The word “protagonist” comes from the Ancient Greek πρωταγωνιστής, prōtagōnistḗs meaning “one who plays the first (or chief) part.” They are at the center of the story, and it is their decisions that fuel the plot. While the protagonist is usually good-natured, they can be more complicated than that, exhibiting some traits that are less endearing than others.
Definition and Explanation of Protagonist
The protagonist is the hero of the story. Their fate, or where they end up at the end of the story, is followed closely by the reader or viewer. They are contrasted with the antagonist, or the villain of the story, whose job it is to disrupt the protagonist’s journey or desires. They create complications that stand in the way, weaken the protagonist, and then hopefully, in the end, strengthen them.
Why Do Writers Use Protagonists?
The protagonist is an incredibly important part of a story. They are necessary in order for writers to develop their plot lines. The story revolves around them and their character development. Writers have to be skilled enough to create an interesting protagonist without them being too perfect or ideal. Their characterization must be multilayered to allow them to change over time. Often, the climax of a story corresponds with an important change in the protagonist’s outlook, abilities, etc. It’s the protagonist’s job to pull the reader into the story and make them root for this person’s future.
Examples of Protagonists in Novels
Harry Potter, Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter starts out the series of books as a fairly normal child, albeit in miserable living conditions with an aunt and uncle who hate him. But, it quickly becomes clear that he is destined for something far greater and scarier than anyone else around him. As he learns about his abilities, his history, and the fate that awaits him, so too do the readers. Each novel builds on the last, with Harry going through important moments of characterization, which make him at moments more and less likable. By the end, he has to face his own death and come back victorious.
Elizabeth Bennet, Pride, and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Elizabeth Bennet is a wonderful example of a protagonist who goes through an important change over the course of the novel. Elizabeth starts out as a headstrong, opinionated young woman who has no time for the elitist-seeming Mr. Darcy. She looks down on him because she thinks that he’s looking down on her. But, as the story progresses, she learns more about him and that everything is not what it seems. She undergoes an emotional upheaval after learning that he’s in love with her.
Lisbeth Salander, Millennium Series by Stieg Larsson and David Lagercrantz
Lisbeth is a complicated heroine whose skills, traumas, and determination fuel the Millennium series. The series was started by Larsson and has been cogged by Lagercrantz after the former’s death. Lisbeth’s terrifying youth culminated in creating a woman bent on punishing those who harm women like herself. Her rage with the world, along with her brilliance, allowed both writers to create incredibly engaging stories, most of which depend on Lisbeth’s own backstory for inspiration.
Examples of Protagonists in Films
Indiana Jones, Indiana Jones Series
The four Indiana Jones films feature Harrison Ford playing the now-iconic character. Throughout, Indiana’s character remains mostly the same. His development is based around the plot lines contained within the individual films and those he meets. Sometimes he is changed by the female counterparts he works with, while other times he’s forced to do things that he would rather not in order to save those he loves or even the entire world.
Luke Skywalker, Star Wars Series
Luke is a troubled and complicated protagonist whose fate is at the center of the first three Star Wars films. While his personality is fairly generic, something that helps viewers connect to his life and plight, the issues that he faces are not. He has to contend with his fate, his father’s role in the state of the world, and the darkness that is fighting to take him over from the inside. Luke’s development throughout the films is a critical part of the story.
Protagonist and Antagonist
Protagonists and antagonists are usually paired together as two sides of the same coin, one is not whole without the other. Without an antagonist, the protagonist would not have anything to fight back against or overcome. The antagonist, on the other hand, would not have anyone standing in the way of their goals. Some of the most famous pairings of protagonist and antagonists are:
- Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader/the Sith
- Harry Potter and Voldemort
- Frodo Baggins and the ring/Sauron
- Elizabeth Bennet and her own pride and prejudice
- Captain Ahab and the whale
- Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty
- Batman and the Joker
Protagonists in Ancient Greece
As is the case with many literary devices and plot elements, the first protagonists are found in Ancient Greece. The word was initially used to refer to the leader of the chorus of dance performance. But, over time, the term took on greater meaning, and the tragedy was invented. In Ancient Greece, the words “hero” and “protagonist” had different meanings. The former referred to someone with semi-divine origins.
Related Literary Devices
- Anti-Hero— a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
- Antagonist— a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
- Audience—the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.
- Characterization—a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Dialogue—a literary technique that is concerned with conversations held between two or more characters.
- Exposition—the important background information that a writer includes in a story.
- Narrative Poem—contains all the elements of a story and are normally longer than average.
- Watch: What is Protagonist?
- Watch: Protagonist vs. Antagonist
- Watch: The Dark Knight—Creating the Ultimate Antagonist
- Watch: The Psychology of the Anti-Hero