What 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.
Watch: What is a Protagonist
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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:
- Central force
- Moves story forward
- Actions build the theme
- Battles with rival: the antagonist
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.
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:
- Luke Skywalker in Star Wars
- Neo in The Matrix
- Tony Stark in Iron Man
- Ellen Ripley in Alien
- Harry Potter in Harry Potter
- King T’Challa in Black Panther
- Marty McFly in Back to the Future
- Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible
- Django in Django Unchained
- Captain Kirk in Star Trek
- Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit
- Sarah Connor in The Terminator
- Rocky Balboa in Rocky
- Snake Plissken in Escape From New York
- Patrick Bateman in American Psycho
- James Bond in the James Bond movies
- Indiana Jones in the Indiana Jones 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!
Most (but not all) of these protagonists are similar – they’re heroic characters who serve as the driving force of their stories.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.