What is a protagonist? Many refer to it as the lead character in a story but the true protagonist definition is slightly more complicated than that. To understand the protagonist meaning completely, we need to look at how different types are used in screenwriting. This will help you decide which type of hero (or villain — that’s right, a villain can also be the main character!) might work best for your next script.
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.
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
Protagonist vs. Antagonist
What is a Protagonist and Antagonist?
Protagonists and antagonists operate in a symbiotic relationship with one another. Perhaps a good way to explore this relationship is to examine their opposite — the antagonist.
Here’s an example of how conflict is created and resolved with a protagonist and antagonist.
- The protagonist wants X.
- The antagonist wants Z.
- Things X and Z are opposite one another.
Let’s plug in for those variables, working with Return of the Jedi.
- Luke Skywalker wants to bring balance to the force.
- 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.
Defining the Role
Who is the protagonist in a story?
No matter how you define protagonist, they are a critical element in nearly every story. The most simple and iconic type is the "hero." These characters are virtuous, brave and idealistic. Perhaps the best hero protagonist example is Hercules, the Roman God of strength and adventuring.
Millions know Hercules as the great warrior from stories like the famous Disney film of the same name. With the script imported into StudioBinder's screenwriting software, let's look at a scene when Hercules begins his path to becoming the hero.
Many people think of Hercules as the ideal protagonist definition. The adventure that many of these hero's undertake is widely referred to as the Hero’s Journey. But the hero is just one of many main character types available to writers.
How is a protagonist also a villain?
Not all main characters have to be virtuous (e.g., Breaking Bad). Who’s the protagonist? Walter White, a nefarious character who also serves as the central force of the story, but a hero he is not.
For example, Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War is clearly the villain but the entire plot is structured around him. Using Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! structure, we tracked how much attention the filmmakers gave to this protagonist villain.
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 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 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.
What is a false protagonist?
Sometimes, screenwriters subvert our expectations for a story arc or traditional plot structure by “killing off” who we presumed to be the lead character. 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 us through the story’s major themes.
But then...BOOM...he’s gone!
Another classic example of the false protagonist is Marion (Janet Leigh) in Psycho. Although she seems to be the main character of the film, we quickly learn that director Alfred Hitchcock has other plans.
We’re led to believe that Psycho is the story of Marion, when it’s really the story of Norman Bates. The way that Hitchcock uses Marion's character allows him to manipulate the audience and exercise subversive creative control over the story.
Supporting Protagonist Meaning
What is a supporting protagonist?
The supporting protagonist is often erroneously attributed to supporting characters. Just because a supporting character is closely intertwined with a story, that doesn’t mean that they are the protagonist.
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. Neither is Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. 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 are examples, although rare, of supporting characters becoming main characters. One strong example of this is in the film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Here, we see how two supporting characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet become the central focus of their own story.
Remember, for a character to qualify as a protagonist, the story must revolve around them and they must be the driving force behind the narrative. This could be the obvious hero, their sidekick, or an anti-hero doing decidedly non-heroic things.
What is a Protagonist Today?
Protagonists in film today
So, after looking through the different types, I think we’re ready to answer the question: what is a protagonist? We know that they are the center of a movie and they push the story forward.
The more important question is: what are the benefits of understanding the function of a protagonist? The answer to that question is just as clear as the answer to the first.
By understanding the function of a main character, we’re better prepared to tackle character conflict in our own screenplays. But to understand character conflict, we need to look at antagonists as well.
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.