A memorable protagonist is the key to any great narrative. If your readers don’t feel invested in your main character, it’s unlikely they’ll feel invested in the rest of your story.
But take care not to confuse “protagonist” with “hero”—the best protagonists are just as flawed as the rest of us, and they can’t always save the day.
What Is A Protagonist?
The term “protagonist” originated in classical Greek drama and literally means “the first actor.”
In a work of fiction, the protagonist is the central or leading figure. It’s the character whose goals and obstacles form the basis for the rest of the plot.
In order to develop an interesting story, the protagonist must struggle with a central decision—usually one that creates conflict. This challenge should force some sort of change within the character, a turning point which often marks the climax of a story.
While a story’s “hero” is usually its protagonist, not all protagonists are heroes.
Hero vs. Protagonist
Heroes are the classic “good guys,” the ones responsible for doing what’s right and saving the day.
But unless we’re talking about comic books, fairy tales, or Disney movies, the majority of stories don’t really follow a clear hero/villain structure.
In fact, some of the best stories are about normal people facing everyday challenges and struggling to reach their goals.
The protagonist might not even be a very good person, but as the story’s central character, it’s his or her responsibility to get us to connect with the story.
Take Pulp Fiction, for instance. The film has three different protagonists (one for each intersecting story) and all of them are part of the L.A. underworld. They steal and kill, but they’re all still the protagonists of their respective stories.
Similarly, The Godfather’s Michael Corleone starts out as the golden child but undergoes a series of changes that actually make him become more evil, rather than more heroic. Yet, he’s the central character that carries us through three films and still wins our sympathies.
The more realistic and relatable a protagonist is, the more we as an audience can feel invested in the overall story.
Common Types and Examples of Protagonists
Protagonists can come in many forms, but the following three are among the most common.
Note that while the term “hero” is used to describe these types, they can still apply to all protagonists, not just the ones who wear capes.
1. The Lonely Hero
The Lonely Hero is the protagonist that most closely resembles our idea of the classic hero. They’re the only character who can stop their opposing force, although they’re often assisted by a team of supporting characters.
Ultimately, this character is the one who makes the most sacrifices to reach their goal.
Examples of Lonely Heroes:
- Harry from the Harry Potter series
- Luke Skywalker from Star Wars
- Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games
- Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind
2. The Group Hero
Sometimes a team of protagonists work together to accomplish the same goal. The Lonely Hero usually rises to the occasion alone, but with the Group Hero, no one character could make progress without the support of the others.
Examples of Group Heroes:
- Romeo and Juliet from Romeo and Juliet
- Fred, Velma, Daphne, Scooby, and Shaggy from Scooby-Doo
- Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire from A Series of Unfortunate Events
3. The Antihero
As we’ve hinted, not all heroes are kind, chivalrous, and courageous—they might just be as grouchy, bitter, and, well, unheroic as the rest of us. Antiheroes often begin as neutral parties or less “evil” villains who take up conflict with the main antagonist.
Over time, though, they might experience a series of changes that make them a little less bad and perhaps a bit more heroic.
Examples of Antiheroes:
- Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean
- Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye
- Don Draper from Mad Men
More Than Good Guys
Memorable protagonists are what make great stories. The more readers can relate to the main character, the more emotionally connected they’ll feel to the story.
Learn how to write a captivating protagonist that readers will connect with and cheer for until the very end.
Who is your favorite antagonist in film or literature? Feel free to share in the comments below!