RELATED TERMS: Narratology; Theatre; Agon; Hero; Antagonist; Actantial model - Greimas; Epic theatre - Brecht; New Materialism
The protagonist may sometimes be referred to as the main character, the focal character or the hero. In one sense, it is the agency around which the unfolding of the narrative unfolds:its movements and actions giving rise to counter-movements and counter-actions, creating a centre or point of return for the specific actantial dynamics and also, in many respects, the narrative’s deictic centre. In the context of narrative environments, and taking into account Greimas’s actantial theory, the actant by means of which the action centrally unfolds may not be a human ‘character’ but rather a place, an atmosphere, an institution, an organisation or a non-human life form which achieves the status of ‘personhood’ in some respect.
For example, while Lear is clearly the protagonist in Shakespeare’s King Lear, it could also be said, taking into account the way agency is distributed by the plotting of the play, that the the force of nature, as embodiment of ‘the gods’ and their will, is the protagonist. In more contemporary examples, concerning ecological and environmental narratives and assuming a non-theological perspective, the protagonist might be the world’s oceans and their circulations, the atmosphere’s air and its flows or the earth’s oceanic and continental plates and their movements. These types of narrative environments open up to the kind of thinking that takes place under the heading of ‘new materialism’, in which matter is not assumed to be passive and inert but active and ‘vital’, a problematic term which, in turn, opens up debates about what is meant by ‘material vitality’.
A protagonist is the main character, the central or primary personal figure of a narrative, around whom the events of the narrative’s plot revolve and with whom the audience is intended to share the most empathy.
Empathy is a pivotal moment in engaging a reader, viewer or audience in the sequence of action in a narrative. The question of whether such emotional engagement is conjoined with an accompanying intellectual engagement or is treated as an end in itself, as part of an emotional catharsis, is key to the debate that Brecht, in establishing the ground for his ‘epic theatre’, develops with the Aristotelian view of tragic theatre.
The protagonist is often referred to as the “good guy” (in a pre-feminist or a pre-gender-neutral formulation). However, it is entirely possible for a story’s protagonist to be the clear villain, or antihero, of the piece.
Wikiwrimo (2013). Character. Wikiwrimo [unofficial wiki of National Novel Writing Month]. Available from http://www.wikiwrimo.org/wiki/Character [Accessed on 8 July 2016].
In an interesting discussion of kinds of fictions, relevant for notions of the protagonist in narrative environments, Northrop Frye (2000: 33-34) argues that it is possible to classify fictions or narratives by the hero’s or protagonist’s power of action, which may be greater, less, or roughly the same than that of the reader, viewer or audience. Thus, Frye suggests that:
First, if the protagonist is superior in kind both to other humans and to the environment of other humans, the hero is a divine being, and the story about this protagonist will be a myth in the common sense of a story about a god.
Second, if the protagonist is superior in degree to other humans and to the environment, the hero is that of romance, whose actions are marvellous but who is nonetheless a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are partly, but not wholly, suspended.
Third, if the protagonist is superior in degree to other humans but not to the natural environment, the hero is a leader. While this protagonist has authority, passions, and powers of expression far greater than the reader, viewer or audience, what he does is subject both to social criticism and to the order of nature. This is the hero of the high mimetic mode, of most epic and tragedy, and is the kind of tragic hero that Aristotle had in mind.
Fourth, if the protagonist is superior neither to other humans nor to the environment, the hero is one of us. The reader, viewer or audience responds to a sense of his common humanity, and the world conforms to our own experience. This is the hero of the low mimetic mode, of most comedy and of realistic fiction. It may be difficult to retain the word ‘hero’ for this type of protagonist.
Fifth, if the protagonist is inferior in power or intelligence to the reader, viewer or audience, so that there is a sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration or absurdity, the hero belongs to the ironic mode. This remains the case when the reader, viewer or audience feels that s/he is or might be in the same situation, as the situation is being judged by the norms of a greater freedom.
Frye, N. (2000). Historical criticism: theory of modes. In: Anatomy of criticism: four essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.