All good stories begin with character—with human strengths, weaknesses, and desires that the reader can recognize within themselves. To create a truly great story, you need a compelling principal character. That’s where the protagonist comes in.
But what exactly do we mean by protagonist, and how can you write ones that keep your readers riveted? We’ll explain what a protagonist is, give you some hints on how to write your own, and show you some effective examples from literature.
What is a protagonist?
A protagonist is the main character of a story. They’re also known as the story’s hero. Their actions and motivations are what propel the plot forward, and their conflict with the antagonist is the dramatic center of a story. As the leading character, the protagonist becomes the lens through which the reader experiences the story’s world.
The word protagonist comes from the Greek word, prōtagōnistēs, which means “chief actor.” The protagonist would be the first billed player in a stage drama. Today we would call this the headliner, or the star of the show.
In order to have a strong, engaging protagonist, you’ll need to figure out what they want most, what they need, and what they have to do to get there. Then your protagonist and your reader go on that journey together. If you as the writer have done your work well and crafted a protagonist that’s engaging and dynamic, the reader will stay with them until the very last page.
What’s the difference between protagonist and antagonist?
The protagonist is the lead character in a narrative, while the antagonist is another character who creates complications for the protagonist. Both the protagonist and antagonist have something they want to accomplish or attain, but their goals are mutually exclusive—only one of them can get what they want. This conflict is what moves the story forward.
Often we think of an antagonist as the “bad guy” or the villain, but this isn’t always true; an antagonist may be just a character like a friend, family member, or colleague who simply wants something different from the protagonist or sees the world in a different way.
A novel or short story may have several antagonists that the main character meets along the way, all creating different sources of tension and conflict.
What’s the difference between a protagonist and a hero?
A hero is a distinctive character archetype, while the protagonist is simply the center of a story. The protagonist can be a hero, but they can also be something more complex. They might even be a villain!
While heroes can look very different depending on the setting, theme, and cultural background of the story, it really comes down to this: a hero is someone who always tries to do the right thing—even when doing the right thing is hard, and even when they have too much to lose. A hero puts the needs of others before their own.
Does that mean your protagonist has to be a hero? Historically this has often been the case, because it’s been proven to work. Readers like heroes. We like having someone to look up to, someone who shows us the best of what we could be. But there’s a rising trend in film and literature of subverting the hero/villain dynamic and telling the story from another point of view. This is what’s known as the anti-hero.
For example, the hit film Maleficent retells the timeless story of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the classic villain of the story, the dark witch who places a curse on the princess. In that film, the protagonist is the villain, not the hero.
Marion Zimmer Bradley also made a villain the protagonist in her novel The Mists of Avalon, a retelling of the Arthurian legends that tracks the story of Morgaine, one of the saga’s major antagonists.
Making a villain the protagonist can be a very effective technique, but it’s tricky to do right. Instead of the protagonist being a hero that shows us our strength, stories whose protagonist is a villain show us our weakness. This can take both the reader and the writer to a place that’s not entirely comfortable. But if the story is done well, with well-crafted character development, it’ll also show us how these weaknesses can be overcome—and that strength can be found where we least expect it.
Can you have more than one protagonist?
So we know that your main character is the driving force around which your story revolves, but can you have multiple protagonists? What if you want to tell your story through different points of view?
Some characters do have more than one protagonist, and do so very effectively. Historical fiction novels with dual timelines are a good example of this; they’ll often have one storyline set in the present day and another storyline running in the past, each with their own protagonist. Or, you might have a novel that follows a group of friends, each facing their own antagonist of source of conflict.
In Jennifer Ryan’s novel The Kitchen Front, four women compete in a competition that offers a life-changing opportunity. The novel alternates between each of the women telling her own story. In these cases, what you’re really doing is telling multiple interconnected stories; each story has only one protagonist, but you’re allowing the reader to experience more than one story at a time. In each narrative, the protagonists of the others becoming a supporting protagonist in that story.
However, even in books with more than one protagonist, there will usually be one character that the readers connect with most, who seems to bring all the others together and forms the emotional heart of the story. This will usually be the very first voice that opens Chapter One.
Occasionally, you might have what’s known as a “false protagonist”—a main character who narrates the story some of the way, and then passes it on to a different character. Game of Thrones is a good example of a story that removes the protagonist part way through and turns the story in a new direction.
How a protagonist communicates the theme of your story
Theme is something that tends to develop organically as your story and characterization progress. Many writers only discover what the theme is after they see their characters grow, change, and learn. To begin, ask yourself what your protagonist wants, what they need, and what they need to overcome in order to get there. That’s where your story begins.
At the beginning of your story, your protagonist should have a need that is unfulfilled—even if they’re content in their day-to-day lives, before the introduction of your conflict, there’ll be something missing that keeps them from feeling whole. For example, they might be professionally successful but isolated in their personal lives, or they might have a loving tight-knit family whose demands keep them from growing as a person.
In these instances, your theme might be things like the importance of a work-life balance, or seeking out people that bring out the best in you, or letting go of old traditions that are no longer healthy. The way your protagonist interacts with these ideas and comes to accept them through their character arc will also help the reader understand why those themes are important.
Once you begin to see the questions your protagonist is asking themselves and the struggles they’re facing as a result, you’ll be able to see the theme that’s naturally emerging and understand how to share that theme with your readers.
You learn lots more about developing powerful themes through our lesson here.
Protagonist examples: 7 great main characters in literature
Here are some of the most famous protagonists in literature. To read about the antagonist characters that correspond to these protagonists, see our article on antagonists.
Untouchable and unflappable with a mind like an expertly trained orchestra, Sherlock Holmes is very much the intellectual equivalent to James Bond. This fictional character first appeared in literature in 1887 and has been engaging readers and viewers ever since.
Holmes is a great example of a protagonist with well-balanced strengths and weaknesses. Readers love him for his skill with just about everything under the sun, from science and law to art and literature—all which have served him well as he worked to unravel cases in his detective work.
But his failings arise when he needs to try and understand the human heart, the passions and feelings that drive people to do the things he works to understand. The BBC series Sherlock describes him as a “high-functioning sociopath”: some scholars have suggested that Sherlock Holmes may have had autism. It’s this dynamic play of weakness and strength that makes him seem all the more real to us.
Tall, dark, and so internally damaged by self loathing and trauma that he needs to put on a cape and beat baddies senseless on the rooftops of a gritty broken city. I mean, relatable, right?
In many ways, Batman works as a classic hero because he shows us what we could become if we allowed our shadows to consume us. And yet, he exhibits an extraordinary inner strength that keeps him from becoming one of the villains he fights against. He shows us that when there is no light left in the darkness, maybe you can begin to heal by becoming that light for others.
In Joanne Harris’ classic novel Chocolat, Vianne Rocher is a woman who blows into a small provincial French town in a rush of gently spiced cocoa powder and indulgent indecency. Her rootlessness and her disregard for the religious fasting season observed by much of the village quickly divides the people there.
In time, her passion and empathy touch the lives of many and show them that denying your desires can be a very damaging thing. They, in turn, show her that it’s not such a bad thing to finally belong somewhere.
One of the most classic heroes in literature, this protagonist is characterized by his unmatchable archery skills, his camo-toned wardrobe, and his utter disregard for any societal constraint whatsoever. For many of us reading the stories of Robin Hood as children, shedding the skin of expectation and going to live in the woods sounded like the ideal way to live out your days.
And yet, Robin isn’t blind to the cruelty and injustices in the world around him. Living in a society where heroes are few and far between—their good King Richard has abandoned his kingdom for the far-off crusades—Robin Hood shows us that when we see wrong being done in the world and no one to stand against it, we can make a big difference in people’s lives by stepping into that role ourselves.
The leading player in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart books, an epic love letter to readers everywhere, Mo Folchart is a mild mannered bookbinder with the curious ability to read characters out of the stories they came from. Once he finds himself and his family caught in one of these storybook worlds, he starts to question how much of himself he needs to give up and what he needs to become in order to protect the ones he loves.
For many of us, being caught in the pages of our favorite fairy tale would be a dream come true. In this story, however, we see how important it is to be true to yourself even as you continue to learn and grow.
Few fictional characters in literature are so deeply associated with the comforts of home: good food, cozy blankets, warm firelight, and loyal friends. This is what makes it so tense and engaging when our hero has to leave these comforts behind for the chance at something greater.
Although unwilling at first—a classic example of the “hero’s journey” of storytelling—Bilbo grows through his adventures in ways he could have never imagined. Even as he faces greed, goblins, and a fire-breathing dragon, he never sacrifices his own values, even going so far as to betray his friends to keep everyone safe.
By the time he returns home to his cozy hobbit’s cottage, he has grown wiser, developed new skills, and gained a treasure trove of stories to tell.
Dr. Henry Jekyll
Strictly speaking, Dr. Jekyll isn’t the protagonist of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; as was popular in literature of that time, the protagonist was a supporting character through which we could view the events of the story (Ishmael in Moby Dick is another such example). But Dr. Jekyll has been so deeply ingrained in our literary consciousness that we see him rising again and again in stories, film, and television.
Dr. Jekyll struggles with the battle between his conscious morals and his base desires. We’re fascinated by this character because this is an internal conflict that so many of us experience on so many levels. It’s both fascinating and cathartic to see it being given life and form as Dr. Jekyll quite literally rips his weakness out of him—and finds that his weakness may be more formidable than he thought.
3 ways to write a protagonist readers will fall in love with
As you can see, there is no single right way to write a great protagonist or a great antagonist; they’re as varied and unique as human beings themselves. But by studying some of the protagonists that have captured the hearts of readers in the past, we can see patterns of what resonates with us and makes them memorable. Here are a few tips.
1. Give them a superpower
In some cases, this may be an actual superpower; in others, it might simply be a strength that is unique to them alone. It might be a photographic memory for numbers, the ability to fix cars previously deemed unfixable, a singing voice that can break hearts from a mile away, a gift for making people smile when they’re in the darkest depths of hopelessness.
Highlighting a primary strength in your character gives them depth, dimension, and a place to begin building relationships with other characters.
2. Give them a weakness
A protagonist’s strength is what makes them interesting, but a protagonist’s weakness is what makes them human. Maybe, like Sherlock Holmes, they have difficulty connecting with other people. Maybe they handle time constraints very badly, or freeze up when faced with modern technology, or allow their insecurities to push people away.
It’s the juxtaposition between your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses that determine how they interact with the world around them and how they respond to the conflicts that drive the plot.
3. Give them someone to fight
At last, the villain of the show. As you might guess, there’s no one right way to craft the perfect antagonist. However, every good antagonist plays off of the protagonist in some way. It might be that the two are different incomplete parts that together create a balanced whole; it might be that they’re inversions, each highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the other. The antagonist might show us what the hero of the story could have been, or what they might still yet become.
Once you know who you want your protagonist to be, ask yourself: what are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What do they need most? What are they most afraid of? Then see if you can find a way to take these aspects and turn them inside out. This will give you the antagonist of your story.
Sometimes, as we’ll look at closer in our article on conflict, your antagonist might not be a person. It might be a group of people or organization, an impersonal force of nature, or even a weakness inside themselves. Whatever you choose for your antagonist, however, should still come from the questions you ask about your protagonist.
A well-crafted protagonist makes for powerful storytelling
When people read stories that truly resonate with them, it’s often because of a genuine, well crafted, believable protagonist. When we read a story and are able to see our own strengths, weaknesses, hopes, and desires reflected in a character who uses them to learn and grow, these become the stories that stay with us for a lifetime.