twisted inner monologue, or a weakness that they fear will be found out. Maybe you're writing satire and want to see how far you can push the limits of the genre. But whatever you do, your protagonist cannot be flat or uninteresting — otherwise readers won't understand why you're telling their story in the first place.

Now that we’ve seen who’s standing in the protagonist corner, let’s take a look at those on the opposite side.

What is an antagonist?

The antagonist is the primary opponent of the protagonist, and the biggest obstacle standing between the main character and their goal. This term also derives from Greek: anti, meaning “against,” and agonist, meaning actor.

Like the protagonist, the antagonist can take many different forms. From the traditional villain working alone, to a group of people, a force of nature, or even an intrinsic conflict, the one uniting factor of all antagonists is that they challenge the protagonist in some way. Let’s venture over the dark side for a bit to see how antagonists can take shape, with the four most common types of antagonists.

Types of antagonists

When you think "antagonist," the first thing that comes to mind is probably a classic evil-doing character. This is, of course, the villain antagonist seen so often in stories from Dickens to Disney. Not only do the villain's goals oppose the protagonist's, they are also actively working against them in order to fulfill their own — often selfish or wicked — ambitions.

The villain may have a longstanding grudge against the protagonist and are out for revenge (think Syndrome in The Incredibles ). They may simply want to watch the world burn while the protagonist wants to maintain order (think the Joker in The Dark Knight ).  But whatever their motives (or lack thereof), there's no doubt about the fact that they're a villain through and through.

Examples of classic villain antagonists:


2. Group villain

Of course, just as with protagonists, an antagonist doesn’t have to be one person working alone. It can be an entire group or entity that actively opposes the protagonist. This is the group villain, and though it may have a distinct face or figurehead, the group itself is recognized as the real bad guys.

The group villain usually represents political values and social mores that clash with the protagonist's in a drastic way. As you might expect, the group villain often features in dystopian works , such as those listed below. Group villains can also appear in a more “typical” way, as simply a group of villains — however, this is pretty much exclusive to superhero comics and movies.

Examples of group villain antagonists:

3. Inanimate forces

Though not as common as human antagonists, inanimate forces — such as nature, technology, or the supernatural — can also create resistance that the protagonist needs to overcome. The inanimate force antagonist may take a form akin to a human figure (as with the Terminator below), but as with the group hero's face/figurehead, this form is only a stand-in for the protagonist's true enemy.

Such inanimate forces may be on par with the unfathomably terrifying threats of cosmic horror , or they may be as mundane as bad weather. But either way, this force blocks the protagonist's path to victory and must be neutralized before they can succeed.

Examples of Inanimate Forces as antagonists:

literary definition protagonist

To see how landscape figure as a villain, check out these 10 post-apocalyptic novels  to read before the world ends.

4. Intrinsic forces

This is another type of antagonist that isn't a character, but rather one of the protagonist’s own shortcomings that keeps them from achieving their goals. An intrinsic force drives the “character vs. self” conflict you'll sometimes see in stories. This may be a personality flaw or some sort of physical disadvantage, but it's something the protagonist (and those around them) must defeat — or give into, especially if they have a hero-to-villain arc.

The other thing to remember about the intrinsic force antagonist is that it may not be the only  anatagonist in a story. Often, a character has to grapple with an internal issue and combat an external force at the same time — for example, Frodo battling both his own desire for the ring AND his ultimate enemy, Sauron.

Examples of intrinsic forces as antagonists:

Can the antagonist be the good guy?

Sometimes — or at the very least, the antagonist isn't always as bad as we think they are. Oftentimes, a traumatic past explains why they act the way they do. Or they might want to be good, but got started down the wrong path and now believe it's too late to change

For a character to be considered an antagonist, they only really need to meet one piece of criteria: their goals must conflict with the protagonist’s goals. To show you what we mean, here are some not-evil-on- purpose antagonists:

What about anti-villains?

An anti-villain is slightly different from a “good” antagonist who just happens to oppose the protagonist. The anti-villain is undeniably villainous in behavior, but their motivations make us think twice about how to label them.

Killmonger from Black Panther  is a quintessential anti-villain. His reason for wanting to take over Wakanda is highly justifiable: to redistribute its resources to oppressed people around the world. However, his methods are too extreme and would ultimately cause greater violence — which is why T'Challa must oppose him.

Now, since these characters can be the difference between a memorable story and a forgettable one, we'll provide some essential ground rules to help you create a legendary fictional rivalry.

How to write a protagonist

1. give them purpose.

As the main character of your story, your protagonist needs a reason to do what they do in the scope of the story. Whether shallow or deep, they require some kind of motivation to set the story in motion.

For example, Frodo lived uneventfully in the Shire for many years before finding a greater purpose: destroying the One Ring. This mission is the starting point of his adventure and sets the events of the Lord of the Rings into motion.


2. Don’t make them perfect

Nothing is more boring than reading about a protagonist who checks all the clichéd boxes of a standard archetype, without any defining characteristics that add a new twist. Yes, you might  start  with an archetype as your base, but you need to really develop them from there into someone unique.

A compelling protagonist must be complex , with flaws like any other person. These flaws can become one of your most powerful allies because they can — and should! — affect your protagonist’s actions and decisions.

Is your protagonist too trusting? Too impulsive? Too reckless? Perhaps too honest? These are only a few of the many issues that can get your character into a lot of trouble, and ones they need to overcome throughout the story.

3. Let them change

Another frustrating thing for readers is protagonists who don't change in any way throughout the story — especially if it's a multi-book series. This ties into our previous tip, because obviously a protagonist who's too perfect isn't going to be able to evolve. However, any kind of static character pales in comparison to a dynamic one. The more you allow your protagonist to change and grow, the more excited readers will be to follow their story.


How to write an antagonist

1. give them backstory.

Why does your antagonist want to foil the protagonist? What is their ultimate goal? Just like your protagonist, your antagonist also needs motivation — and explanation for  that motivation. Don’t just create an antagonist for the sake of having a villain. They need both purpose and backstory to be believable and legitimate as a character.

For example, Magneto from the X-Men series is the antagonist of the story. But a glimpse into his past reveals pain and suffering that, understandably, led him to the belief that mutants are superior to humans. He still acts as the evil antagonist, but his backstory gives the reader a reason for his behavior, which makes the whole story much more compelling.


2. Don’t make them too weak (or too powerful)

How might your antagonist be defeated? While it’s true that your antagonist needs to create trouble for your protagonist, and that they will — most likely — be defeated at the end, there needs to be a balance between their strengths and their weaknesses.

If your antagonist is defeated too easily, then the story won’t be satisfying for readers. However, if they're too difficult to defeat, your story might never end (or end on an unrealistic note). Again, no character should be perfect, and that includes your antagonist.

Curious about the psychology of real-life villains? Try checking out a few true crime books to get a feel for their motivations and inner lives.

3. Embrace unusual antagonists

How does the story’s rivalry push or challenge your protagonist? Antagonists such as nature or technology don’t need to be defeated, per se. Instead, their purpose is to show how the protagonist deals with conflict.

For instance, the main antagonist in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is his backward aging. It cannot be overcome or defeated, but it pushes the story forward by creating conflict, as seen through the struggle that Benjamin undertakes.

literary definition protagonist

Keeping this in mind, let's see how a few authors famously secured their protagonists and antagonists in the public consciousness forever.

More examples of protagonists and antagonists

1. pride and prejudice.

Protagonist: Elizabeth Bennet Antagonist: Her prejudice (particularly against Darcy) Rivalry: Though Jane Austen introduces several smaller obstacles between Elizabeth and Darcy — Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Caroline Bingley, Mr. Collins, and George Wickham — the truth is that the main obstacle between Elizabeth and Darcy is their pride and prejudice, which they must overcome in order to be together.

literary definition protagonist

2. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Protagonist: Dr. Jekyll Antagonist: Mr. Hyde Rivalry: It’s a conflict between good and evil — but the main problem at hand is that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person! Burdened by his own poor behaviors, Dr. Jekyll undertakes experiments in order to separate his good and evil sides. The result is the appearance of Mr. Hyde. Their tale not only deals with the eternal rivalry between good and evil, but also with the duality of human nature.

3.  Infinity War

Protagonist:  A veritable hoard of Marvel superheroes Antagonist:  Thanos Rivalry:  In a great example of a group protagonist facing off against a single supervillain, we have literally all the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, AND Wakandans battling Thanos, who wants to destroy half the Earth's population with the Infinity Stones. When aiming for cinematic splendor, you can't go wrong with a collective protagonist!


Whether you have the traditional hero-villain character dynamic, or a non-traditional character rivalry, remember to make full use of the conflict their interactions generate in order to move your story along. By creating complex characters , you will find it much easier to develop an interesting plot and bring your story to life.

What are your favorite protagonist and antagonist rivalries? Let us know in the comments below!

2 responses

Krissmanso says:

24/12/2018 – 02:48

That great? This post refiled that the protagonist is the actor, while the antagonist, the enemy to the actor. Thanks for helping new authors.

Chris Lee says:

02/08/2020 – 12:38

With Avengers Infinity War, Thanos is the character with a goal and the Avengers are working to stop him. Thanos is the protagonist and the Avengers are the antagonists. Thanos even achieves his goal, completing the goal he set out to achieve.As opposed to Batman Returns where The Penguin is the protagonist and Batman is the antagonist, but Batman stops him from achieving his goal in that case.

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English Literature


Protagonist definition.

A protagonist is the central character or leading figure in poetry, narrative , novel or any other story. A protagonist is sometimes a “ hero ” to the audience or readers. The word originally came from the Greek language, and in Greek drama it refers to the person who led the chorus. Later on, the word started being used as a term for the first actor in order of performance.

Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello could be identified as the protagonist of the novel because he played a central role in all the controversies of the play. The question here would be that, even though he was a central character , was he really the lead character too? This type of indistinctness generally results in completely different interpretations of whether the said character is a protagonist or not.

Examples of Protagonist  from Literature

Example #1: hamlet (by william shakespeare).

Protagonist examples in many stories are not shown to be flawless. They generally undergo some change that causes a turn of events. This makes a story interesting and helps deliver a message. Sometimes, a moral weakness shows that causes the fall of the protagonist. For example, in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet , the protagonist experiences terrible events because of his indecisiveness, which troubles him while murdering his evil uncle. So, Hamlet’s struggle in dealing with the antagonist is what precedes the story.

Example #2: Vanity Fair (By William Makepeace Thackeray)

A protagonist can sometimes be very controversial because of some evil traits. One of the good examples of protagonist who is controversial would be Becky Sharp from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair , who is occasionally be very manipulative in order to achieve her own interests.

Example #3: As I Lay Dying (By William Faulkner)

There are ensemble stories that do not particularly highlight either one of the characters more than the rest. For instance, Addie Bundren’s demise in the novel As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, results in her family traveling a long way to bury her, and they all tell the story from their own perspectives, which makes them all equally important to the story. Thus, it leaves us with more than one protagonist in the same story.

Protagonist Examples from Cinema

Example #4: star wars (by george lucas).

George Lucas develops the character of Luke Skywalker in the movie Star Wars . He plays an outwardly naïve farm boy. Luke desperately wants a life different from his monotonous existence. After his uncle’s and aunt’s demise, he has no other choice but to join forces with Obi-wan Kenobe. Luke later matures to understand the customs of The Force. His antagonist in the movie is Darth Vader, who turns out to be Luke’s father. They both get into a major conflict but eventually Luke succeeds.

Function of Protagonist

A protagonist is a very important tool to develop a story. There are different terms for a protagonist, such as hero , focal character , central character , and main character . Regardless of what title you give a protagonist, he or she remains the key ingredient in the development of the story, which is why the story revolves around him or her. More often than not the protagonist is fair and virtuous, and is always supporting the moral good. Further in the plot the protagonist may undergo some change, which will probably be the climax of the story.

Being the central element puts grave responsibilities on the shoulders of a protagonist. Since, the story revolves around the protagonist, he is the one who has to work as an emotional heart of the story, helping the audience connect with it on a basic level. A well-constructed protagonist attracts the audience emotionally.  It helps them relate to the joys, fears, and hopes of the character in the story.

The events occurring in a story are always viewed from the perspective of the protagonist. The audience decides whether or not a particular event is favorable in a story. A wedding is an important and positive event in The Sound of Music because it is a positive event for the protagonist, Maria. However, the same kind of event in the movie While You Were Sleeping would be unfortunate because in that case the protagonist Lucy was marrying the wrong person.

Some stories weave many characters into an ensemble story, but even in such stories there is often one character that is more important to the story than the rest. For instance, in The Lord of the Rings trilogy there are many characters that have great significance to the story, but Frodo Baggins is the one who stands out, because everyone else’s destiny rests in his hands.

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literary definition protagonist

Literary Character


John Milton

Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

There are several building blocks to any story without which a story does not make sense. One of these foundational elements is the plot of a story. The second element is character.

The character of a story is the emotionally binding element that makes the readers more invested and interested in the story. It is alongside the character that readers are able to experience the story, relate to it, feel the right emotions, and progress from the beginning to the end.

But there are multiple characters in any story. So let us look at the different types, definitions and examples of literary characters that we see across literary works.

Literary character definition

While the character does not necessarily have to be a person and could be an animal or inanimate object, it must be personified to be classified as a character.

Personification: to attribute human characteristics and abilities to a non-human entity, such as an animal or an object.

A story must have at least one central character (usually referred to as the protagonist), although most stories have multiple characters interacting with one another.

Importance of literary character

But why is a literary character so important?

Firstly, a story cannot exist without characters. The plot and characters of a story are interdependent on one another. They cannot serve their purpose in the story without each other.

Plot: an interconnected chain of events that occur throughout the story, from beginning to end.

While a story can have a plot, there needs to be a character to propel the plot forward - their choices, their actions and reactions, trials and tribulations, and the lessons they learn. Characters bring the conflict to the story, usually in the form of an internal conflict or external conflict, which must be resolved as the story draws to its resolution.

Even in poems that exist without any specific people or creatures, poets will personify the setting and turn that into a character of its own.

Good characters are realistic. They make choices, feel emotions, and display reactions that reflect the real lives of their readers. Since r eaders are only able to understand the story through the character's experiences, they feel whatever the characters feel and identify with the story. Through the use of strong characters, writers can evoke reactions like laughter, anger, sympathy, and empathy from their readers.

Readers are also interested in the story as they are invested in the fate of its characters. Will she be able to defeat the villain? Will he win the girl? Would there be a happy ending?

Additionally, the character's experiences are often used by the writer to convey a message to readers. The character can be a good example of morals for the readers to live by or even serve as a bad example of how they should not behave.

Literary character types

Now that we have learnt how important characters are, there are many different types of characters that drive the plotline of a story forward in different ways.

Based on character roles

This classification is based on the different roles characters play in narratives.

The protagonist is the main character of the story - the central figure around whom the entire plot revolves. The story begins when a conflict arises in the protagonist's life and ends only when the protagonist manages to resolve this conflict. Therefore, the entire plot is basically the protagonist's journey (be it mental or physical) from start to finish. I t is the protagonist's dreams, desires, choices, actions, trials and battles that push the plot forward.

The protagonist traditionally possesses heroic qualities, such as immense bravery, courage and virtue. However, over time, more dynamic characterisation has inspired protagonists that are realistic and flawed. Even still, it is essential for the protagonist to be likeable, as it allows readers to identify, relate and root for the protagonist throughout the story.

The protagonist of The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010) by Suzanne Collins (1962- present) is Katniss Everdeen, who is depicted as brave, intelligent, loyal and skilled at combat.

The antihero is a type of protagonist that lacks conventional heroic qualities such as bravery, courage, morality, and the desire to act for the greater good. Despite possessing character imperfections, they are placed in the position of the main character.

Hamlet (1602) and Macbeth (1606) are two classic examples of Shakespearean plays that feature an antihero as the protagonist.

The antagonist is the villain of the story. Usually, they are placed against the protagonist and create conflict or, at the very least, serve as a major obstacle in the course of the protagonist's journey.

The antagonist possesses 'bad' qualities that make them unlikable, making the readers root for their downfall.

Bram Stoker 's (1847-1912) Dracula (1897) focuses intrinsically on Count Dracula, the antagonist of the novel, who drives a significant portion of the plot. Here is a quote by protagonist Jonathan Harker describing Count Dracula:

As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal.

(Chapter 2)

Love interest

The love interest is the protagonist's object of desire. Their purpose is to give the story a romantic subplot.

In Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen (1775-1817) , the protagonist Elizabeth Bennet 's love interest is Mr Darcy.

This type of character is the protagonist's best friend, assistant or sidekick, who shares the protagonist's goals and accompanies them on their journey throughout the story. Their purpose is to offer commentary , guidance, comic relief, or simply engage in dialogue with the hero to reveal their thoughts.

In The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), the protagonist Don Quixote is always accompanied by his squire Sancho Panza during his travels, who, with his earthly wisdom, ironic Spanish proverbs and witty sense of humour, is the realist contrast to the idealistic Don Quixote.

Literary Character Literary Character Types StudySmarter


These characters also accompany the protagonist of the story. However, they have their own character arc and plot. It is almost like they are the main protagonist of one of the side plots in the main story.

Tertiary characters

At the bottom of the character hierarchy lie the tertiary characters. These characters play supporting roles and serve a variety of functions in a narrative. They are not crucial to the development of the plot and weave in and out of the narrative as per their requirement.

They usually fill in the gaps where the main characters have to communicate with other people as part of the storyline.

In the Harry Potter series (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling (1965- present) , there are multiple tertiary characters such as Professor McGonagall, Hagrid, Crabbe and Goyle.

The foil is a character that possesses characteristics that are opposite to that of the protagonist. This sharp contrast seeks to highlight all the distinguishable traits that the protagonist has.

Even though the protagonist and the foil rarely start out as friends, the foil is seldom the main antagonist of the story.

In the Harry Potter series (1997-2007), Draco Malfoy is a foil to the character of Harry Potter.

Based on character development

Characters can also be classified based on the changes their personalities and attitudes undergo throughout the course of the narrative.

Dynamic characters

These characters develop and change during the events of the story. In most cases, this change is positive, with characters that were formerly flawed and had 'bad' quality traits undergoing a learning lesson that causes them to evolve and grow into a better person. In some cases, this change may be negative as the character begins to side against the protagonist to become one of the antagonists.

Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is an example of a dynamic protagonist who goes from being an arrogant, cruel and miserly old man to someone who is kind, cheerful, giving and full of Christmas spirit. This change is a result of his encounter with the three ghosts of Christmas.

Literary Character Literary Character Types StudySmarter

Static characters

These are the opposite of dynamic characters. They remain the same throughout the course of a story and do not undergo any progress or character development.

The evil stepmother from the fairytale 'Cinderella' is an example of a static character. She is mean, arrogant, cruel and cold-hearted - overall, an irredeemable character. Throughout the story, her attitudes and behaviour towards Cinderella remain the same.

A round character possesses fluid characteristics and displays a wide range of thoughts and emotions. They are complex, well-developed and three-dimensional, with flaws and imperfections alongside redeemable qualities. Hence, these characters are never quite 'good' or 'evil' but rather a more realistic mixture of the two.

William Shakespeare' s ( 1564-1616) Hamlet (1602) features a complex protagonist that is charming, intelligent, insightful and thoughtful by nature. However, throughout the course of the novel, he is also shown to be cunning, vengeful and contemplative, all of which are catalysts to his tragic death.

Flat characters

Flat characters are two-dimensional and possess a few fixed quality traits that define their entire character throughout the story. They are either completely good or bad, display a limited range of emotions and are simple, obvious and predictable.

Dr Watson from the Sherlock Holmes series (1887- 1927) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) is known for being loyal to Dr Sherlock Holmes. This trait defines Watson's character throughout the series, making him more of a flat character rather than a well-rounded one .

Symbolic characters

Symbolic characters are usually the personification of a larger concept or theme in the story. Hence, their purpose is allegorical in nature.

Allegory: any literary work in which the characters and events are symbolic in representing particular ideals, morals or qualities.

Literary character examples

The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) is a good example of a literary work that has multiple dynamic and round literary characters, all playing different roles in the narrative. Let us look at the four central characters of the novel.

Literary Character Literary Character Examples StudySmarter

Jay Gatsby is the titular protagonist of the novel. As the title suggests, Gatsby is described as 'Great' at the beginning of the novel. Despite coming from humble beginnings, Gatsby is a self-made man who is the architect of his own wealth and success. His ability to climb social ranks demonstrates the power of t he American Dream .

American Dream: An American ideal that promotes the idea that the United States is a land where all people find opportunities, prosperity, freedom and social mobility, free of any barriers.

However, it is later revealed that the source of Gatsby's wealth is bootlegging. His lifestyle and mannerisms are gaudy, over-the-top and almost fake, as they represent how hard he is trying to fit into the 'Old money' social class. His blind pursuit of Daisy and their past relationship also makes him seem naive and reckless, as he is willing to risk his own life to save hers, even though she clearly does not love him.

Overall, Gatsby is a dynamic and round protagonist, filled with many flaws and imperfections that lead to his tragic death. Despite this, he is charming, honest and likeable, causing readers to feel sympathy for him.

Nick Carraway

Nick Carraway is the perfect sidekick to the protagonist Jay Gatsby. He is tolerant, open-minded, empathetic, and a good listener. Gatsby comes to trust him and treats him as his confidant in the novel.

It is through Nick's experiences, interactions and commentary on Gatsby that the readers learn more about the protagonist of the novel. Nick appears to be the only character who 'sees through' Gatsby's 'made-up' celebrity personality.

Although Nick assumes a more passive role in the plot, he is a dynamic and round character. Nick shows complexity in his attitudes and feelings. On one hand, he is swept up in the fast-paced and glamorous New York lifestyle. But on the other hand, he finds New York immoral and frivolous. This internal conflict is resolved at the end of the novel, where after Gatsby's death, Nick loses faith in the American Dream and sees the East Coast for what it truly is - cruel, empty and unwelcoming.

Daisy Buchanan

Daisy Buchanan is the love interest in The Great Gatsby. As a love interest, Daisy is extremely powerful, as she serves as a driving force behind all of Gatsby's actions in the novel. To Jay Gatsby, Daisy represents everything he has ever wanted - wealth, sophistication and aristocracy. She is the physical embodiment of the American Dream, and winning her heart becomes part of his quest to climb the social ladder.

However, Daisy is not as perfect and innocent as she seems. Moving through the novel, she begins to appear shallow, fickle and money-minded. She shows her real nature when she kills Myrtle and allows Gatsby to take the blame for murdering her. in doing so, she chooses her husband Tom and her 'Old Money' social status over her love for Gatsby. In this sense, she could also be seen as the antagonist of the novel.

Her negative character development and ability to switch roles in the narrative make Daisy a dynamic and round character.

Tom Buchanan

Tom Buchanan is the antagonist of The Great Gatsby.

Like most antagonists, Tom is an example of a flat and static character. He comes across as an arrogant, dishonest, callous and hypocritical bully who uses threats and violence to assert dominance over those around him. Throughout the novel, Tom develops no redeemable qualities and therefore has no character development. Even in the end, it is Tom's dishonesty and controlling nature that costs Gatsby his life.

Literary Character - Key takeaways

Literary character types can be classified based on their role in a narrative:

Literary character types can also be classified based on character development:

Round characters

Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Character

--> what is the literature definition of character.

The literary character of a story is any person, animal or even inanimate object that has been presented as a person in the narrative of a novel, poem, short story, play or even film. 

--> What are the types of literary characters?

Literary character types can be classified based on their role in a narrative and their character development:

--> What is the importance of character in literature?

A character is an important element of a narrative's plot. There needs to be a character to propel the plot forward - their choices, their actions and reactions, trials and tribulations, and the lessons they learn. Characters bring the conflict to the story, usually in the form of an internal conflict or external conflict, which must be resolved as the story draws to its resolution. 

--> What is an example of a literary character?

Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a good example of a literary character.

--> What are main literary characters?

The main literary characters in a narrative are the protagonist and antagonist. 

Final Literary Character Quiz

Literary character quiz - teste dein wissen.

What is a protagonist?

Show 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

What is an example of a protagonist?

What is a female protagonist called?

A female protagonist is called a 'heroine'.

What is a protagonist in a story?

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. 

How do you create your own protagonist?

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 . 

What are the three most common types of protagonists?

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

What is a hero?

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

What is an antihero?

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

What is a false protagonist?

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.  

What is the opposite of a protagonist?

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.  

What are synonyms for 'protagonist'?

Synonyms for 'protagonist' are:

What is an antagonist?

An antagonist is  a character, idea, concept or institution that opposes and ‘antagonises’ the protagonist , also known as the main character. The antagonist is traditionally villainous but not always. An antagonist does not always have to be a character.  An antagonist could be an idea or concept . 

Is an antagonist a villain?

One type of antagonist is a villain. However, an antagonist is not always a villain, as they do not always have to have villainous traits or do villainous actions. Their aims may simply be in opposition to the main character's aims, but that does not mean their aims are typically villainous. 

What is an antagonist in a story?

In a story, an antagonist antagonises the protagonist, also known as the main character. 

Who are the protagonist and antagonist?

A protagonist is the main character in a story. An antagonist is a character, idea, concept or institution that creates conflict in a story. This provokes the protagonist to react and make decisions and this drives their story forward.

What is the purpose of an antagonist?

The purpose of an antagonist is to  provoke the protagonist . The antagonist creates a  point of conflict that the protagonist fights against. 

How do you develop an antagonist?

To develop an antagonist, it is important to  base the antagonist’s character on the protagonist’s character . Consider how you can  show the contrast between the two.  

What is an example of an antagonist in Jane Austen's  Pride and Prejudice  (1813)?

The antagonist in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is Mr. Darcy. Darcy is an example of a conflict-creator type of antagonist because he does not have traits that can typically be considered evil. His character, however, does not align with the protagonist Elizabeth Bennet’s attitudes in life. 

What is an example of an antagonist in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol  (1843)?

The antagonist in Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol  (1843) is Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge is an example of when the protagonist is their own antagonist. It is his nature of being an unpleasant, mean man that creates the conflict of his behaviours leading to a fate of dying having lived a miserable life.  

What is an example of an antagonist in George Orwell's 1984  (1949)?

The antagonist in George Orwell’s 1984  (1949) is Big Brother/The Thought Police. The overarching threat is Big Brother, which represents the heavy surveillance that citizens live under. Big Brother is not a person but a concept, so note that antagonists do not always have to be a character. The other, more direct and immediate antagonist in the novel is The Thought Police. 

What is an example of an antagonist in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations  (1861)?

The antagonist in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861) is Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham works against protagonist Pip’s attempts at winning over his love, Estella. As the antagonist, Miss Havisham creates conflict by preventing Pip from obtaining his wish.  

What are the types of antagonists?

The four types of antagonists are the villain, the conflict-creator, inanimate forces, and the protagonist as their own antagonist.

Explain the type of antagonist: the villain.

The villain is an antagonist that does evil actions or/and has typically evil or unfavourable opinions and moral attitudes. 

Explain the type of antagonist: the conflict-creator.

The conflict-creator may not necessarily have traits that are seen as traditionally evil. This type of antagonist may have characteristics or do actions that are in opposition to the protagonist's goals or attitudes.

Explain the type of antagonist: inanimate forces.

Inanimate forces as an antagonist refer to an idea or concept and not  a character. This could also refer to nature as an antagonist. 

Explain the type of antagonist: the protagonist as the antagonist.

The antagonist of the text is the protagonist themselves. The protagonist is the cause of conflict. This conflict is usually an internal struggle the protagonist has with themselves.

What is an unreliable narrator?

An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose account of events must be questioned by the reader. The narrator’s credibility is put into question once you have identified that their account of events may not be factually true.  

What makes a narrator unreliable?

There are a series of factors that can make a narrator unreliable. These include but are not limited to:

A  deteriorating mental state .

A  lack of maturity - the narrator could be too young to accurately recall events.

Deliberately misguiding readers with a  false narrative .

Being under the influence of  mind-altering substances such as drugs or alcohol.

How do you tell if a narrator is reliable or unreliable?

A reliable narrator is able to give an accurate and impartial account of events. The reliable narrator's retelling of a story is not tainted by any of the characteristics of an unreliable narrator that may include but are not limited to: signs of mental instability, naivety, being under the influence of drugs and alcohol, exaggeration in their narration, and lying to themselves and others. 

What are the 5 types of unreliable narrators?

The 5 most common types of unreliable narrators are the madman, the liar, the picaro, the naif, the clown.

Explain this type of unreliable narrator: the madman.

With this type of unreliable narrator, their lack of credibility is caused by  mental issues that conflict with reality . 

Explain this type of unreliable narrator: the liar.

With this type of unreliable narrator, their lack of credibility is due to the fact that they are lying . This is a common choice of an unreliable narrator and the lies can take the form of  fabricated stories or lies of omission , for example. 

Explain this type of unreliable narrator: the picaro.

This unreliable narrator is unreliable because they have a tendency to  exaggerate when recalling events.  

Explain this type of unreliable narrator: the naif.

This unreliable narrator is unreliable because they are  very young and so cannot accurately recall events . The naif can also be unreliable because they  don’t have enough experience in life in general or certain areas of life  to be able to distinguish events in a factual way. 

Why is Wayne C. Booth important in the discourse about the unreliable narrator?

Wayne C. Booth (1921-2005) was an American literary critic who first coined the term ‘unreliable narrator’ in his text The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). Booth believed that a work of fiction does not have to represent reality or include truth all the way through the text, as are typical literary rules.

What is an example of the madman in unreliable narration and why are they unreliable?

Narrator Alex in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange  (1962) is the madman. Alex is unreliable because he exhibits psychopathic behaviour and lies to characters, so his narration of events is not credible or factually accurate. 

What is an example of the liar in unreliable narration and why are they unreliable?

Narrator Pi in Yann Martel's Life of Pi (2001) is the liar and therefore an unreliable narrator because he creates an alternate version of events whilst stranded on a boat. 

What is an example of the picaro in unreliable narration and why are they unreliable?

Narrator Don Quixote in Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes is a picaro. Don Quixote exaggerates the events that happen during his adventures as a knight. 

What is an example of the naif in unreliable narration and why are they unreliable?

Narrator Scout Finch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is a naif. Scout is a young child who is naive as she has new experiences and develops an understanding of these new experiences. 

Who of these characters are Byronic heroes?

Severus Snape

Who is the Byronic hero based on?

Which poem of Lord Byron’s did the ‘Byronic hero’ originate from?

‘Manfred’ (1816)

What is the link between Lord Byron and Byronic heroes?

Much of Lord Byron’s writings were autobiographical and his protagonists were said to be similar to his personality and have similar traits to him. 

What are Byronic heroes?

Byronic heroes are characters that are often outcasts from society due to their rejection of social conventions; they also have mysterious pasts that trouble them in the present.

What type of poet was Lord Byron?

An English Romantic poet

Which of these are Lord Byron’s poems?

Who wrote ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667)?

In which circumstances would a Byronic hero take action?

When it serves his personal interest

In which literary period did the Byronic hero come into existence?

English Romantic period

Apart from Lord Byron’s writing, what other poem did the idea of a ‘Byronic hero’ come from?

 ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667)

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What Is a Protagonist?

Shundalyn Allen

If you have ever taken a writing or literature class, you probably heard someone refer to a protagonist. You may even have a sketchy idea of what a protagonist is. Today you have an opportunity to learn the literary definition of protagonist as well as how the word is used in other contexts.

Here’s a tip: Want to make sure your writing shines? Grammarly can check your spelling and save you from grammar and punctuation mistakes. It even proofreads your text, so your work is extra polished wherever you write.

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Protagonist definition

What is a protagonist? The word comes from ancient Greece. An actor who played the chief role in a drama was a protagonistes . The prefix proto- means to “first,” and an agonistes was an actor or a competitor in a contest.

In English class, when you hear the word protagonist, you’ll probably be discussing a work of literature. (Films also have protagonists.) The most common definition of protagonist is the leading character of a drama or literary work. You can see the relation to its Greek root word in the sense that the character is important in the plot. Sometimes, the term hero refers to a male protagonist. Heroine refers to a female protagonist. Champion is another synonym of protagonist.

Protagonist examples

Usually, the protagonist is easy to identify. Take the book Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, for example. The action of the novel centers around one man, Alonso Quixano. He is the protagonist.

Let’s look as some other famous protagonists, as identified by fellow authors and readers:

Harry (“Rabbit”) Angstrom, the serial hero of John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy , is the only protagonist I’ve grown old with―doomed, but indomitable and lovable.

–  John Sutherland

[ A Handful of Dust ] shows all of Waugh’s gifts for satire and farce, but unlike his earlier novels, it has a three-dimensional, tragic protagonist in aristocratic cuckold Tony Last.

– Jay McInerney

The protagonist A.J. Fikry, for example, is a crotchety old bookseller in the isolated New England town of Alice Island―a guy who thumbs his nose at anything unworthy of the term “literary.”

– Kate Sederstrom

In some novels, there may be more than one protagonist. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is a famous example―it has five. However, not every book with multiple main characters has multiple protagonists. According to NarrativeFirst.com, the main character “represents the audience’s eyes into the story,” On the other hand, the protagonist “pursues the goal of the story.”

Outside the world of books, protagonist can refer to anyone who is a leader or an important person in a movement or cause.

After a positive showing in Euro 2016, Welshman Gareth Bale will be asked to take over the role of protagonist and fans will be hoping he can deliver in the same way.

Protagonist and antagonist

What makes many stories interesting is the struggle that the protagonist has to go through to achieve his aim. The antagonist is the principal source of conflict for the protagonist. Often, the antagonist is a bad guy, a villain, but he doesn’t necessarily have to be. He may just be someone who has a different agenda. Antagonists might be one person, a group, or even an animal. For example, Professor Moriarty is the antagonist of many Sherlock Holmes stories. He is a clear opponent; Sherlock dies in a battle against him in “The Final Battle.”

Can the protagonist be his own antagonist? In the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare, the character McDuff opposes Macbeth and eventually kills him. However, some say that the protagonist Macbeth fills the role of antagonist against himself. Macbeth causes his own problems. McDuff isn’t an evil character in the play. In fact, he’s described frequently as “holy.”

However, like protagonists, antagonists aren’t always easy to distinguish. Furthermore, not all antagonists are people. Sometimes, a character’s opponent is something abstract, like an internal struggle or a difficult life situation.

Abstract antagonistic forces can function as obstacles that a protagonist must overcome. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart , the protagonist Okonkwo is haunted by the memories of Unoka’s wrongdoing, and this shapes his character.

Famous protagonist and antagonist pairs

False protagonists

One interesting literary technique is to introduce a false protagonist. When the story begins, one character stands out as the principal player, but a change occurs at some point in the novel. Often, this character dies, leaves the story, or turns out to be the antagonist and someone else emerges as the actual protagonist who will continue the mission of the first character. An author famous for this shocking technique is George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones series. In the early stages of his story, Ned Stark seems to be the main protagonist of the novel―much of the story is narrated from his point of view. Later, his sudden execution surprises readers, forcing them to rethink their theories about what’s really happening.

How to create a protagonist

What does protagonist mean? Now that you can answer that question, how do you create one? The  Sumo Nova blog provides some helpful steps. First, create a central conflict. “A protagonist is defined by how he faces such challenges, and moreover, how he overcomes them.” Next, consider what your protagonist wants and needs. These desires have to be strong enough to motivate your character to take action in your story. They can change, but they always need to be relatable to what people want in real life—love, success, justice, happiness, etc. However, don’t explicitly state the goals and needs of the principal character. It’s much more interesting for the readers to figure it out by listening in on the character’s thoughts and conversations and by observing how the character acts in different situations. Finally, choose how you will describe your character, including his name and physical appearance.

Another type of protagonist

There is a new definition of protagonist that arose in the twentieth century: a proponent or advocate of a cause. The American Heritage Dictionary adds this usage note: “[This usage] may have been influenced by a misunderstanding that the first syllable of the word is the prefix pro-, “favoring.” Many readers will therefore find erroneous a sentence like, “He was an early protagonist of nuclear power.” Though controversial, you will see this usage occasionally. Here are a couple of examples from the media:

The people of Bengal have maintained that their greatest protagonist for the freedom struggle, Subhas Chandra Bose, was always subjected to neglect by the Congress, because of the fundamental differences Bose had with the party’s official line.

― The New Indian Express

At the University of Havana, Fidel was president of the Committee for Democracy in the Dominican Republic as well as of the Committee for the Liberation of Puerto Rico, then as now, a U.S. colony. He was an active protagonist for Latin American unity, not just in words but in deeds.

― Liberation

From ancient Greece down to today, protagonists have been the central figures of plays, books, films, and even causes and organizations. Do you have a clearer idea of what a protagonist is? You can test yourself by trying to identify the central charac ter of your favorite books and movies. To challenge yourself  further , create your own protagonist for a short story.

literary definition protagonist

School of Writing, Literature, and Film

What is a Protagonist? || Definition & Examples

"what is a protagonist": a literary guide for english students and teachers.

View the Full Series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is a Protagonist? Transcript (English & Spanish Subtitles Available in Video; Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Liz Delf and Marisa Williams

What is a protagonist?

The very short answer is that the protagonist is the main character. That definition works well as a shorthand version, but let’s add a little more nuance.

The protagonist is the character who drives the action--the character whose fate matters most.

In other words, they are involved in —and often central to—the plot or conflict of the story, but are also usually the emotional heart of the narrative.

Sometimes it’s easy to pinpoint who the protagonist is in a story. For example, the graphic memoir Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is about the Iranian Revolution, and it explores questions of identity, state violence, and feminism. At the heart of the story, though, is young Marjane herself. The plot is centered on her experience as a young woman, and the emotional climax of the memoir is her grief and anger over the death of her friend.

While naming the protagonist of Persepolis is pretty simple, that’s not always the case. Sometimes identifying the protagonist can be a little more complicated.


literary definition protagonist

At this point, let’s add another characteristic of the protagonist: THEY CHANGE. They usually make choices, take actions, and are altered by the repercussions.

This might just be another way of saying that they are the emotional heart of the story, but it’s worth flagging as a key point. In some literary fiction, there’s not a big twist or surprise, and it can be hard to identify the point, let alone the main character. Try asking yourself: who changed in this story? Who started in one place and moved (emotionally, mentally, relationally) to another? THAT is often the point of the story.

Here’s another example: the story “The Things They Carried” is about a platoon of soldiers in the Vietnam War, and intimate details are shared about each of them. However, it’s really a story about Lieutenant Jimmy Cross: he starts in one place—distracted and loving a girl back home—and ends in another—letting go of his feelings in order to be a better and more focused soldier. The emotional climax of the story comes when he burns her letters, which he’s been carrying for months. It’s a war story, yes, but it’s also a coming-of-age story about the protagonist, Jimmy.

Here’s another place where it can be a little tricky to identify the protagonist: when the title misleads you.

Some stories and series are named after the protagonist—the Percy Jackson series, the Roald Dahl book Matilda .


literary definition protagonist

BUT that isn’t always the case! Moby-Dick , for example, is the name of the whale. While a whale might drive a plot, it certainly isn’t the emotional heart of this story; Melville’s novel is really about the men on the ship. The Wizard of Oz is another familiar example—Dorothy is clearly the emotional heart of that story, and the one who changes as she comes to appreciate the home she left behind. No one really cares about the Wizard’s emotional growth.

Very rarely, there can be more than one protagonist, as in Romeo and Juliet . We see both perspectives, both characters change, both makes choices and take action—and both of their fates are central to the tragic nature of the play.

One final point: while the protagonist is often the hero, that’s also not always the case. In fact, we’re all pretty familiar with the ANTI-hero protagonist these days, because it’s been so common on recent TV shows; this is a protagonist who lacks traditional heroic qualities (like bravery or a strong moral code). Think of Walter White on Breaking Bad , or in a more literary example, Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello .


literary definition protagonist

So the protagonist doesn’t have to be relatable or likable; even if you don’t want to be their friend, they can still be the protagonist.

Interested in more lessons?  View the full series:

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A protagonist is the central character in a story: the protagonist of Huckleberry Finn is — guess who? — Huckleberry Finn.

A novel, movie, or play might have many main characters, but it can really only have one protagonist — or maybe two in the case of, say, Romeo and Juliet . That's because protos means "first" in Greek, and agonistes means "competitor" or "actor." It can also mean a leading figure in a real-life situation: "Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were the protagonists of the U.S. Civil War." Don't use it to mean "a supporter of an idea or cause"; the word you're looking for in that situation is proponent .

hero / protagonist

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Vocabulary lists containing protagonist

In a world-class, eight-decade-long acting career, the Irish-British and American actress/singer – Dame Angela Lansbury – played various roles across stage, film, and television. Described as the "First Lady of Musical Theatre" in the 1960s and "acting aristocracy" in Britain, Ireland, and the U.S., she received six Tony Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award), six Golden Globe Awards, a Laurence Olivier Award, and the Academy Honorary Award, in addition to nominations for three Academy Awards, eighteen Primetime Emmy Awards, a Grammy Award, the BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award, and a 2014 British Dame honor. Although best known for her 12-season TV role as Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote , this tribute list highlights her broad-reaching legacy through film quotes, television quotes, and articles.

Narrative writing is writing that has a story, character, conflict, and other essential parts of a story. Learn about all of these essential parts by reviewing this list of vocabulary that will help you navigate a narrative. Here are links to our lists in the collection: List 1 , List 2 , List 3 , List 4

Have you got the write stuff? Find out by learning this comprehensive list of words related to writing. Here are links to our lists for the collection: Grammar , Reference , Drafting , Text Structure , Purpose , Argumentative Writing , Theme , Genre , Poetry , Plot Development , Literary Devices

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protagonist , in ancient Greek drama, the first or leading actor. The poet Thespis is credited with having invented tragedy when he introduced this first actor into Greek drama, which formerly consisted only of choric dancing and recitation. The protagonist stood opposite the chorus and engaged in an interchange of questions and answers. According to Aristotle in his Poetics, Aeschylus brought in a second actor, or deuteragonist , and presented the first dialogue between two characters. Aeschylus’ younger rival, Sophocles , then added a third actor, the tritagonist, and was able to write more complex, more natural dialogue. That there were only three actors did not limit the number of characters to three because one actor would play more than one character.

In the early days of Greek drama, the dramatists chose and often trained their own actors. By 449 bc , however, the leading actors were chosen by the chief magistrates of Athens, the archons. These leading actors, the protagonists, were responsible for selecting the supporting actors, the deuteragonists and tritagonists. The protagonists also competed for acting prizes that were independent of the contests for the best tragedies. The term protagonist has come to be used for the principal character in a novel , story, or drama.

Two costumed actors performing a dance onstage. theater, performers. Hompepage blog 2009, arts and entertainment, history and society

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This handout gives a rundown of some important terms and concepts used when talking and writing about literature.

Included below is a list of literary terms that can help you interpret, critique, and respond to a variety of different written works. This list is by no means comprehensive, but instead offers a primer to the language frequently used by scholars and students researching literary works. This list and the terms included in it can help you begin to identify central concerns or elements in a work that might help facilitate your interpretation, argumentation, and analysis. We encourage you to read this list alongside the other guides to literary interpretation included on the OWL Website. Please use the links on the left-hand side of this page to access other helpful resources.

Types of Prose Texts

Terms for Interpreting Authorial Voice

Terms for Interpreting Characters

Terms for Interpreting Word Choice, Dialogue, and Speech

Terms for Interpreting Plot

Terms for Interpreting Layers of Meaning

Works Cited

For more information or to read about other literary terms, please see the following texts:

Baldick, Chris. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms . Oxford University Press, 2001.

Mikics, David. A New Handbook of Literary Terms . Yale University Press, 2007.

Taafe, James G. A Student’s Guide to Literary Term s. The World Publishing Company, 1967.

Cambridge Dictionary

Meaning of protagonist in English

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protagonist noun [C] ( CHARACTER )

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protagonist noun [C] ( SUPPORTER )

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What is a Protagonist? Examples, Meaning and Definition

literary definition protagonist

by Fija Callaghan

Updated Sep 27, 2021

Settle in, Grasshopper. Your literary mastery begins with this one fundamental, universal truth. You ready? Here it is:

All. Stories. Begin. With. Character.

There. I’ve just saved you the cost of a creative writing MFA.

Alright, maybe it’s a little bit more complicated than that. But it’s a very real and very important truth that all stories come from characters—whether these characters happen to be talking bugs or orcs or witches or warriors or supermarket checkout girls. They’re characters with very human strengths, weaknesses, and desires. Characters are the birthplace of story.

What is “character”?

Characters are the personalities that populate the world of your story.

Some of these characters are set decoration, while others are conveniently-placed plot devices. Then there are the most important characters: the characters that create, decide, react, and make things happen as your plot rolls towards the finish line.

These main characters are what make the world of your story real for the reader. Even if you craft a beautiful story with imagery, setting, and clever turns of phrase, it’s when readers see their own hopes, struggles, and needs reflected in your characters that they truly get engrossed in the story. That’s when your story begins to matter.

Let’s look at some of the characters you’ll see in your writing.

The protagonist is the main character in a story

In any story, the protagonist is the main character—the hero (at least in their own eyes) and the guiding light. That doesn’t mean that they’ll always be an upstanding moral citizen, but it does mean that their actions and motivations are what drives the story forward. They’re the lens through which the reader sees the story unfold.

The word protagonist comes from the Greek word, prōtagōnistēs , which means “principal actor.” The protagonist would be the first billed player in a stage drama. Today we would call this the headliner, or the star of the show.

That makes the protagonist the center of your story. It’s important to remember that any one of the people the protagonist meets along their journey could be the protagonist, if the story were told just slightly differently—but it isn’t. Not this time.

In order to have a strong, engaging protagonist, you’ll need to figure out what they want most, what they need , and what they need to do to get there. Then your protagonist and your reader go on that journey together. If you as the writer have done your work well and crafted a protagonist that’s engaging and dynamic, the reader will stay with them until the very last page.

Other characters who interact with the protagonist

Usually the protagonist isn’t the only character in a story. There are several other kinds of characters who interact, support, or antagonize the protagonist:

The antagonist

Once upon a time, our brave hero got out of bed, ate some wheaties, and went to work. He had a great day. Then he came home and settled in to watch his favourite show on Netflix before having a nice, peaceful sleep.

I mean yes, it does have a certain warm, cottagecore optimism to it. But is it a story? not really. In order for the protagonist to go on a journey—whether that’s physical journey, a spiritual one, or an emotional one—they need to want something. And someone or something needs to be standing in the way.

The word “antagonist” comes from the word ancient Greek antagōnizesthai , which means “to struggle against.” Simply put, the antagonist gives your protagonist something to fight .

An antagonist is what stands in the way of the protagonist. It can be anything from a megalomaniac wizard bent on world domination to an overbearing mother with her own ideas of what’s best for her daughter (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Bennet ). The antagonist might be a classic, moustache-twirling villain, but they also might be the sort of obstacle we all encounter in our day-to-day lives. An antagonist is simply someone who wants something that is in direct conflict with what our protagonist wants.

Over the course of the story’s character development, one (or both) of them will either end up with nothing, or learn to want something else.

The supporting cast

Here’s a sociological experiment: go and ask one hundred people who their favourite character in Harry Potter is. I bet you a chocolate bar not one of them will say “Harry Potter.”

While our protagonist is essential in delivering the theme of the story (more on theme down below) and helping us, as readers, learn something about ourselves along the way, it’s often the secondary characters that really stay with us after the book is closed.

These characters all support the protagonist’s story arc in some way—whether that’s leading the protagonist in the right direction, giving them something to fight for, throwing them a game-changing curveball just at the zenith of act two, or challenging them to grow beyond what they thought they were capable of—but they should also be unique individuals that resonate intimately with a wide variety of different readers.

Some of the supporting character archetypes you might find in your protagonist’s story are the best friend , the love interest , the mentor or guide , and the trickster . Whether they’re helping or hindering, their job is to keep the story moving . And don’t forget—every one of these fictional characters sees themselves as the hero of their own story with goals, struggles, and motivations (that’s how we get subplots).

What’s the difference between a protagonist and a hero?

We’ve already learned what a protagonist in a story is. But is a protagonist the same as a hero?

While heroes can look very different depending on the setting, theme, and cultural background of the story, it really comes down to this: a hero is someone who always tries to do the right thing—even when doing the right thing is hard, and even when they have too much to lose. A hero puts the needs of others before their own.

Does that mean your protagonist has to be a hero? Historically this has often been the case, because it’s been proven to work. Readers like heroes. We like having someone to look up to, someone who shows us the best of what we could be. But there’s a rising trend in film and literature of subverting the hero/villain dynamic and telling the story from another point of view.

For example, the hit film Maleficent retells the timeless story of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the classic villain of the story, the dark witch who places a curse on the princess. In that film, the protagonist is the villain, not the hero.

Marion Zimmer Bradley also made a villain the protagonist in her novel The Mists of Avalon , a retelling of the Arthurian legends that tracks the story of Morgaine, one of the saga’s major antagonists.

Making a villain the protagonist can be a very effective technique, but it’s tricky to do right. Instead of the protagonist being a hero who’s a mirror that shows us our strength, stories whose protagonist is a villain show us our weakness. This can take both the reader and the writer to a place that’s not entirely comfortable. But if the story is done well, with well-crafted character development, it’ll also show us how these weaknesses can be overcome, and that strength can be found where we least expect it.

How a protagonist communicates the theme of your story

Theme is something that tends to develop organically as your story and characterization progress. Many writers only discover what the theme is after they see their characters grow, change, and learn. To begin, ask yourself what your protagonist wants, what they need, and what they need to overcome in order to get there.

At the beginning of your story, your protagonist should have a need that is unfulfilled—even if they’re content in their day-to-day lives, before the introduction of your inciting incident , there’ll be something missing that keeps them from feeling whole. For example, they might be professionally successful but isolated in their personal lives, or they might have a loving tight-knit family whose demands keep them from growing as a person.

In these instances, your theme might be things like the importance of a work-life balance, or seeking out people that bring out the best in you, or letting go of old traditions that are no longer healthy. The way your protagonist interacts with these ideas and comes to accept them through their character development will also help the reader understand why those themes are important.

Once you begin to see the questions your protagonist is asking themselves and the struggles they’re facing as a result, you’ll be able to see the theme that’s naturally emerging and understand how to share that theme with your readers.

Protagonist examples: 7 great main characters in literature

(To read about the antagonists that correspond to these protagonists, see our article on antagonists .)

1. Sherlock Holmes

Untouchable and unflappable with a mind like an expertly trained orchestra, Sherlock Holmes is very much the intellectual equivalent to James Bond. This fictional character first appeared in literature in 1887 and has been engaging readers and viewers ever since.

Holmes is a great example of a protagonist with well-balanced strengths and weaknesses. Readers love him for his skill with just about everything under the sun, from science and law to art and literature—all which have served him well as he worked to unravel cases in his detective work.

But his failings arise when he needs to try and understand the human heart, the passions and feelings that drive people to do the things he works to understand. The BBC series Sherlock describes him as a “high-functioning sociopath”: some scholars have suggested that Sherlock Holmes may have been autistic. It’s this dynamic play of weakness and strength that makes him seem all the more real to us.

Tall, dark, and so internally damaged by self loathing and trauma that he needs to put on a cape and beat baddies senseless on the rooftops of a gritty broken city. I mean, relatable, right?

In many ways, Batman works as a classic hero because he shows us what we could become if we allowed our shadows to consume us. And yet, he exhibits an extraordinary inner strength that keeps him from becoming one of the villains he fights against. He shows us that when there is no light left in the darkness, maybe you can begin to heal by becoming that light for others.

3, Vianne Rocher

In Joanne Harris’ classic novel Chocolat , Vianne Rocher is a woman who blows into a small provincial French town in a rush of gently spiced cocoa powder and indulgent indecency. Her rootlessness and her disregard for the religious fasting season observed by much of the village quickly divides the people there.

In time, her passion and empathy touch the lives of many and show them that denying your desires can be a very damaging thing. They, in turn, show her that it’s not such a bad thing to finally belong somewhere.

4. Robin Hood

One of the most classic heroes in literature, this protagonist is characterized by his unmatchable archery skills, his camo-toned wardrobe, and his utter disregard for any societal constraint whatsoever. For many of us reading the stories of Robin Hood as children, shedding the skin of expectation and going to live in the woods sounded like the ideal way to live out your days.

And yet, Robin isn’t blind to the cruelty and injustices in the world around him. Living in a society where heroes are few and far between—their good King Richard has abandoned his kingdom for the far-off crusades—Robin Hood shows us that when we see wrong being done in the world and no one to stand against it, we can make a big difference in people’s lives by stepping into that role ourselves.

5. Mortimer Folchart

The leading player in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart books, an epic love letter to readers everywhere, Mo Folchart is a mild mannered bookbinder with the curious ability to read characters out of the stories they came from. Once he finds himself and his family caught in one of these storybook worlds, he starts to question how much of himself he needs to give up and what he needs to become in order to protect the ones he loves.

For many of us, being caught in the pages of our favourite faerie tale would be a dream come true. In this story, however, we see how important it is to be true to yourself even as you continue to learn and grow.

6. Bilbo Baggins

Few fictional characters in literature are so deeply associated with the comforts of home: good food, cozy blankets, warm firelight, and loyal friends. This is what makes it so tense and engaging when our hero has to leave these comforts behind for the chance at something greater.

Although unwilling at first—a classic example of the “hero’s journey” of storytelling—Bilbo grows through his adventures in ways he could have never imagined. Even as he faces greed, goblins, and a fire-breathing dragon, he never sacrifices his own values, going so far as to betray his friends to keep everyone safe.

By the time he returns home to his cozy hobbit’s cottage, he has grown wiser, developed new skills, and gained a treasure trove of stories to tell.

7. Dr. Henry Jekyll

Strictly speaking, Dr. Jekyll isn’t the protagonist of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “ The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ”; as was popular in literature of that time, the protagonist was a smaller character through which we could view the events of the story (Ishmael in Moby Dick is another such example). But Dr. Jekyll has been so deeply ingrained in our literary consciousness that we see him rising again and again in stories, film, and television.

Dr. Jekyll struggles with the battle between his conscious morals and his base desires. We’re fascinated by this character because this is an internal conflict that so many of us experience on so many levels. It’s both fascinating and cathartic to see it being given life and form as Dr. Jekyll quite literally rips his weakness out of him—and finds that his weakness may be more formidable than he thought.

What’s the difference between a protagonist and an antagonist?

One of the major differences between protagonists and antagonists is that while there can only be one protagonist, there can be many antagonists.

Let’s go back to Harry Potter , a seven-volume epic brimming with characters. The titular character, Harry, is our protagonist as well as our hero. So who’s the antagonist? Most people would say Lord Voldemort, the big bad leader who wants to wipe out half the magical society and rule what’s left.

These people would be right—Voldemort is the primary antagonist . It’s the protagonist’s battle against this character that drives the plot. However, this isn’t the only struggle our hero faces. Other antagonists in this story include Draco Malfoy, Dolores Umbridge, Vernon Dursley, Cedric Diggory, and Ron Weasley, among many others.

Now obviously, not all of these characters are bad people (although some of them are), but each of them at some point wants something that is in direct conflict with what the protagonist wants. Sometimes this struggle will last for an entire book, sometimes a chapter, or sometimes only one scene. Anytime there is conflict between the protagonist and another character, that character becomes an antagonist in that moment .

This isn’t a bad thing—it gives roundness and depth to your character development. It’s only through conflict and resolution that your story can move forward and your characters can grow.

3 ways to write a protagonist readers will fall in love with

As you can see, there is no single right way to write a great protagonist or a great antagonist; they’re as varied and unique as human beings themselves. But by studying some of the protagonists that have captured the hearts of readers in the past, we can see patterns of what resonates with us and makes them memorable. Here are a few tips.

1. Give them a superpower

In some cases, this may be an actual superpower; in others, it might simply be a strength that is unique to them alone. It might be a photographic memory for numbers, the ability to fix cars previously deemed unfixable, a singing voice that can break hearts from a mile away, the ability to make people smile when they’re in the darkest depths of hopelessness.

Highlighting a primary strength in your character gives them depth, dimension, and a place to begin building relationships with other characters.

2. Give them a weakness

A protagonist’s strength is what makes them interesting, but a protagonist’s weakness is what makes them human . Maybe, like Sherlock Holmes, they have difficulty connecting with other people. Maybe they handle time constraints very badly, or freeze up when faced with modern technology, or allow their insecurities to push people away.

It’s the juxtaposition between your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses that determine how they interact with the world around them and how they respond to the conflicts that drive the plot.

3. Give them someone to fight

At last, the villain of the show. As you might guess, there’s no one right way to craft the perfect antagonist. However, every good antagonist plays off of the protagonist in some way. It might be that the two are different incomplete parts that together create a balanced whole; it might be that they’re inversions, each highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the other. The antagonist might show us what the hero of the story could have been, or what they might still yet become.

Once you know who you want your protagonist to be, ask yourself: what are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What do they need most? What are they most afraid of? Then see if you can find a way to take these aspects and turn them inside out. This will give you the antagonist of your story.

Sometimes, as we’ll look at closer in our article on conflict, your antagonist might not be a person. It might be a group of people or organization, an impersonal force of nature, or even a weakness inside themselves. Whatever you choose for your antagonist, however, should still come from the questions you ask about your protagonist.

A well-crafted protagonist makes for powerful storytelling

When people read stories that truly resonate with them, it’s often because of a genuine, well crafted, believable protagonist. When we read a story and are able to see our own strengths, weaknesses, hopes, and desires reflected in a character who uses them to learn and grow, these become the stories that stay with us for a lifetime.

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Protagonist Definition: a character who pursues the primary goals of the plot of a story

Protagonist Definition

Protagonists are usually the heroes of a story, and they are driven by a particular goal or loyalty to seek out a resolution to a conflict. Protagonists are typically brave, they experience some sort of change, and they often have a flaw in their character that the reader can relate to. A protagonist usually faces an antagonist of some sort, whether it be in the form of another character, a force of nature, or their own internal doubts. These antagonists often stand in the way of the protagonist achieving their goals, and it is by overcoming these obstacles that they mature and grow by the end of the story.

In The Odyssey by Homer, Odysseus is the protagonist and hero who is fighting many obstacles to journey back home. Many of these obstacles are created by Poseidon, the antagonist who curses Odysseus’ journey home after Odysseus blinds his son, the Cyclops named Polyphemus. Sometimes a protagonist is the bad guy. For example, in The Tragedy of Richard III by William Shakespeare, Richard’s quest for power drives him to kill his nephews, imprison his brother, and marry the widow of the man he murdered. Ultimately, his antagonist is the “good guy”: the Earl of Richmond, who is later crowned Henry VII, the first of the Tudor line.

Notable Examples of Protagonist in Literature

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Many great protagonist examples come from the pen of Toni Morrison. Milkman, the main character of her novel Song of Solomon , showcases how a character’s moral dilemma drives the story’s engine. Milkman feels estranged from his family, from society, and from any sort of obligation to other people—but this estrangement is fueled in part by his father’s lack of affection and approval. When a quest to find a bag of gold coins presents itself to Milkman, he goes on this quest secretly desiring his father’s approval, only to discover his family’s complex and beautiful history, making him appreciate the foundation his life is built upon.

Is the protagonist the main character? Yes, always—although they are not always the narrator, and they may have to share the spotlight with other characters. Let’s briefly examine the distinction between protagonists and other character types.

Protagonist vs. Antagonist

If the protagonist is the main character of the story, then the antagonist is the main force working against the protagonist’s wishes. Most stories involve a dilemma between the protagonist vs. antagonist, and if the main character wants to achieve their goals or desires in the story, they must surmount the antagonist’s obstacles.

The antagonist is the main force working against the protagonist’s wishes.

The antagonist is not always a person: it can also be a concept or ideology. Society and government prove to be the antagonists in dystopian works of fiction, like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or 1984 by George Orwell. In the story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the antagonist is the concept of backwards aging, which the protagonist is afflicted with and can do nothing about.

Shorter works of fiction might not have a clearly defined antagonist, but they still force the protagonist to confront a conflict or moral dilemma that’s preventing their own growth and success. Moreover, a good antagonist will perfectly challenge the faults and shortcomings of the protagonist. To learn more, check out our article on developing a strong antagonist .

Protagonist vs. Deuteragonist

A common distinction made between main characters is the protagonist vs. deuteragonist. The deuteragonist is a secondary character: they play an essential role in the story by aiding or hindering the journey of the main character.

Deuteragonists can be allies, antagonists, or anything in between, but their own flaws and motives must influence the course of the story. Great examples of deuteragonists include Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes , Hermione and Ron in the Harry Potter series, or Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello .

An antihero protagonist is a character whose traits are opposite what’s expected of a hero. Especially in genre fiction, conventional protagonists might be brave, kind, or interested in justice. The antihero protagonist, then, is something opposite: they might be cowardly, unkind, selfish, or otherwise unconcerned with morality. To put it simply: the antihero protagonist  defies conventional morality, and in doing so, reveals something essential about the ways society functions.

Antihero protagonist examples include Muersault in Albert Camus’ The Stranger , Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye , and the unnamed main character of Dostoevsky’s Note from Underground . Note that all of these characters have very different personality traits, but each antihero protagonist’s diversion from what’s expected of a main character allows the author to comment on society, human psychology, and philosophical thought.

Learn more about the antihero here:


Before we look at some protagonist examples in literature, it’s important to consider everything that goes into a carefully crafted character. Whether you’re writing literary fiction or genre fiction , the following considerations are necessary for creating a protagonist.

Inner vs. outer journey

A protagonist’s plotline is defined by two interweaving narratives: the inner journey and the outer journey.

The outer journey is the plot at face value, encompassing every action, decision, and event of the main storyline. If you’re familiar with the hero’s journey plot structure , then you might think of the hero’s quest: leaving home, entering a strange new world, making new allies and enemies, vanquishing the enemy, journeying home, vanquishing the enemy again, and finally returning home.

The inner journey describes the changes going on in the main character’s personality, personal philosophy, and morality. As the protagonist encounters different obstacles and dilemmas, their outlook on life inevitably changes as well. Don’t assume that the protagonist always improves as a person: sometimes, the main character doesn’t survive their inner journey.

Sometimes, the main character doesn’t survive their inner journey.

For example, consider the plot of Fahrenheit 451 . Guy Montag, the main character, comes to realize the value of literature in a society bent on destroying books. Montag is a fireman which, in this society, means he is one of the people who destroys books. However, he soon realizes the value of literature and the ills of modern society, creating a contrast between his inner and outer journeys. Outwardly, he must demolish books and the people who still value literature; inwardly, he comes to find the value of books, and must choose between his newly found values and his adherence to society. The inner and outer journeys each goad each other on, forcing Montag to decide between justice and complacence.

Protagonist personality

Personality is a combination of the thoughts, feelings, actions, beliefs, and philosophies that inform a particular person’s decisions. It is, in short, a gestalt of a person’s many interactions with the world: the things they do that define the patterns of their choices, thoughts, and feelings.

Who is your protagonist? How do they act, feel, think, and make decisions? Developing protagonist personality is an imprecise science, partially because scientists have yet to figure out what personality even is , and partially because a character’s personality will develop organically and over time.

Nonetheless, it’s imperative to think about protagonist personality, and how your characters’ identity and shortcomings shape the narrative at large. For example, in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick , Captain Ahab’s obsessive personality is essential to making the story work. If Ahab wasn’t so prideful, impulsive, and vengeful—and if he didn’t struggle to give his own life meaning—then he would not be the right protagonist for a story about chasing a mythical whale.

For more on developing character personality and traits, take a look at our article on character development .

The unlikable protagonist trope

Related to the issue of protagonist personality is the unlikable protagonist trope. Sometimes, the main character of a novel is simply a heinous person. They may be redeemable, but even if they’re not, the reader is drawn to this character because of their complexity, and because of the little glimmer of humanity that they cannot seem to eradicate.

There are countless examples of this in classic literature: Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita , Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray , or Anthony and Gloria Patch in The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Each of these characters bring an awful taste to the mouth: they are vain, self-centered, and uninterested in the betterment of society or themselves, ruining the lives of the people around them.

What’s most difficult about the unlikable protagonist trope is this: the reader still roots for them. Unlikable characters are still complicated and human, and while we might abhor them for their iniquities, we also hope they might redeem themselves, recognize their errors, even turn themselves in for the crimes they’ve committed. Through reprehensible protagonists, the reader observes something about the dark side of human nature, forcing them to reflect on society and how we ought to coexist with one another.

In your own work, your main characters do not have to be unlikable. But they’re certainly not perfect, and carry a mix of positive and negative traits. Good people do unlikable things all the time, and many protagonists are indeed unkind people. After all, imperfection is what makes for a great story: the reader learns to love the main character and root for their success, despite all of their shortcomings and poor decisions.

Narrative lens

Who’s telling the story? Is it the protagonist, a close friend of the protagonist, or a distant and impartial narrator? Point of view plays an essential role in shaping the contours of your main character. With a clearly established POV, you can decide how intimately the reader knows your protagonist, including what access we have to their thoughts, feelings, and internal life.

Learn more at our article on point of view in literature , and how different narrative lenses affect the development of your characters and their journeys.

Naming your characters, especially your protagonists, can prove especially daunting. It seems like there are thousands of wrong names to impart on your main character, but the right one always eludes you. How do authors come up with such great names?

Here are a few considerations:

If you’re still struggling to come up with something clever or applicable, try out this name generator for a spin.

Finally, when it comes to naming your protagonist, you’re probably your own biggest critic. Readers will trust that the name you’ve given your character is thoughtful and relevant. Whether or not you’re a believer in nominative determinism, go with your gut—there’s nobody else who can give a better name to your characters than you.

Character description

What does your main character look like? How do they dress, wear their hair, move their face, navigate a room? What do they smell like? How does their voice sound?

You don’t need to paint a complete picture for the reader, as we don’t want to get lost in the details. But singling out precise imagery for your protagonist will help the reader visualize them and understand their personality.

Again, we don’t need to know everything: there’s no need to pile on visual and sensory details. Readers prefer to build an idea in their head of what a character looks like based on a few key pieces of description, otherwise the story gets weighed down with loads of imagery, confusing the reader. Keep description simple and symbolic—let the reader get to know your main character through the most important sensory details you share.

Finally, don’t have your protagonist describe themselves by looking at their reflection. For example: “I looked at myself in the mirror, examining my short hair, my large nose, and my bluish-green eyes.” It’s cliché and distracts from the narrative.

Synergy with the antagonist

The perfect antagonist isn’t perfect for everybody, but specifically for your protagonist. The challenges that the antagonist presents will prove difficult for the main character to overcome because of the main character’s own flaws and shortcomings.

The challenges that the antagonist presents will prove difficult for the main character to overcome because of the main character’s own flaws and shortcomings.

For example, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kasey, Nurse Ratched is a perfect antagonist for Randle McMurphy. Randle is a fun-loving, free-spirited character who does not respond to threats, intimidation, or any of the tortuous punishments Nurse Ratched dreams up for her patients. Nurse Ratched, by contrast, exercises total control over the psychiatric ward, using patients as informants and manipulating the residents to her will. These two contrasting personalities inevitably reach a stalemate, until McMurphy nearly chokes Nurse Ratched to death. McMurphy is lobotomized, but Nurse Ratched loses her voice, essentially disabling each of their respective personalities.

The antagonist might also demonstrate something about the shortcomings of society. In To Kill a Mockingbird , the Ewells are no match for Atticus Finch, who is a model example of a lawyer and humanitarian. The Ewells win their case and successfully get a black man wrongfully imprisoned, demonstrating how justice is not always found in the justice system. Atticus’ shortcoming is not his own fault, but rather the fault of systemic racism; nonetheless, his own prowess as an orator makes the Ewell family the laughing stock of Maycomb.

The moral dilemma

A good antagonist will also present the protagonist with difficult moral dilemmas. The main character must inevitably make hard decisions, often with limited information, that decide the fate of the story and their own internal journey. If the protagonist has not grown as a person, or else cowers in the face of responsibility, the story will end in tragedy.

For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet , the titular Hamlet is tasked with avenging the death of his father. Hamlet suspects, and later confirms, that his uncle Claudius killed his father, the former king of Sweden. With this knowledge, Hamlet vows to kill Claudius—except he is never able to do so, as he is both indecisive and frequently gets lost in his own moralizing. Several preventable deaths, including Hamlet’s own, result from Hamlet’s inability to approach the moral dilemma.

Real people versus fictional elements

How do you come up with fictional characters? Can they be completely unique human beings? Should you model your protagonist off of people you know? Should your protagonist be yourself?

There’s no wrong answer here. James Joyce’s hero Stephen Daedalus was Joyce’s literary alter ego. By contrast, Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes was inspired by a professor Doyle had in medical school, Dr. Joseph Bell.

In truth, authors usually imbue their characters with a mixture of inspiration from the people they know, and elements of themselves they unwittingly endow their characters with. The important part of developing your characters is to be strategic: figure out what traits are essential to telling your story, escalating conflict, and creating a perfect moral dilemma.

The following protagonist examples come from classic works of literature. We summarize the role that the character plays in the story, referencing how each protagonist was carefully crafted with the above criteria in mind. If you read or have read these novels, pay close attention to the interplay of character and narrative, as the protagonist is equally shaped by the story as the story shapes the protagonist.

Selin Karadağ in The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Story summary: Selin is a freshman at Harvard in the 1990s, when email is first becoming a means of communication. Much of the story is focused on her uncertain relationship with Ivan, an older student in mathematics, and Selin’s observations and dry wit explore the existential uncertainty that comes with being in your late teens—the odd juxtaposition of being a freshly minted adult and entirely uncertain about how the world really works.

Protagonist personality: Selin is witty, obsessed with the inner workings of language, and has a remarkably dry sense of humor. Much of her observations about the world are tied to language, and the gap between what language conveys and how the world truly is. Outside of this, Selin is a typical teenage girl, trying to figure herself out and her place in the world. Sometimes she’s confident, other times she’s shy; sometimes she’s completely sure of something, and other times she feels completely lost in the large, chaotic world. In addition to learning languages, Selin sees herself as a writer.

Character description: Not a whole lot of time is spent on Selin’s appearance, mainly because it’s written in first person POV. We know that Selin is Turkish American, and that she grew up in New Jersey.

Inner and outer journey: Outwardly, Selin tries to figure out her place at Harvard and the future she wants to build. She surveys different classes, makes the typical mistakes that freshmen make, and spends her summer teaching English in a remote Hungarian village (partially to be closer to Ivan, who is Hungarian). Inwardly, Selin tries to conquer the gap between language and meaning. In her relationship to Ivan, which is mostly held over email, Selin tries to put her thoughts and feelings precisely into words. But, despite their chemistry, neither Ivan or Selin seem capable of expressing their feelings towards one another.

Moral dilemma: Selin must figure out how to communicate her feelings, whether to communicate them or not, and how to accept the vulnerability of love, desire, and language. To express something is to open yourself up to the limits of language—the inability to convey exact feelings and ideas through words. Selin’s Sisyphean struggle is to constantly learn more about words, but also to be brave enough to use them.

Other notes: The Idiot is semi-autobiographical, and was a 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist in Fiction.

Charles Marlow in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Story summary: Written during the period of European colonial rule across the African continent, Heart of Darkness details Charles Marlow’s journey into the Congo Free State. Marlow is the captain of a steamboat for an ivory trading company, and he is tasked with finding Kurtz, a successful ivory trader, who has adapted his way of life to the natives along the Congo River. Throughout Marlow’s journey, he makes important realizations about colonization and the false dichotomy of “civilized” versus “savage.”

Protagonist personality: Marlow is adventurous, curious, and perhaps even obsessive. He becomes engrossed with the idea of Kurtz, and wants to meet him to understand why a European man would conform to an African lifestyle. He is well-educated and aristocratic, but also meditative and a bit distant, as he spent much of his time studying or at sea.

Character description: Marlow is a recurring character of Joseph Conrad’s work. Although his physical appearance is not discussed much in Heart of Darkness , other works describe him as a handsome man, though easily flustered and self-conscious around people of his own social standing.

Inner and outer journey: Marlow’s outer journey pushes him into the heart of the Congo. He dodges enemy attacks, suffers through exhaustion and illness, and does everything he can to meet Kurtz, who is on his deathbed. Inwardly, Marlow makes important realizations about colonization. He realizes that there is little difference between European aristocrats and African “savages,” and that colonization has wreaked disaster across the African continent. Marlow comes to see all men as equal, and to see Europeans as “whited sepulchers,” filled with the same “savagery” that all men have, but very thinly masked behind a veneer of aristocracy.

Moral dilemma: Before Kurtz dies, he gives Marlow a packet of papers, which detail some of his methods and the success of his trading station. In truth, Kurtz is a tyrant: he made the African people worship him so he could exploit their labor and produce as much ivory as possible. Further, he came to Africa to “civilize the natives,” and died wishing death upon every African man. Kurtz’s papers are highly lucrative, and Marlow’s moral dilemma is what to do with them. In the end, he protects those papers from every European, knowing that they would use Kurtz’s methods against the African continent.

David in Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Story summary: Giovanni’s Room is a novel about love and sexuality in 1950s Paris. David, who is engaged to his girlfriend Hella, meets the bartender Giovanni at a gay bar, which forces David to reckon with his masculinity, his sexuality, and his loneliness. The novel begins at the end: we know that something David has done has sent Giovanni to be executed.

Protagonist personality: David is indecisive and introspective. His mother died when he was young, his father was a distant but masculine presence, and David had several gay experiences as a teenager which made him afraid of his own queer desire. David is desperate to “be a man,” and when he’s anxious enough, he seduces women to prove to himself his own masculinity and heterosexuality (which for him, and society, are intertwined).

Character description: David is a handsome blond American man from New York City. Since the story is told from the first person, not much else is said about his appearance.

Inner and outer journey: Outwardly, David navigates his relationships to both Giovanni and Hella. He certainly cares for Giovanni, but feels suffocated by this relationship: David is the only thing that Giovanni lives for, and David has not come to terms with his sexuality. Additionally, Giovanni’s room is small and depressing, yet David spends the majority of his time there. Inwardly, David must confront his socially indoctrinated beliefs about manhood and sexuality, or else he can never overcome his sense of isolation and loneliness in the world.

Moral dilemma: Whether David is bisexual or homosexual is never explicitly stated, but still, he must choose between Hella and Giovanni while also resolving his questions of identity. In the end, he chooses neither. David abandons Giovanni to marry Hella; this sends Giovanni into a slew of self-destructive behaviors, culminating in him murdering his former boss and being executed for it. David blames himself for this, disappears from Hella, and starts gallivanting with a gay sailor. When Hella discovers this, she heads back to the United States. So, in David’s reckless indecisiveness and refusal to acknowledge his own desire, he has lost both of the people he claims to have loved.

Is the protagonist the main character?

Yes, always. But the protagonist is not always the narrator. In The Great Gatsby , for example, the protagonist is Jay Gatsby, but the narrator is Nick Carraway, a close acquaintance.

Can the protagonist also be the antagonist?

By definition, no. The protagonist is the main character of the story, and the antagonist is the main opposing force. Readers often assume this means the protagonist is always good and the antagonist is always bad, but it’s much more nuanced than this: good main characters will also have “bad” traits, and some protagonists are actually evil people.

That said, the protagonist can be their own opposing force. Take note of the above protagonist examples. In Giovanni’s Room , the antagonist is arguably society and its unfair views of masculinity and sexuality. One could also assert that David is his own antagonist: he’s a grown man, capable of confronting his biases and struggles with identity, both of which cause him to hurt the people he loves. David, of course, has inherited loads of trauma and confusion surrounding his identity, and in the 1950s, it wasn’t easy to admit to yourself you’re a gay or bisexual man. Thus, there is no clear antagonist, but David plays an active role in his own self-destruction, as well as the destruction of others.

Can there be more than one protagonist?

It depends on who you ask. Some literary theorists argue that, even in novels told from multiple perspectives and with multiple interweaving narratives, there can be only one true protagonist, and the other perspectives are deuteragonists.

In truth, it’s very difficult to tell a story with two or more equally-important main characters. One character will likely overshadow the other(s), even if only barely, because their journey ends up defining the arc of the story. That’s not to say the deuteragonists aren’t also given depth and importance, only that their journey does not define the story , which is a central trait of all protagonists.

Some examples of novels with multiple perspectives or main characters include:

There are also novels that are told across the perspectives of multiple generations, including Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan.

Among this list, the novel that comes closest to having equally weighted characters is In the Time of the Butterflies , which tries to show equal perspective from each of the Mirabal sisters. In a way, this makes the Mirabals, as a unit, the story’s protagonist, though each sister certainly has her own traits, desires, and flaws, and though Dedé is the only sister who survives.

In short, it is possible to have multiple protagonists, but if you’re considering doing this, pay close attention to the narratives and journeys you’re building for each character. You may end up prioritizing one journey over the other in your novel.

Creating Your Protagonist

Jack Smith

What is a protagonist? It’s your main character. You might have several characters, but this is the character who drives the action, the one whose perspective is the most important. In being the main character, this character needs to be real, to have human attributes, not to be one-dimensional, but multi-dimensional, and to be sympathetic, someone whose problems we can relate to and care about.

But first, let’s look into this matter of creating your protagonist and how you might do it. What fictional methods can you depend on? How should you start?

Of these openings, many writers today would probably choose the latter, beginning in media res, or in the middle of things. Though the traditional five-stage plot structure, which we’ll cover later, begins with exposition, or telling—establishing the character’s situation before a complication occurs—writers today tend to feel that this lacks the kind of verve they want out of a novel opening. A descriptive opening, however, might work, unless it sounds like it’s just description for description’s sake. And it’s got to be vivid—it’s got to “show, don’t tell.”

What should you accomplish in your opening? Richard Bausch, famous novelist, states that he “troubles” his character to get things moving. However you manage to get things rolling, you do need to find ways to create your character—again putting aside, for now, the question of creating a character worth your reader’s time, one that is complex and sympathetic.

What besides a good opening do you need? What are the tools at your command to create your main character?

Be sure to rely on the following:

Scenes that involve your protagonist in conflict : Fiction thrives on conflict . A good scenic opening means putting your character in a situation that threatens them — in some way. Throughout your novel, you need to keep this in mind. Scenes where your character is feeling good, satisfied, getting along with others, being happy, happy, happy, will probably make for dull reading. Save that for some riveting prose. (Unless, we can just feel in that happy, happy occasion that things are about to go south.) Think of conflict, whether it’s verbal or physical, as the engine that drives your character—and your novel. We’ll learn about your protagonist, in part, from what they do.

Prose that reveals what the protagonist is thinking and feeling : Think of moving from summary to scene and from scene to summary. We’ll get to know your character not only through interaction with others in scenes, but in narrative summary, which establishes her routines over a given time period, or typical routines at a given time in her life. Perhaps—just one possibility—these times could be lulls in the action, giving your protagonist moments to take stock of her life.

Expository prose can also reveal the feelings, thoughts, worries, fears, etc., of your character. Readers like to get inside the protagonist’s mind. Good prose can do that, if it doesn’t sound like it’s talking about  a character but instead is revealing the inner life of a character. Vividness helps.

Scenes that reveal what others think of your protagonist : Dialogue that reveals what other characters think of your protagonist will help in creating this main character. Are these external perspectives right or wrong? Are they credible? Readers will be intrigued by different takes on the protagonist.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, these are the fictional strategies you have at your disposal.

Learn how to create the perfect protagonist at Writers.com

What is a protagonist? What does your protagonist want? What do they look like, who’s acting against them, and how will they survive? Will they survive, or won’t they?

Crafting a great protagonist and putting them on an interesting journey is hard work. Learn how to create the perfect protagonist at Writers.com. Take a look at our upcoming fiction courses , where you’ll learn the craft of storytelling and get expert feedback on your characters.

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literary definition protagonist

Antagonist Definition

What is an antagonist? Here’s a quick and simple definition:

An antagonist is usually a character who opposes the protagonist (or main character) of a story, but the antagonist can also be a group of characters, institution, or force against which the protagonist must contend. A simple example of an antagonist is the Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, who opposes and wants to destroy Snow White.

Some additional key details about antagonists:

Antagonist Pronunciation

Here's how to pronounce antagonist: an- tag -uh-nist

Types of Antagonist

When most people think of an antagonist, they think of a "bad guy," like the villains in superhero movies. But there are actually many different types of antagonist, of which the standard villain is just one.

Examples of a Complicated Antagonist

There are so many different ways for an antagonist to operate that not every antagonist you encounter will fall into one of the categories described above. Some antagonists might even fall into more than one of the categories. One good example of a complicated antagonist is the monster in the novel Frankenstein .

Complicated Antagonist in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

The narrative of Frankenstein is about a man named Victor Frankenstein who creates a monster, which is referred to as the Creature. The Creature ultimately turns against his creator and wrecks Victor's life. But the monster is not a simple villain antagonist. As the novel makes clear, the monster acts as he does because Victor first abandons the monster after creating it, and then refuses to create a companion monster to alleviate the monster's terrible loneliness. The monster's revenge is to make Victor just as alone, by murdering Victor's loved ones. Further, at one point of the novel the Creature tells Victor his story of being alone after Victor abandoned him—for that portion of the novel, the monster becomes the protagonist of his own story. Over all, Victor is the protagonist of Frankenstein : the audience sees the story through Victor's eyes, knowing what Victor knows and understanding the consequences of events by what Victors feels and recounts. The audience sympathizes with Victor. But the audience also sympathizes to an extent with the Creature, which becomes a murderous villain out of its own sense of having been dreadfully wronged. The Creature is a villain, but an understandable one, and so it is a complicated antagonist.

Literary Terms Commonly Confused with Antagonist

There are several closely related terms that are often confused with antagonist, but there are critical differences among them that are important to know in order to better understand how to identify an antagonist.

Antagonist Examples

Antagonists can come in many different forms. While all stories have a protagonist, not all stories will have an antagonist (although most will). Below, we've provided an example of each of the four main antagonist types: villains, hero antagonists, group antagonists, and "non-human" antagonists, as well as an example of an antagonist who doesn't fit easily into any of these categories.

Villain Antagonist in Wonder Woman

In the 2017 film, Wonder Woman , Diana Prince saves an American spy and pilot, Captain Steve Trevor, after he crashes near the hidden island where she and the Amazonian race of warrior women live. After he tells the Amazonians about the destruction happening in the world as a result of World War I, Diana decides to accompany him to the war's front line. She believes it to be Ares—a villain based on the Greek god of war—who is responsible, and that if Ares dies the war will end. It isn't until the very end of the movie that Ares' identity is revealed, and the two characters battle. While Ares has relatively little time on the screen, and there are plenty of other villains in this story, it is clear that Ares' evildoing has been the primary cause of suffering for the protagonist and those she wants to save, which makes Ares the primary villain antagonist in this narrative.

Hero Antagonist in Breaking Bad

The protagonist of the TV series Breaking Bad is Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. In order to leave his family on secure financial footing, he begins making and selling the illegal drug known as crystal meth. While White's fundamental desire might be a good one—helping his family—his life of crime quickly spirals out of control, and he becomes the show's villain protagonist. Meanwhile, White's brother-in-law, Hank, is an ambitious and fearless agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency who will go to any length to find a local drug dealer known as Heisenberg (who is actually Walter White). Hank has mostly noble intentions (he wants to keep the public safe), and he continuously foils White's drug-dealing plans, which makes him the hero antagonist.

Group Antagonist in George Orwell's 1984

Th dystopian novel 1984 depicts a political reality in which the present-day Great Britain, called Airstrip One in the novel, is controlled by a system of government called The Party. The country is in perpetual war, surveillance systems watch and control the population's every move with a brigade of Thought Police (who punish individualism), and everyone is constantly manipulated through propaganda. The narrative follows the protagonist Winston as he becomes critical of The Party and begins to keep a journal criticizing it. He begins a surreptitious affair with a woman named Julia after he discovers that she shares some of his feelings. The pair have to be cunning to avoid getting caught by the Thought Police, but eventually, they're discovered through a sting operation and tortured. While the Party in the novel is represented through a character named O'Brien who might be identified as the antagonist of the novel, you could also argue that the true antagonist of the novel is the entire group of The Party because it is the broader faceless party, and not a high-level functionary of the party like O'Brien, that is the pervasive force that impedes Winston.

Non-Human Antagonist in Deep Impact

The premise of the film Deep Impact is that a comet is heading for Earth. The narrative mostly follows a young teenage astronomer, who first discovered the comet, but also weaves among other characters and the ways in which they brace for the comet's impact as it hurtles toward the Earth, where it will likely kill everyone. The main conflict is a race against time as scientists, politicians, and the young astronomer try to thwart the disaster. A group of astronauts in outer space are able to break up part of the comet, but not all of it—so the astronauts make the brave decision to crash their ship, along with all its remaining explosives, into the second part of the comet, thus saving Earth from complete destruction. The central tension of the film is created by the comet's path toward Earth, which makes the comet itself an example of a non-human antagonist.

What's the Function of an Antagonist in Literature?

While a protagonist tends to supply a storyline with a person that the audience can identify with or "root for" as they strive to achieve some goal, the antagonist is who or what creates the tension or conflict that makes that goal harder to reach. Without an antagonist, many stories would seem to lack a sense of drama or action, and the protagonist wouldn't face any challenges in reaching their goal. The antagonist agitates or disrupts the protagonist, and therefore introduces conflict to a plot. In a typical narrative this conflict brings about a plot's climax and generally serves as the premise for much of the story's action, which makes a narrative engaging. Conflicts brought about by an antagonist can also test the morals and beliefs of characters, which shows the audience who the main characters really are and what they stand for.

Other Helpful Antagonist Resources

The printed PDF version of the LitCharts literary term guide on Antagonist

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What is a Protagonist Definition and Examples for Screenwriters Featured

What is a Protagonist — Definition & Examples for Screenwriters

W hat is a protagonist? Many refer to it as the leading character in a story. But is the protagonist something more? Or something less? To understand the definition fully, we need to look at how different types of protagonists are used in screenwriting. This will help us decide which type works best for our scripts.

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Protagonist Meaning

First, let's define protagonist.

Protagonists are used everywhere, from literature to video games to cinema. They’re used as a sort of character conduit to connect the reader/viewer/player to the world of that particular medium.  

So: what does protagonist mean? We’re going to answer that question by looking at how these characters are used in screenwriting with examples from Star Wars , Breaking Bad and more – but first, let’s define protagonist!


What is a protagonist.

A protagonist is a character who pushes a story forward. He or she is also the central force of the story. Derived from the Greek words prōtos and agōnistēs, it quite literally translates to “first actor.” Not every story has to have a protagonist though. Some stories have ensembles; a rare character structure in which the group collective pushes the story forward, not just the actions of an individual. 

Characteristics of a Protagonist:

Protagonist vs. Antagonist 

What is a protagonist and antagonist.

Perhaps a good way to explore protagonists is to examine their opposite. And what is the opposite of protagonist — the antagonist . Protagonists and antagonists operate in a symbiotic relationship with one another. 

Here’s an example of how conflict is created and resolved between them.

The protagonist : Character A wants thing X .

The antagonist : Character B wants thing Z .

Things X and Z are opposite one another.

Let’s plug in for those variables, working with Return of the Jedi .

Protagonist and Antagonist in Star Wars

The protagonist : Luke Skywalker wants to bring balance to the force .

The antagonist : Darth Vader wants Luke to turn to the dark side .

Notice how these two things work against each other? This is because the protagonist vs. antagonist struggle is the most common example of character conflict. The moment in which these characters and the things they want clash is called the climax. 

Main Character Examples

Popular protagonist examples.

Think of the main character of a story. They are usually the one Struggling to think of some protagonist examples? Here’s a list of protagonist examples in movies:

We imported these characters into  StudioBinder’s storyboard creator in order to create a filmic mood board. You can download the mood board below and reference it at any time for character design inspiration!

What is a Protagonist - Various Protagonists Example - StudioBinder Shot Listing Software

Whats a Protagonist?  •   Ultimate Storyboard

Most (but not all) of these protagonists are similar – they’re heroic characters who serve as the driving force of their stories.

Protagonist Definition

What is a protagonist in a story.

No matter how you define protagonist – they are a critical element of every story. The most simple and iconic type is the hero. These characters are virtuous, brave and idealistic. Everything within their story points back to them; think Harry Potter , Indiana Jones , James Bond , etc.

The adventure that they go on often aligns with the Hero’s Journey . But the hero is just one of many main character types available to writers.

In Tenet , Christopher Nolan uses his main character (literally named The Protagonist) in a meta-sense; to comment on the pervasiveness of hollow-heroism in stories. We imported the Tenet screenplay into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to highlight a short exchange that expertly articulates the point I’m trying to get across.

Read it below and think about the character Priya associates the term “protagonist” with “one who’s capable of saving the world.”

What is Protagonist - Hero in Hercules - StudioBinder Scriptwriting Software

Whats a Protagonist?  •   Read the entire scene

You don’t have to know anything about Tenet to understand the takeaway from this example. Protagonists come with all sorts of tropes and contrivances that we must be knowledgeable of when writing screenplays. With that note out of the way, let’s break down some different types of these characters.

Who is the Protagonist in a Villainous Story?

Let’s define the protagonist anti-hero.

Not all protagonists have to be virtuous. Think Breaking Bad for example. Who’s the protagonist? Walter White, a nefarious character who also serves as the central force of the story.

These so called anti-heroes have become incredibly popular on TV, from Mad Men to The Sopranos . But anti-heroes have also grown in popularity in films; a great recent example is Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler .

In this next video, we look at how director Dan Gilroy uses shot composition to build empathy for Bloom. But before Bloom was played on the big-screen by Jake Gyllenhaal, he was just a character in a script.

All the aspects of the anti-hero that we come to see visually were just words transcribed on page. But when a strong script foundation connects with great filmmaking, something truly extraordinary is created. 

What is a Protagonist in a Story?  •  How Nightcrawler Creates Empathy with Eyes  •   Subscribe on YouTube

It becomes a bit more tricky to diagnose the antagonist when the protagonist is an anti-hero. Many would argue that some internal part of the anti-hero is the antagonist in and of itself. However, that’s not always true.

Most protagonists have a tragic flaw; something that ultimately leads to their undoing. For heroes, this tragic flaw is usually rooted in an overabundance of charity, generosity, etc., while for anti-heroes, the tragic flaw more often has something to do with greed, insecurity, etc. A tragic flaw is not an antagonist, but rather one of many aspects of character development . 

Related Posts

Main Character Bait & Switch

The false protagonist.

Sometimes, screenwriters subvert our expectations for a story-arc or a traditional plot structure by “killing off” who we presumed to be the protagonist. A great example of this is Ned Stark from Game of Thrones . The story begins with him as the central focus of the story. His mission is what guides our view of the story’s major themes . But then-boom-he’s gone! 

Another classic example of the false protagonist can be found in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies : Psycho . Marion (Janet Leigh) seems to be the lead character of the film, but we quickly learn that director Alfred Hitchcock merely uses her as a decoy.

This next video from The Discarded Image looks at how Hitchcock tricked us into believing Marion was the protagonist.

What is a Protagonist in Psycho

We’re led to believe that Psycho is the story of Marion, but it’s really the story of Norman Bates. The way that Hitchcock uses the false protagonist allows him to manipulate the audience and exercise subversive creative control over the story. Ultimately, it’s a classic example of Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense.

What are Protagonists Who Support?

How to use a supporting protagonist.

The supporting protagonist is often erroneously attributed to supporting characters. Just because a supporting character is closely intertwined with a story, it doesn’t mean that they are the main character. Instead, they can be considered as a separate role called a deuteragonist . This is a "second actor" — nearly the main character, but not quite. 

Take Watson from Sherlock Holmes for example. He is both the narrator of Sherlock’s adventures and his sidekick. However, he’s not the protagonist.

A good rule of thumb is to always suspect that if a story has a character’s name in the title, he or she is probably the protagonist. 

There is also the tritagonist, a tertiary main character just below the first two levels. For example, in  Jaws , Chief Brody would be the protagonist. Hooper and Quint would be deuteragonists. And characters like Ellen Brody and Mayor Vaughn would be considered tritagonists. 

Writers often play with the idea of using the multiple leads for subversive effect. Take Star Wars: The Force Awakens for example. Writers Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt toy with the idea of tricking the audience into the idea of a false protagonist. As you’re reading, think about how Rey and Finn switch roles.

What is a Protagonist - Star Wars Example - StudioBinder Screenwriting Software

What is a Protagonist?  •   Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Of course, this “supporting protagonist” dynamic was an integral part of marketing The Force Awakens ; Disney likely wanted to build mystery by keeping the identity of the main character secret before the trilogy came out. In the end, Rey emerged as the definitive hero of the series – but not before Finn got his time in the limelight.

What is a Protagonist in a Story - Star Wars The Force Awakens

What is a Protagonist in a Story?  •  Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Remember, for a protagonist to be a protagonist, the story must revolve around them. The sequel trilogy revolves around Rey, not Finn. There are “Finn-centric” arcs (especially The Force Awakens ) but the major arc is centered around Rey.

Double Protagonist Meaning

Dual protagonists.

Can there be more than one protagonist? Yes, there are many examples of dual protagonists . Think of Woody and Buzz from  Toy Story.  In fact, there are even entire movie genres based on having two equal main characters.

For example, the buddy cop or romantic comedy sub-genres. In both categories, the main pair of characters carry equal weight, make decisions that drive the plot, and have their own character arcs.

Here’s a great example from the Step Brothers script that shows why its two main characters, Brennan and Dale, can be considered dual protagonists.

literary definition protagonist

What are Protagonists in Step Brothers?  •   Dual Protagonists Explained

In this moment, Brennan and Dale achieve their dream of becoming respected musicians by supporting each other in equal measure. In many ways, the script makes a point to highlight the ways in which Brennan and Dale are mirror images of each other.

Whats a Protagonist • The Dual Protagonist

Two Equal Leads in Step Brothers

As such, we can say that although they’re two people, they occupy the role of a dual protagonist. They both have their own goals, the story revolves around their friendship, and they both experience a character arc.

What is an Antagonist?

Now that we’ve looked at the different types of protagonists with some examples from film and television, let’s do the same with antagonists. In this next article, that’s exactly what we do! With examples from The Birds, Kill Bill, and more, we’ll see how well-built antagonists can elevate a story to new heights.

Up Next: The Antagonist Explained →

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  1. Protagonist Definition & Meaning

    protagonist noun pro· tag· o· nist prō-ˈta-gə-nist Synonyms of protagonist 1 a (1) : the principal character in a literary work (such as a drama or story) (2) : the leading actor or principal character in a television show, movie, book, etc. b : an active participant in an event 2 : a leader, proponent, or supporter of a cause : champion

  2. Protagonist

    The protagonist of a story is its main character, who has the sympathy and support of the audience. This character tends to be involved in or affected by most of the choices or conflicts that arise in the narrative. For example, Snow White is the protagonist of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Some additional key details about protagonists:

  3. Protagonist Definition & Meaning

    protagonist / ( prəʊˈtæɡənɪst) / noun the principal character in a play, story, etc a supporter, esp when important or respected, of a cause, political party, etc Derived forms of protagonist protagonism, noun Word Origin for protagonist C17: from Greek prōtagōnistēs, from prōtos first + agōnistēs actor

  4. Protagonist in Literature: Definition & Examples

    The protagonist (pro-TAG-uh-nist) is the main character in a story. Also called the central character, focal character, primary character, or hero, the protagonist plays a key role in a narrative's development because the story revolves around them.

  5. Protagonist: Definition and Examples

    Protagonist (pronounced pro-TAG-oh-nist) is just another word for "main character." The story circles around this character's experiences, and the audience is invited to see the world from his or her perspective. Note that the protagonist is not necessarily a "good guy."

  6. Protagonist

    A protagonist is the central character or leading figure in poetry, narrative, novel or any other story. A protagonist is sometimes a " hero " to the audience or readers. The word originally came from the Greek language, and in Greek drama it refers to the person who led the chorus.

  7. Protagonist in Literature: Definition & Examples

    A protagonist is the main character in a literary work or movie. Discover how a protagonist interacts with an antagonist and usually experiences some sort of change or transformation, and...

  8. "Hero" vs. "Protagonist": What Is The Difference?

    Like hero, protagonist is a noun that can mean the leading character in a story. However, unlike hero, which historically has only referred to a male characters, a protagonist is defined as "a hero or heroine of a drama or other literary work.". For example: throughout much of the play, the protagonist struggles with guilt related to his ...

  9. Protagonist vs. Antagonist: A Must-Know Literary Pair, Defined

    The protagonist is the lead character of a story. The term derives from classical Greek drama, literally meaning "first actor." Though often referred to as the "hero" of the story, the protagonist isn't necessarily virtuous, and also may be just one of many protagonists.

  10. Protagonist definition and example literary device

    A protagonist is the central character or leading figure in poetry, narrative, novel or any other story. A protagonist is sometimes a " hero " to the audience or readers. The word originally came from the Greek language, and in Greek drama it refers to the person who led the chorus.

  11. Literary Character: Definition & Examples

    Literary Character The Legend of Sleepy Hollow The Loved One The Magus The Making of Americans The Man in the High Castle The Mayor of Casterbridge The Member of the Wedding The Metamorphosis The Plague The Plot Against America The Portrait of a Lady The Road from Coorain The Stone Angel The Unbearable Lightness Of Being The Wapshot Chronicle

  12. What Is a Protagonist?

    The most common definition of protagonist is the leading character of a drama or literary work. You can see the relation to its Greek root word in the sense that the character is important in the plot. Sometimes, the term hero refers to a male protagonist. Heroine refers to a female protagonist. Champion is another synonym of protagonist.

  13. What is a Protagonist? || Definition & Examples

    The protagonist is the character who drives the action--the character whose fate matters most. In other words, they are involved in —and often central to—the plot or conflict of the story, but are also usually the emotional heart of the narrative. Sometimes it's easy to pinpoint who the protagonist is in a story.

  14. Protagonist

    A protagonist (from Ancient Greek πρωταγωνιστής (prōtagōnistḗs) 'one who plays the first part, chief actor') [1] [2] [3] 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.

  15. Protagonist

    Definitions of protagonist noun the principal character in a work of fiction synonyms: agonist see more noun a person who backs a politician or a team etc. synonyms: admirer, booster, champion, friend, supporter see more Think you've got a good vocabulary? Take our quiz. ASSESSMENT: 100 POINTS pundit means : sophomore savant electrician hermit

  16. Protagonist

    protagonist, in ancient Greek drama, the first or leading actor. The poet Thespis is credited with having invented tragedy when he introduced this first actor into Greek drama, which formerly consisted only of choric dancing and recitation. The protagonist stood opposite the chorus and engaged in an interchange of questions and answers. According to Aristotle in his Poetics, Aeschylus brought ...

  17. Literary Terms

    Protagonist: The primary character in a text, often positioned as "good" or the character with whom readers are expected to identify. Protagonists usually oppose an antagonist. Terms for Interpreting Word Choice, Dialogue, and Speech


    protagonist meaning: 1. one of the main characters in a story or a play 2. an important supporter of an idea or…. Learn more.

  19. What is a Protagonist? Examples, Meaning and Definition

    The protagonist is the main character in a story Other characters who interact with the protagonist What's the difference between a protagonist and a hero? How a protagonist communicates the theme of your story Protagonist examples: 7 great main characters in literature What's the difference between a protagonist and an antagonist?

  20. Protagonist Definition, Meaning, & Examples

    Protagonist. Protagonists are usually the heroes of a story, and they are driven by a particular goal or loyalty to seek out a resolution to a conflict. Protagonists are typically brave, they experience some sort of change, and they often have a flaw in their character that the reader can relate to. A protagonist usually faces an antagonist of ...

  21. Protagonist Definition: How to Create a Protagonist

    Protagonist Definition: What is a Protagonist? The protagonist of a story is the main character who drives the plot forward. As the leading character of a story, play, movie, or other piece of drama or literature, protagonists are essential components of fiction, as it's their conflicts and journeys that make the story possible.

  22. Antagonist

    Here's a quick and simple definition: An antagonist is usually a character who opposes the protagonist (or main character) of a story, but the antagonist can also be a group of characters, institution, or force against which the protagonist must contend. A simple example of an antagonist is the Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, who ...

  23. What is a Protagonist

    A protagonist is a character who pushes a story forward. He or she is also the central force of the story. Derived from the Greek words prōtos and agōnistēs, it quite literally translates to "first actor.". Not every story has to have a protagonist though.