A protagonist is one of the cornerstone terms in literary sciences. He can be defined as a character that is in pursuit of the primary goal of the plot. In the majority of narrative structures, the protagonist plays the central role in the book. He is also oftentimes called “the hero of the story.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the antagonist, whose purpose is to stop the hero from accomplishing his mission.
The word “protagonist” is derived from the Greek words standing for “first” and “fighter.” This concept was first introduced in 534 BC in Athens when the roles of leading actors became central to tragedy plays. Thus, the audience’s focus changed from the author to the main character.
A protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to be a human. He can be an animal or even a robot. No matter who he is, the hero behaves like a human being. He has desires, personality traits, and a life goal. If it were otherwise, the reader would have abandoned the book at the beginning.
The main hero is described with the same means as any other person in a narrative. The difference lies in the number of tropes and literary tools that are used to flesh him out and make him more realistic.
It’s important not to confuse a protagonist with a POV-character. Up until the 19th century, they had the same meaning, but nowadays that isn’t the case. While they share some significant characteristics and most of the time they are the same individual, the terms are different. For example, Doctor Watson is the POV-character in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, but Sherlock Holmes is the lead.
The hero serves to develop the central theme of the narrative. He has a purpose and is usually involved in a serious conflict that puts him in opposition against other figures. During the rising action, he is the one who experiences the most significant spiritual and moral growth.
When the protagonist makes his first appearance, he’s a different person than he will be when the tale comes to a conclusion. He can become wiser, stronger, more confident, depressed, but he won’t stay the same. The change that the lead undergoes throughout the plot is called a character arch.
At the very beginning of a literary piece, there’s usually an event that changes the mundane life of the main hero and throws him into unfamiliar circumstances. Thus, he sets out on a quest to find something that will help him regain his inner balance. A protagonist can either succeed or fail, but the whole narrative is based on his search for either wealth, success, friendship, love, or something else.
The primary mission of the protagonist is what moves him from the beginning all the way to the end. It’s also called the “heart of the story” and is a chain of linked conflicts. When a hero uses his skills or knowledge to solve one unpleasant situation, he finds himself in the next predicament. This trend continues all the way to the end of the journey when he overcomes all obstacles.
As a rule, the primary goal of the protagonist is easily relatable to the audience. Most of the time, it corresponds to basic human needs: survival, family, love, etc. That’s why the lead is usually a father, husband, brother, mother, wife, a man or a woman in love, etc. The main hero’s mission is understandable from the very beginning and answers the following questions:
●What does the protagonist want?
●Why does he want it?
●What or who tries to stop him?
●What pressure is he undergoing?
A protagonist has his own attitude, a unique worldview that separates him from the rest. It can be related to a specific subject, or how he handles conflict situations or behaves in a relationship. If the main lead has one attitude, then the antagonist possesses opposing convictions.
Another defining characteristic of a protagonist is that he is continuously surrounded by action and acts himself. It’s a literary rule that the moral traits of the main hero are showcased in conflicts. His worldview is displayed through tiny details that serve to explain and give reason to his actions on the way to the culmination.
The protagonist has at least one personality trait the reader can relate to. He is kind, funny, just, or good at what he does, but rarely all of those things. The lead is appealing, but he isn’t the embodiment of perfection. If he were perfect, then he would invoke feelings of jealousy instead of empathy.
To invoke sympathy for the protagonist, the writer places him in a dramatic situation as soon as possible. The reader establishes an empathic connection with the hero, and then the author changes the focus to the plot.
Sometimes a narrative doesn’t have a clearly-outlined protagonist, like in “A Song of Ice and Fire.” In G.R.R. Martin’s epic saga there are dozens of POV characters, with at least five of them crucial to the overall story arch. However, that doesn’t mean that all of them are protagonists. They are “merely” the leading characters in the piece.
A protagonist can be found in a narrative work where there are several crucial personalities, but the lead one can still be determined. The others, in order of importance, are named “deuteragonist”, “tritagonist”, etc. In “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Frodo is a protagonist, Sam is a deuteragonist, and Aragorn is a tritagonist.
A protagonist is an important term in literature, having derived from two Greek words “first” and “fighter.” He is the hero of the literary piece, and the central plot revolves around him. The protagonist doesn’t have to be a human but has to possess human-like features. Being usually relatable to the reader, he changes throughout the plot of a literary piece.
The protagonist has a better developed personality than other characters. He can also be found in the epicenter of most action scenes. A well-written main hero is the foundation for every high-quality narrative and the primary point of interest for the reader.