Study these 10 classic protagonist examples to understand this type of character for your stories
In fiction writing, every story has a protagonist and an antagonist. The word protagonist comes from the Greek word agōnistēs, which means a person who is engaged in a contest or struggle. It is that contest or struggle that makes the story work. Literature has three main types of protagonists. These are:
Heroic protagonist: This is the main character of the story who is the good guy throughout. They often must follow a hero’s journey from rags to riches or from fear to courage.
Villain protagonists: Sometimes the protagonist is also the villain. This can confuse the reader at first, but as the story unfolds, the villain’s motivations and psychology play a central role in the story. Often the villainous protagonist ends up being a hero in some form, even though they appear evil at first. This type of protagonist is also called an antihero.
False protagonist: Finally, a false protagonist is a character who seems to be the protagonist at the start of the story, yet usually ends up dying or disappearing as the real protagonist comes to light. This literary tactic has a jarring effect on the reader, which can be quite powerful.
Studying protagonist examples is the best way to understand this literary element or term. Here are 10 well-known examples from television and literature.
In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the opening scene clearly shows that the depressed, angry Hamlet is the protagonist. As Helmet uses the power of speech to make others feel that he has gone insane, he contemplates murder to take back the thrown. However, because this is a tragedy, his plans go awry, and Hamlet himself, along with many royal family members, ends up dying.
Hamlet is an antihero in many ways because his mental health issues cause him to contemplate and even attempt heinous crimes. Yet because Shakespeare treats him as the main character had the play focuses on him and his actions, he remains the protagonist. Throughout the play, Shakespeare points out the tragic flaw of Hamlet’s character, which is procrastination and indecisiveness. Because he fails to take action, he ends up dying and taking down his enemy in his last moments.
2. Harry Potter
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry himself is the main protagonist as the series focuses on him and his growth from boy wizard to conquering hero. Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, spend the majority of the books fighting Lord Voldemort, their sworn enemy and the creator of much of the havoc in the stories.
Harry is a character with a strong moral campus and feeling about what is right and wrong, even though his aunt and uncle who raised him had no love for him. He is humble throughout the books and selflessly gives his life in the end to save his friends. He overcomes major obstacles in order to find success throughout the stories, as well.
3. Luke Skywalker
The original Star Wars trilogy centers around the journey of Luke Skywalker as he embraces his role as a Jedi Knight. He learns of his heritage as the son of Darth Vader, his sworn enemy, and the existence of a twin sister, Princess Leia. He also teams up with the renegade Han Solo to defeat Vader and the Empire successfully.
Skywalker is a typical protagonist who follows a hero’s journey throughout the movie. He starts as someone who is an orphan from tragic circumstances, learns of his important destiny, then rises to the occasion after meeting a rag-tag team of potential heroes. In the end, this unlikely hero and his friends take down the Empire.
Learn more about movies that follow the hero’s journey
4. Frodo Baggins
In The Lord of the Rings, hobbit Frodo Baggins becomes the central main protagonist. He is gifted the One Ring from his cousin, Bilbo Baggins, and must go on a quest to destroy it before it destroys him. He suffers many wounds throughout his journey and must grow in his own character as he learns what it means to be selfless and courageous, two traits that are not common for hobbits.
While the main antagonist in the story is Dark Lord Sauron, Frodo must also fight his own self and his selfish, sometimes lazy tendencies. To find victory in the story, he must find victory over these character faults. This struggle and his character development through the stories is part of what makes him such a compelling example of a protagonist.
5. Holden Caulfield
Holden Caulfield is an interesting protagonist because he is also the main antagonist of his story. He is the central character of The Catcher in the Rye, and throughout the story, he struggles to find a connection even while his own character flaws and general mistrust of others keep him from finding it. He is the narrator of the story as he recounts a week in New York City during Christmas break in the 1940s.
After being expelled from preparatory school, Holden embarks on a journey to figure out the angst and agitation he feels. This emotional story first came on the literary scene as a series of short stories, and it remains one of the best-known works of literature in modern times.
Othello is the main character in another William Shakespeare play by the same name. Othello works against the protagonist Iago. Othello is an elegant, powerful figure that the people in the story love and respect, except for Iago.
Iago tries to get Othello to believe his wife, Desdemona, is being unfaithful in this play. In the end, Othello believes the deception and kills his wife, only to discover the falsehood and try to kill Iago. Because this is a tragedy, Othello takes his own life at the end of the story, but Iago also receives punishment for his actions.
7. Sherlock Holmes
Detective Sherlock Holmes is a good example of a classic protagonist. The detective spends most of his books solving crimes using deduction, observation, and logical reasoning. He often works for the Scotland Yard and also private clients, and he is the best-known fictional detective in literary history.
The Holmes stories have a supporting protagonist as well, Dr. Watson. Watson narrates many of the stories and shows the unique way that Holmes’s mind works. He also has a villain, Professor James Moriarty, who is the criminal mastermind he often comes across in his work.
8. Walter White
Walter White is an antihero protagonist from television fame. He is the protagonist of the crime drama television series Breaking Bad. He falls into the evil side when he is diagnosed with fatal lung cancer and begins to make and sell meth to secure his family’s financial future.
Because the series focuses on Walter and his actions, he is the protagonist. Though his motives may be pure, a desire to help his family, he is somewhat villainous because he is breaking the law to gain his fortune. This makes him a villainous protagonist example.
9. The Grinch
The Grinch of Dr. Suess fame is a great example of a villain protagonist. At the start of the story, The Grinch is looking to destroy Christmas for the Whos down in Whoville, who like Christmas a lot. His tiny heart is the motivation for this villainous action.
Yet The Grinch undergoes a tremendous change through the pages of this picture book. As he learns that the true meaning of Christmas is not ribbons, bows, and presents, he embraces the holiday and even gets to carve the roast beast. Few characters are quite as iconic to the Christmas season as The Grinch.
10. Marion Crane
In the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho, the first 30 minutes tell the tale of what appears to be the protagonist, Marion Crane. Yet after this detailed first part of the movie that makes the watcher feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for the character, the infamous shower scene occurs, and she suffers a brutal murder. This makes her one of the best examples of a false protagonist.
The true protagonist in Psycho is Norman Bates, the film’s villain. His relationships with Marion and his own mother are the true theme of the story. Though he is psychologically manipulative and evil, he is the main character of the story despite Hitchcock’s initial focus on Marion.
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