Definition of a Protagonist in Literature, and Examples
Characters in a story have many roles and purposes, all of them dictated by the writer's intent and style. The protagonist (sometimes called the hero or heroine) is the main character in a story, novel, drama, or other literary work. The protagonist is the character that the reader or audience empathizes with. The protagonist typically makes the key decisions and he or she will experience the consequences of those decisions.
In some cases, the reader will experience the story through the eyes of the protagonist. But that is not always the case. In some instances, the story can be revealed through several characters who describe their perspective to the reader or the audience. The nature and moral fiber of the protagonist can also vary. The protagonist may be the hero or heroine of the story, as well as a character that the reader or audience dislikes.
The protagonist should not be confused with the other lead character in a story, the antagonist, who opposes the protagonist. In the most archetypical narratives, this boils down to bad guy versus good guy. A prime example is good guy Luke Skywalker who goes head to head with bad guy Darth Vader in the first Star Wars movie.
Examples of Protagonists in Literature
In complex works of literature, the protagonist may be hard to identify. Becky Sharpe is one of the main protagonists in Vanity Fair, but she's an extremely flawed character. By the end of the book, Becky is almost unlikable. In this way she's a very good example of another truth in literature: well-written protagonists are round characters. Round characters tend to be more fully developed and described than flat or static characters. As such, they should be the most interesting, complex characters in your book or story.
Becky Sharpe is by far more interesting than Vanity Fair's extremely good Amelia, and for this reason, the story's primary center of gravity remains with Becky.
Protagonists Go Back to Ancient Greece
Protagonists' have been around for as long as storytelling has been around. In Ibsen's play The Master Builder, the protagonist is the architect Halvard Solness, and the antagonist is Hilda Wangel, whose actions lead to the death of Solness. Perhaps one of the most famous protagonists of all time is Romeo, the lead character (along with Juliet) in Shakespeare's classic play Romeo and Juliet. Romeo is actively in pursuit of his relationship with Juliet, and the audience is invested in that story until the very end.
Sometimes, a work will have a false protagonist, who may seem to be the protagonist, but disappears unexpectedly. One example is the main character Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) in Alfred Hitchcock's film classic Psycho, who is slashed to death in the shower scene.
If you're not sure about the nature and role of a protagonist think about J.D. Salinger's classic novel The Catcher in the Rye. The character Holden Caulfield is the protagonist (and the leading character) that the reader is invested in.