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July 28, 2022

What Is a Protagonist?

When writing a script, the first characters you should create are your protagonist and antagonist. Once these are sorted, you can slot in your secondary characters, tertiary characters, and foils.  

Here's the lowdown on what a protagonist is and how you can write a good one.

What is a protagonist?

A protagonist is the main character in your script. Your audience will be aligned with this character for the entirety of the story, and the story will center around their point of view.  

The term "protagonist" originates from Ancient Greek, meaning "actor who plays the chief or first part" with "Proto" meaning first and "agōnistḗs" meaning actor; the first or most important actor in the play.

However, a protagonist isn't always a hero. They do not necessarily always make the most morally ethical choices throughout the script, though they triumph in the end. What makes a protagonist in technical terms is our alignment with them and their value system from the start to the end of the story.

Harry Osbourne in Spiderman 3.
Harry Osbourne is the antagonist in Spiderman 3.

Remember, a protagonist could well be an antagonist - in other words, a villain - in someone else's story. Think Harry Osbourne in Spiderman 3 trying to avenge his father's death. If the film were told from Osbourne's perspective, Peter Parker, aka Spiderman, would be the main antagonist, and Osbourne would be the main protagonist.

The role of a protagonist in a story

The role of the protagonist is to propel the narrative forward, and the protagonist should steer us as an audience throughout the complex world of the film.

Harry is a useful protagonist in the Harry Potter series because he is an orphan and a child who - like us - has never encountered the wizarding world before. He's also famous and has a certain amount of status, giving him access to influential people we as an audience also get to encounter.

If we saw the Wizarding World through the eyes of Ron Weasley or even a minor character Neville Longbottom, it would feel jarring since they already know much about its rich history.

A child progressing through school also gives us a solid structure through which to tell a story, particularly one with seven/eight parts.    

Police procedurals are another genre where the protagonist and the structure go hand-in-hand.

In Endeavour, the prequel to Inspector Morse, we see Morse rise through the ranks of the Oxford police force. As he becomes more experienced and the years go by, he rises from Detective Constable to Detective Sergeant in Series 5, eventually becoming Detective Chief Inspector. He takes on different responsibilities at every career stage and handles more serious cases.

A protagonist in a TV series can also help us navigate changing social attitudes. Endeavour begins in 1965 and finishes in 1972 in the final season.  

The three types of protagonists

Bearing in mind a protagonist is simply a character we're positioned with through the film, a protagonist isn't always heroic. In fact, there are three types of protagonists.

The anti-hero

An anti-hero does not hold the characteristics and values we would usually expect of a hero. They are not courageous in battle, don't have an idealistic view of the world, and lack morals. As a result, they are often dislikable. For example, we might say they are a false protagonist.

However, they can pull through in the end and often save the day, seeing the error of their ways.

A great example would be Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit. Reckless, self-destructive, and suffering from substance abuse, she has very little in the way of idealistic, positive beliefs. However, we empathize with her struggles as she strives to become a chess world champion in the 1960s.

 Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit lifting a chess piece.
Beth Harmon from The Queen's Gambit could be considered an anti-hero as he is at times unlikeable.

The tragic hero

Aristotle defined the tragic hero as one who evokes pity and empathy in the audience; a great modern example would be Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight.

As an audience, we feel a great deal of sympathy for him. He tries to do the right thing by cleaning up Gotham City, but The Joker corrupts him, and he becomes one of Batman's greatest antagonists, Two-Face.

Anakin Skywalker in the prequel Star Wars films is another excellent example of a tragic hero. We feel sympathy for him even though in the original films, which take place in a later timeline, Skywalker is the antagonist.

The hero/heroine

The classic hero or heroine embodies qualities like bravery, virtuousness, and idealism in the face of an adversary.

Examples include Harry Potter - who, despite the death of his mother and all remaining father figures at the hands of Lord Voldermort - continues to fight for what he believes in.

Julianna Crane in The Man In The High Castle is a classic heroine who never wavers from her belief and hope in a better world without the Nazis despite the world she lives in that is full of pessimism and cruelty.

Julianna Crane, the protagonist in The Man in the High Castle, watches a film ominoususly.
Julianna, the protagonist in The Man in the High Castle, is a classic heroine.

What is the difference between an antagonist vs. protagonist?

What is a protagonist, and how do they differ from an antagonist? The easiest way to define an antagonist and a protagonist is by values. We are aligned with the values and worldview of the protagonist and wish for them to succeed.

An antagonist opposes those values and is actively trying to frustrate the protagonist's mission.

Tips for writing a strong protagonist

To write a strong protagonist, you first establish what they stand for, their belief systems, and what motivates them.

If you understand why your protagonist believes what they do, you can begin to underpin some key character traits. These will define how your protagonist will act under pressure.

Are they rational and reasoned, or are they firey and likely to act out if their boundaries are crossed?

Start by writing a list of bullet points with your character's traits and what might have caused them to behave in that manner.

Then see if you can intersect that with your plot points and imagine how they might react in specific scenarios.  

Examples of protagonists

Here are two examples from recent and classic movies of some outstanding protagonists.

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

Nelson Mandella, the protagonist in this biopic, harbors the characteristics of a powerful hero. Uncompromising in his belief that apartheid could not continue in South Africa, he endured jail for 27 years before being elected to the Presidency.  

Peter Parker, Spiderman

Peter Parker adopts the Allais Spiderman to help fight crime after the murder of his beloved Uncle Ben. A classic hero, he is brave and uncompromising in his moral values but also lives a double life.

Protagonists drive narratives forward

The key takeaway about a protagonist is that they drive your narrative forward. The story is told from their perspective, and we encounter the world through their eyes and ears.

Start by developing your characters' values and what kind of person you want to lead the story. From there, you can decide on major plot points, beat structures, and how your protagonist might respond.

Happy writing from the Arc Studio team!

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What Is a Protagonist?
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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David Wain

For decades I've been searching for a seamless screenwriting app and and everything has come up way short – until Arc Studio. Writing and collaborating is easier than ever and it gets better every week. Well done!

David Wain
Writer/Director "Role Models"