Know your writing terms: Protagonist

What do an attorney, a hobbit, and a horse have in common?

Besides being characters in three of my favorite novels, Atticus Finch, Bilbo Baggins, and Black Beauty are the protagonist in their stories

Protagonist is a literary term that describes the central character of a fictional story. Most of the story focuses on this character, and authors do their best to get readers to empathize, identify with, and root for the success of the protagonist.

The reader will see that the character is trying to accomplish something: find, gain, defeat, destroy. The conflict sets up the story’s plot, and by the end of the story, most protagonists have changed in some way.

The term comes from the ancient Greek protagonistes, meaning “a chief actor.” Greek drama (which also included deuteragonist and tritagonist) is another study in itself. I won’t go into it, but an article here gives a short but interesting history. Another Greek meaning is “first struggler,” which fits even better when you think about conflicts and accomplishments.

My study has helped me to understand that a protagonist isn’t a clear choice of hero or villain, good or evil. Morality doesn’t come into play in the definition. He can be charming and she can be unlikable, sympathetic or unsympathetic. Both are protagonists who want to succeed in their goals.

I have a WordPress blog that holds my writing collection and works in progress. Afternoon Tea is the place I bare my writing soul as I give the world a sneak-peak of what I write. A short story is posted there and I invited readers to leave comments and helpful critique. I was delighted when a fellow writer wrote this: I think you’ve created a very strong protagonist in Ruthie.” Reading that (and the rest of her critique) was a treat, yet it also reminded me of the long road I’m on to becoming a better writer. I crave the knowledge.

This series of “Know your writing terms” posts may be elementary to you. If so, please share it with another writer whom you think it might help.


EXTRA: National Public Radio published Book magazine’s 100 Best Fictional Characters Since 1900. If you’re a reader (and if you’re a writer, you should be), then you’ll find some favorite protagonists here. The list is from 2002, though, but I couldn’t find a similar list. If you know of one from a recent year, please let me know.

Question: What protagonists would you add to NPR’s list?


2 thoughts on “Know your writing terms: Protagonist

  1. Wow, I never knew about the Greek meaning of “first struggler.” To me that is so poetic and really stirs something inside me as I think about that in relation to storytelling.

    I love that list of fictional characters. I thoroughly agree with most of them but especially Scout Finch and Winnie the Pooh. 🙂


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