English Literature


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The Main Character: Understanding the Role of the Protagonist

The protagonist plays a vital role in a literary work as the central figure and driver of the plot. However, there is more to the term 'protagonist' than just being the main character. Let's examine the definition of a protagonist, the different roles they can play, and some notable examples.

What Defines a Protagonist?

A protagonist is the primary character in a story who actively moves the plot forward. They are the character that readers follow closely and view the story through.

The Purpose of the Protagonist

The protagonist is the driving force of the story as they strive to achieve their goal. The reader closely observes their actions and decisions, which shape the course of the story. Other terms for a protagonist include:

  • Lead
  • Proponent
  • Principal/Lead/Central Character/Figure/Player

The word 'protagonist' comes from the Greek word prōtagōnistēs, meaning 'actor who plays the primary or first part'. It is derived from prōtos, meaning 'first', and agōnistēs, meaning 'actor' or 'competitor'.

Crafting Your Protagonist

One of the crucial steps in writing a story is choosing the protagonist or protagonists. As the central character, their development is key to the story's success.

The protagonist doesn't always have to be the narrator, despite being the focal point of the story. The story can also be told from a third-person perspective or through the viewpoint of other characters. Additionally, if the protagonist is telling the story, it may not be entirely factual or unbiased. They could be an unreliable narrator, adding complexity and intrigue to their character. This technique can also be used to reveal information to the protagonist gradually, influencing their growth throughout the story.

Tips for Creating a Compelling Protagonist

  1. Make your protagonist multi-dimensional, with both positive and negative traits.
  2. Draw inspiration from real people, including yourself, to make your protagonist relatable.
  3. Give your protagonist high stakes, making their goal feel challenging yet attainable.

Noteworthy Examples of Protagonists

The Great Gatsby (1925)

The protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel is Jay Gatsby, but the story is narrated by another character, Nick Carraway. This storytelling decision allows the reader to only view Gatsby's thoughts and feelings through Nick's perspective, shaping the reader's perception of the story.

The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

Offred, also known as 'June', is the protagonist and narrator of Margaret Atwood's novel. Through Offred's internal conflicts and thoughts, the reader gains insight into the oppressive society of Gilead. However, as the protagonist and narrator, Offred may not provide all the desired information, adding mystery to the story.

First-Person Narration and its Role in Portraying Protagonists

When an author chooses first-person narration to depict their protagonist's experiences, they allow the reader to experience the story alongside the main character. This technique is commonly seen in literature, such as in the works of William Shakespeare.

Romeo and Juliet (1597)

The protagonists of Shakespeare's famous play are not the narrators. Instead, an unnamed narrator is used to explain the events and explore the play's themes through a combination of direct and indirect narration. This adds depth to the reader's understanding of the characters and their journey.

Macbeth (1606)

The titular character, Lord Macbeth, is the protagonist of Shakespeare's tragedy, but he is not the narrator. The audience follows the story through Macbeth's actions and dialogue, as well as the commentary of three witches who act as narrators. This creates a captivating storytelling experience, as the reader must interpret Macbeth's thoughts and motivations, adding suspense and complexity to the plot.

Exploring the Different Types of Protagonists

A false protagonist is a literary device that misleads readers into believing that a certain character is the main protagonist, only to later shift the focus to another character. This technique can create a sense of disorientation and change the readers' perspective on the story. A prime example can be seen in A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, where Ned Stark is initially presented as the protagonist, but his sudden death shifts the focus to other characters as the story unfolds.

A traditional hero is a type of protagonist who embodies noble qualities and often grapples with moral dilemmas. King Arthur, the legendary ruler who defended Britain and exemplified courage and honor, is a classic example of this archetype.

An antihero, on the other hand, is a protagonist who does not conform to the conventional characteristics of a hero. They may possess traits that are the opposite of what is expected, yet they remain the central character of the story. In The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the character of Jay Gatsby serves as an antihero, as his actions and decisions may not align with traditional ideas of heroism, but he remains a driving force in the narrative.

The Impact of an Antagonist

The role of an antagonist is to create conflict and obstacles for the protagonist to overcome. While they may not be the main focus of the story, the antagonist plays a crucial role in driving the plot forward. They are often depicted as villains and hold opposing values to the protagonist, leading to tension and friction in the story.

However, an antagonist does not necessarily have to possess overtly evil traits. Instead, they can be any force that challenges or provokes the protagonist, such as a character, idea, concept, system, or institution.

Consider the character of Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, who stands in the way of Jay Gatsby's goal of reuniting with his lost love, Daisy. In The Handmaid's Tale, the oppressive and controlling regime of the Republic of Gilead serves as the main antagonist for the protagonist, Offred, as she struggles to survive and achieve her goals under its rule.In other cases, the antagonist may take the form of a group or society, as seen in Romeo and Juliet, where the ongoing feud between the Montague and Capulet families acts as a barrier for the protagonists' love. Similarly, in Macbeth, the titular character's ambition and greed can also be considered antagonistic forces as they lead him to commit immoral actions in his quest for power.It is a common misconception that the protagonist is always the narrator of the story. While they are often the central character, the story can also be told from a third-person perspective or through the eyes of a different character.Compelling protagonists are multi-dimensional and relatable, with a mix of good and bad traits. They face challenging decisions and obstacles, which enthrall readers and keep them invested in the story. The hero, antihero, and false protagonist are the three main types of protagonists, each bringing a unique perspective and journey to the narrative.In conclusion, the protagonist and antagonist are crucial elements in any story, with their dynamic relationship driving the plot and captivating readers.

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