False protagonist  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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In fiction, a false protagonist is a technique for making a scene more jarring or a character more memorable by fooling the audience's preconceptions regarding who the story is really about. It involves presenting a character at the start of the fictional work as the main character, but then generally disposing of this character, usually by killing him or her - but sometimes just by changing their role (i.e. making them a lesser character, a character who (for reasons other than death) leaves the story, or revealing them to actually be the antagonist).

A work of fiction that has multiple equal protagonists that then subsequently sees the death of one or more (especially late in the work) is not a use of the false protagonist technique. The method refers only to those works where the audience is fooled into thinking that one character is the primary focus of the work, only to have them replaced completely by another (usually previously unseen) character.

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Film

In film, a character can be made to seem like the main protagonist based on a number of techniques (beyond just simply focusing the plot on their role). Star power is a very effective method; audience members generally assume that the biggest "name" in a movie will have a significant part to play. An abundance of close-ups can also be used as a subliminal method. Generally, the star of a film will get longer-lasting and more frequent close-ups than any other character, but this is rarely immediately apparent to viewers during the film. Alternately, the false protagonist can serve as a narrator to the movie, encouraging the audience to assume that the character survives to tell their tale later.

  • The most notable example of this is Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in which the film opens with actress Janet Leigh as the main character. When she is killed partway through the film, the murder is far more unexpected and shocking and builds Bates up to be a far more fearsome villain. Hitchcock felt that the opening scenes with Leigh as the false protagonist were so important to the film that when it was released in theaters, he compelled theater-owners to enforce a "no late admission" policy.
  • Another notable example of this technique where it is used to somewhat different effect is in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. That film opens with a ten minute scene in which three men wait for a train. The camera examines the men and their preparations in close detail. When at the end of the scene Charles Bronson's character arrives and quickly dispatches the three it serves to build up Bronson's character as a potent force.
  • In the Coen brothers film No Country for Old Men, Llewllyn Moss appears to be the story's central character until he is killed offscreen late in the movie and the narrative switches focus to the sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones.
  • A recent film which uses the technique in another different manner is Runaway Jury which opens with Dylan McDermott portrayed as the protagonist as he begins a seemingly normal day of work. When, a few minutes into the film, he is gunned down in an attempt to make the crime seem far more villainous.
  • Another recent film which may use the technique is Scream: in the opening scene of the film, Drew Barrymore's character is killed.
  • A parody of this technique can be seen at the beginning of the film Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, during which a character walks on screen claiming to be the narrator of the story. However, he is gunned down by a gang member shortly after beginning his narration, and the character who shot him takes his place—only to be himself shot by a third character, the true narrator.
  • In the film Smokin' Aces, Ben Affleck's character is introduced and has a voice over narration that introduces many of the other characters before he is unexpectedly shot and killed early in the film.
  • In Pulp Fiction, John Travolta's character is presented as the lead in 2 plotlines, but there is a long absence of his character in a part of the film and Bruce Willis takes over the lead in this plotline. Travolta does appear for a minute in this plotline, but he is killed by Willis' character.

Literature

By closely following one character -- either by using a first-person narrative or a limited third person narrative -- an author can easily create the impression that a character is the sole protagonist of the work.

  • One of the best known examples of this technique in literature is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where readers are initially led to believe the protagonist is Bernard Marx until the introduction of John the Savage, at which point the story starts to almost entirely focus on John.
  • A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R. R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire, features two false protagonists, a young man named Will in the opening chapter and Eddard Stark for much of the rest of the first novel. The rest of the books in the series also tend to use many false protagonists.
  • The Zero Game by Brad Meltzer also uses this technique. The book begins with Matthew Mercer as the protagonist, who then dies just six chapters into the book. The book continues in the third person until Harris Sandler -- Matthew's best friend -- takes over the role of protagonist two chapters later.

Television

Many of the same techniques used in film can also apply to television, but the episodic nature adds an additional possibility. By ending one or more episodes with the false protagonist still in place, the show can reinforce the viewers' belief in the character's protagonist status. Also, because TV shows often have changes of cast between seasons, some series can have unintentional false protagonists: characters who begin the series as the main character but then are replaced early in the show's run by another character entirely. When the series is viewed as a whole, this can lead to the appearance of a false protagonist.

  • The first seven episodes of British drama Hex revolve around Cassie Hughes. At the end of the seventh episode, she is accidentally killed by Ella Dee, who in turn becomes the new protagonist. Cassie's only importance to the plot was to bear a son, Malachi, to serve as the antagonist for Ella. Similarly, the original antagonist of the series, Azazeal, only served to be father to Malachi, creating a "false antagonist" impression.
  • Babylon 5 began its first season with the main character of Jeffrey Sinclair, who disappeared mysteriously between the first and second seasons, to be replaced by John Sheridan. While this was not originally planned by series creator J. Michael Straczynski, it was later worked into future episodes as part of the plot, when viewers discover what "really happened" to Sinclair.
  • A Monty Python sketch spoofs this technique, featuring a multitude of false protagonists who, by coming into contact with one another through the narrative, transfer the status of protagonist to one another.
  • At one point in Lost's development, Jack Shephard was planned to be a false protagonist by being set up as the leader of the castaways, then killed before the end of the first episode. They planned for Michael Keaton to play the role. From Jack's death onward in the series, Kate Austen was planned to be the show's protagonist. Shortly before production of the series began, though, it was decided to have the character of Jack live, so the audience wouldn't lose faith in the show. Matthew Fox was cast in Keaton's place.
  • On Degrassi: The Next Generation the character of Ashley Kerwin, at first seemed like the heroine of the story, but as the series progressed the character became more and more recurring, it was due to the actress Melissa McIntyre going on hiatus to pursue other projects.
  • In the anime series Gurren Lagann, viewers are misled for the first few episodes into believing that Kamina is the protagonist of the series, but after a major plot twist, Simon takes over as the protagonist for the majority of the series.
  • In the anime Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny, Shin Asuka serves as the protagonist of the first episodes, but Kira Yamato, the protagonist of the previous series, took over during the latter part of the story. Shin Asuka's classification as a false protagonist is controversial and debated by fans.

Video Games

The false protagonist technique has been adapted for use in many video games, particularly those with a strong story element. One key way in which video games employ the method that differs from uses in non-interactive fiction is by granting the player direct control over the false protagonist. Since most video games allow a player to control only the main characters (and their success or failure is based on playing skill, not pre-determined story), the sudden demise of the character that is being controlled serves to surprise the player. Some examples in video games are:

  • In the game Double Switch for the Sega CD, you are first introduced to Eddie who seems to be the protagonist, and makes Lyle (the handyman) at first seem like the antagonist. As the story progresses however, it is revealed Eddie is the antagonist and that his father is Lyle, who happens to be the Protagonist of the game.
  • In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the player initially plays as Solid Snake, protagonist of the original Metal Gear games. However, the majority of the game after that is played with Raiden, with Snake taking on only a minor role in the story. Prerelease promotion for the game at E3 showed only clips featuring Snake as the main character, thus preserving the surprise switch.
  • In Final Fantasy XII, you start the game playing as a young soldier named Reks. The captain of his squadron teaches the player all of the controls needed to play the game. After less than an hour of gameplay, Reks is suddenly killed, and the game resumes play following Vaan, Reks' younger brother.
  • In The Godfather: The Game, scenes introduce a gangster, who works for the Corleone family, and his wife, who proceed to discuss their son. Suddenly, a bakery is bombed by thugs working for the rival Barzini family. The gangster is shown saving his son's life from the resultant fire, after which the player is allowed to control the gangster as the primary character while defeats the thugs. When all the enemies are defeated, the game cuts to an FMV scene where the gangster is surprisingly shot dead by Barzini thugs. Play resumes with the player in control of the true protagonist of the game: his previously-mentioned son, who wants revenge for his father's death.
  • In Kingdom Hearts II, play begins controlling the Nobody Roxas. After about 3 hours of gameplay, Roxas seems to disappear from the game and the player switches to controlling Sora (the protagonist of the first Kingdom Hearts game), Only later in the game does the player learn what happened to Roxas.
  • In Star Fox Adventures, one first uses Krystal, but then she is captured by Andross, and Fox McCloud regains his position as main character throughout the game.


See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "False protagonist" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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