A protagonist (from Ancient Greek πρωταγωνιστής (protagonistes), meaning "player of the first part, chief actor") is the main character in any story, such as a literary work or drama.

The protagonist is at the centre of the story, should be making the difficult choices and key decisions, and should be experiencing the consequences of those decisions. The protagonist should be propelling the storey forward. If a storey contains a subplot, or is a narrative that's made up of several stories, then there might be a character who's interpreted as the protagonist of each subplot or individual story.

The word protagonist is used notably in storeys and forms of literature and culture that contain stories, which would include dramas, novels, operas and films. In those forms the protagonist might simply be the leading actor, or the principal character in the story. More formally, the protagonist, while still defined as a leading character, might additionally be defined as the character whose fate is most closely followed by the reader or audience, and who's opposed by a character known as the antagonist. The antagonist will provide obstacles and complications and create conflict that test the protagonist, thus revealing the strengths and weaknesses of their character.

Ancient Greece

The earliest known examples of protagonist are dated back to Ancient Greece. At first performances involved merely dancing and recitation by the chorus. But then in Poetics, Aristotle describes how a poet named Thespis introduced the idea of having one actor step out and engage in a dialogue with the chorus. This was the invention of tragedy, which occurred about 536 B.C. Then the poet Aeschylus, in his plays, introduced a second actor, inventing the idea of dialogue between two characters. Sophocles then wrote plays that required a third actor.

Examples

Euripides' play, Hippolytus, might be considered to have two protagonists. The protagonist of the first half is Phaedra, until she dies. Then her stepson, the title character, Hippolytus, has the dominant role in the second half.

In Ibsen’s play, The Master Builder, the protagonist is the architect Halvard Solness. The young woman, Hilda Wangel, whose actions lead to the death of Solness, is the antagonist.

In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is the protagonist. He is actively in pursuit of his relationship with Juliet, and the audience is invested in that story. The character of Tybalt opposes Romeo’s desires, he's the antagonist.

In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, Prince Hamlet, who seeks revenge for the murder of his father, is the protagonist. The antagonist would be the character who most opposes Hamlet, Claudius.

In the novel, The Catcher in the Rye, the character Holden Caulfield is the protagonist. He is the leading character, and the reader is invested in his story.

Sometimes, a work will have a false protagonist, who might seem to be the protagonist, but then might disappear unexpectedly. The character Marion in Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho (1960) is an example.

A novel that contains a number of narratives might have a number of protagonists. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle, for example, depicts a variety of characters imprisoned and living in a gulag camp. Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, depicts fifteen major characters involved in or affected by a war.