Definition of a Protagonist in Literature

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Characters in a story have many roles and purposes, all of them dictated by the writer's intent and style. The protagonist (sometimes called the hero or heroine) is the main character in a story, novel, drama or other literary work. The protagonist is the character that the reader or audience empathizes with. The protagonist typically makes the key decisions and experiences the consequences of those decisions.

In some cases, the reader experiences the story through the eyes of the protagonist. But, in other instances, the story can be revealed through several characters who describe their perspective to the reader. The nature of the protagonist can also vary. While the protagonist may be the hero or heroine, they may also be a character that the reader dislikes.

The antagonist, on the other hand, opposes the protagonist. In the most archetypical narratives, this boils down to bad guy vs. good guy. A prime example is good guy Luke Skywalker versus bad guy Darth Vadar in the first Star Wars movie.

Examples of Protagonists in Literature

In complex works of literature, the protagonist may not be obvious. Becky Sharpe is one of the main protagonists in Vanity Fair, but she's extremely flawed. By the end of the book, she's almost unlikable. In this way she's a very good example of another truth: well-written protagonists are round characters.

They should be the most interesting, complex characters in your book or story. Becky Sharpe is by far more interesting than Vanity Fair's extremely good Amelia, and for this reason, the story's primary center of gravity remains Becky.

Sometimes, a work will have a false protagonist, who may seem to be the protagonist, but disappears unexpectedly.

The main character Marion in Alfred Hitchcock's film classic Psycho is an example.

If you're unsure about the nature and role of a protagonist think about J.D. Salinger's classic novel The Catcher in the Rye. The character Holden Caulfield is the protagonist (and leading character) that the reader is invested in.