A protagonist is always a main character in a narrative: in order to identify the protagonist, all one has to do is to figure out who the narrative is about. The protagonist generally drives the plot of the narrative forward, since the narrative tends to follow the narrative over the course of his life. More specifically, the protagonist usually comes up against an antagonist, and their conflict tends to drive the story.
What is a protagonist?
You may think the term protagonist is complex. But really, it refers to something very simple. The term protagonist simply refers to the main character of a narrative: it is the character who the story is about. The word itself is basically just Greek for the "first actor". Usually, a dramatic plot is propelled forward by the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist, who is a character or force who wants to get in the way of the protagonist.
Protagonists in literature - general uses
Here are a few illustrations of how the term protagonist can be used in sentences.
"In the novel, it takes a while for the protagonist to enter the picture, due to the fact that the author spends a lot of time talking about the main character's ancestors."
"The protagonist of Shakespeare's play Hamlet starts off pretending to be insane; but after a while, the viewer no longer really knows if he is in fact pretending."
"The sprawling and abstract nature of the film makes it very difficult to clearly identify any main plot or protagonist."
If you are still a little confused about the term protagonist, here are a couple guidelines.
1. The protagonist is always just who the narrative is about. If there is a narrative that has characters in it, then it should be easy enough for you to identify the protagonist. Just look for the character who the plot is following.
2. Sometimes, though, it may be difficult to clearly identify the protagonist. For example, Tolstoy's novel War and Peace has several different plotlines and main characters. In this case, you can look for the protagonist of each individual plotline or chapter, and not worry about finding a single protagonist for the work as a whole.
Etymology of the term
It seems that the term protagonist can be traced back to the ancient Greek theater. More specifically, in Greek tragedies, it was always very clear who the protagonist was: indeed, the tragedy was only a tragedy because it involved the ultimate downfall of the protagonist by the end of the play. Moreover, the fact that the protagonist in this context was clearly engaged in conflicts also gave rise to the related term antagonist: the character whose interests are opposed to the protagonist's interests, and who is trying to thwart the protagonist's efforts to achieve his objectives. The antagonist could be another character; or, it could just be a general force, like fate or society.
More generally, the concept of the protagonist could be said to have psychological roots in the fact that every human being tends to experience himself or herself as the protagonist of his/her own life. Every person is the center of his/her own story; every person tries to follow his/her desires, but faces antagonists and setbacks; and so on. In short, the fact that every person already has (more or less) experience of what it means to be a protagonist is probably the basis of the importance of the protagonist in almost all narrative works. More experimental works may try to tell a story that is not "about" anything or anyone—that is, a story without a protagonist. But this is clearly very difficult.
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