What is a Protagonist?

The protagonist is the main, or central, character of a narrative work, the figure around whom all the action revolves. In film or drama, sometimes  the protagonist may be called the “hero” of the work. “Hero” is a misleading term, though, because the protagonist does not have to be a good person. He or she can even be a criminal, like Henry Hill, the protagonist and narrator of Martin Scorcese’s film about the Lucchesi mob family, Good Fellas.

What makes a character the protagonist is the fact that the story centers on their experience, not the fact that they are particularly heroic (though certainly they can be). Even good characters typically have some kind of weakness in their character that either leads to their downfall — in tragic works, this is called the “tragic flaw” — or becomes something they must overcome in order to prevail.

How Do You Identify a Protagonist in Writing?

Most stories, plays, and novels have an obvious protagonist. Hamlet, for instance, is the protagonist of Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Sometimes, it is less clear. Is the protagonist of Othello Othello himself, or is it Iago, around whom much of the action takes place? Critics have based interpretation of the play on either reading.

Generally speaking, the protagonist is the one who encounters conflicts, either external or internal (or both), is present for the climax of the work, and comes to some sort of realization during the falling action. Some authors, like Tolstoy and William Faulkner, prefer to blend several stories to illustrate one major theme from different points of view. In this case, there may not be a single protagonist.

Examples of Protagonists

Protagonist Example 1. Nick is the protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby.

Protagonist Example 2. Scarlett O’Hara is the protagonist of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

Protagonist Example 3. Katniss Everdeen is the protagonist of The Hunger Games.

Protagonist Example 4. Jo March is the protagonist of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

Protagonist Example 5. Hester Prynne is the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

Protagonist Example 6. Captain Ahab is the protagonist of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Protagonist Example 7. Willy Loman is the protagonist of Death of a Salesman.

(View all literary devices)