Have you ever watched a movie and wondered why you loved the main character so much? Or, perhaps you found the lead to be unlikeable and dozed off halfway through? Today, we will be going over several protagonist examples, what makes them great and why the strength of the protagonist will make or break a story.
What does protagonist mean?
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, or player to the world of that particular medium.
We’re going to focus on how they are used in screenwriting with protagonist examples from Aliens, Black Panther 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, “protagonist” quite literally translates to “first actor.”
Not every story has to have a main character 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:
- Central Force
- Moves Story Forward
- Actions Build the Theme
- Battles with Rival: the Antagonist
Elsewhere on the blog, you'll a more in-depth look at the history of this character type as well as a thorough definition of a protagonist.
Types of protagonists: active & passive
The strength of a main character lies not with what they are capable of, but what they desire. As humans, we desire to accomplish anything and everything we set our minds to; it’s what drives our history. Watching someone try to achieve something important will give the story depth and meaning.
Whether or not the goal is achieved is less important than the journey itself. To the contrary, watching a character overcome failure is far more compelling than seeing them get the easy win. The more a protagonist struggles to get what they want, the more we will want to see them achieve their goal.
Another factor that determines the strength of a protagonist is whether they are active or passive.
An active protagonist is one that makes decisions and whose actions drive the scene forward. The higher the stakes in their decision making, the better.
A passive protagonist is one that reacts to situations without making decisions to drive the action. This leads to a much more dull character who is experiencing the story rather than leading it. While moments of passivity can happen (reacting is part of human nature), an active protagonist is always more compelling than a passive one.
A great protagonist must also have a strong character arc. They must learn something from their journey, be it about themself, others or even life. This growth changes who they are fundamentally, making them the opposite of what they once were or believed.
The very best protagonists often fear and resist change because of how it will affect their identity. But if a protagonist hasn’t grown or changed by the end of the story, the lack of fulfillment will drive an audience mad. The following protagonist examples and their characteristics will help explain further.
Protagonist Examples — Aliens
The strong female lead
Writer and director James Cameron loves his strong female leads, and no one is stronger than Ripley. Be sure to watch the director’s cut of Aliens. An important scene that defines Ripley as a character was cut from the theatrical release.
In the beginning of the movie, Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) is rescued from cryo-sleep. Cameron uses the first act to establish what she lost at the end of the first film: her ship, her crew and her life. Most importantly, Ripley finds out that she was in stasis for so long, her daughter died of old age.
On the surface, her goal appears to be revenge. She chooses to return to LV-426 because she wants to see the aliens exterminated. However, when she reaches the planet, she finds a young girl named Newt. This young orphan becomes her surrogate daughter and the driving force behind Ripley’s actions. Her closure will not come from revenge against the monsters, but from protecting a child.
Ripley’s ultimate failure comes when the aliens capture her surrogate daughter. Ripley chooses to attack the hive to rescue Newt.
Ripley’s arc is one of a woman that starts off as a scared survivor, but becomes a fighter that protects her own. Where once there were nightmares, now there are flamethrowers and pulse rifles. Ripley faces her fears head on, ignoring the warnings from Bishop. She has all of the characteristics of a great protagonist.
Protagonist Examples — Black Panther
The hero that grows
Black Panther’s main character, T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman), is an example of a well-written protagonist. T’Challa’s goal changes as the story progresses. First, he must prove he is worthy of the throne. He squares off with M’Baku and chooses to spare his life, proving his nobility. This pays off later in the story when they become allies.
As the new king of Wakanda, T’Challa must live up to the legacy of his deceased father and ancestors. He chooses to keep Wakanda and his people isolated from the rest of the world.
Eventually, he comes face-to-face with his cousin, Erik Killmonger. Killmonger explains that T’Challa’s father murdered his own father, leaving him an orphan. T’Challa struggles with this truth and fights with Killmonger for leadership of Wakanda.
T’Challa loses — his ultimate failure.
From this point, T’Challa’s ultimate goal changes from proving his worth to saving the world from Killmonger’s reign.
T’Challa’s arc changes when he confronts the spirit of his father. He tells the former king that they were both wrong. Abandoning Killmonger and keeping Wakanda hidden from the rest of the world was a mistake. This mistake would lead to a civil war in order to prevent a global war.
This is why T’Challa is an excellent example of a protagonist with all of the right characteristics.
Protagonist Examples — The Matrix
The one who chooses
Written and directed by the Wachowskis, The Matrix was revolutionary for its time because of its special effects. However, the movie also featured an interesting protagonist example in the form of Neo. That being said, this character is not without his flaws.
Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) is a goal-driven protagonist. At first, he seeks the truth. He knows the world around him is wrong and wants to know what’s right. When the Matrix is revealed to him, his goal shifts to understanding his role as the “chosen one.” When the Oracle tells him that he isn’t destined, his goal shifts to rescuing his mentor, Morpheus.
However, Neo lacks an important characteristic: a critical failure. The capture of Morpheus was a result of his inherent weakness rather than making a mistake. Neo could have been a much stronger protagonist if his actions had led to the capture of his mentor.
Neo is also a passive hero for much of the story, especially the second act. To a certain degree it is forgiven, because he is being introduced to a radical new world where machines use humans as batteries.
However, Neo makes three very important decisions which drive the story forward:
- He chooses the red pill. If he had chosen the blue pill, his story would have ended right there.
- Neo chooses to rescue Morpheus, even though he sacrificed himself to save Neo.
- He chooses to stay behind to fight Smith, embracing his destiny as “the one.”
Protagonist Examples — Captain Marvel
Too strong is too boring
There is no denying that Carol Danvers (played by Brie Larson) is a strong hero. However, she is not a strong protagonist example.
Sure, she is a goal-driven character. She wants to learn her identity and is willing to do anything to do it. When she learns the truth, she wants to help the people she was oppressing.
So, why is her story so uninteresting?
Simply put, she is too strong. There are no real stakes for her, because she never seems to struggle. Overcoming the villains is easy for her, so her battles have no emotional impact. The stakes could have been raised with consequences to her actions, but there are none.
She was fighting for the wrong side this whole time, so what was her punishment, physical, emotional or otherwise? Nothing.
When she does finally learn the truth of her past, she doesn’t choose to help the Skrulls. She has to be convinced to do so.
Her arc is unremarkable as well. She is the hero and always will be the hero. Nothing changes. Captain Marvel isn’t a bad character, but her story lacked the necessary components to make her an exceptionally strong protagonist example.
What makes an anti-hero?
If you're crafting a protagonist but haven't quite decided what kind they should be, you might consider the anti-hero. From Deadpool to Walter White on Breaking Bad, anti-heroes can provide an exciting central focus that breaks all the rules. We'll define anti-hero and show you some examples that turn conventional storytelling on its head.