From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- The main character in a literary work or drama.
- A leading person in a contest; a principal performer.
- An advocate or champion of a cause or course of action.
A protagonist is the main figure of a piece of literature or drama and has the main part or role. Alternatively, the phrase denotes a primary advocate of or proponent for a cause or movement. The main character can be a hero or a villain in a story - it is just the character with the lead role. In literature, the protagonist is characterized by his/her ability to change or evolve. Although a novel may center on the actions of another character, as in Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener", it is the dynamic character that typically allows the plot to progress in a manner that is conducive to the thesis of the work and earns the respect or attention of the audience. The original Greek phrase refers to the central character within a drama, deriving from a conflation of πρωτο-, proto- (the combinative form of 'first') and agōnists ('one who contends for a prize').
It should be pointed out that the protagonist is not always the hero of the story. Many authors have chosen to unfold a story from the point of view of a character who, while not central to the action of the story, is in a position to comment upon it. However, it is most common for the story to be "about" the protagonist; even if the Main Character's actions are not heroic, they are nonetheless usually vital to the progress of the story. Neither should the protagonist be confused with the narrator; they may be the same, but even a first-person narrator need not be the protagonist, as they may be recalling the event while not living through it as the audience is.
The Main Character is often faced with a "foil", a character known as the antagonist who most represents obstacles that the protagonist must overcome. As with protagonists, there may be more than one antagonist in a story. (Note that the term antagonist in this context is much more recent than the term protagonist, and rests on the same misconception as the use of protagonist to mean proponent. See below.)
Sometimes, a work will initially highlight a particular character, as though they were the protagonist, and then unexpectedly dispose of that character as a dramatic device. Such a character is called a false protagonist.