Understanding Protagonists: Definition & Key Traits
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 min read


If you've ever lost yourself in a good book, movie, or play, chances are you've found yourself cheering for a central character. This main character, who captures your attention and sympathy, is known as the protagonist. But what exactly defines a protagonist and what makes them so compelling? Let's explore the definition of protagonist, and why they are so important in storytelling.

What is a protagonist?

The protagonist is the central character in a story—be it a novel, movie, play, or even a real-life situation. They are the heart and soul of the story, driving the narrative forward. But the definition of protagonist goes beyond just being the 'main character'. There are some distinct characteristics that set them apart.

The Definition of a Protagonist

At its most basic, the definition of protagonist is the leading character or one of the major characters in a story. They are the ones we follow, root for, and often see ourselves in. This character could be a hero, a regular person, or even, in some cases, a villain. But don't get confused—being the main character doesn't automatically make someone the protagonist, just as being the antagonist doesn't always mean they're the bad guy.

Protagonist in Different Contexts

Protagonists aren't just limited to fictional stories. They can also be one of the most prominent figures in a real situation. For example, in a news story about a rescue operation, the person leading the operation could be considered the protagonist. The same goes for a champion or advocate of a particular cause or idea: they can be seen as the protagonist in that situation.

Key Roles of a Protagonist

  • Driving the Story: The protagonist is the engine that propels the narrative. Their actions, decisions, and dilemmas form the crux of the story.
  • Engaging the Reader: Protagonists are designed to create an emotional connection with the reader. We empathize with their struggles, cheer their victories, and feel their defeats.
  • Delivering the Message: Often, through the protagonist, authors communicate their themes or messages. The protagonist's journey can be a way to explore deeper ideas and concepts.

So, when you think about the definition of protagonist, remember: it's more than just 'the main character'. It's about a character's role, their impact on the story, and most importantly, their connection with you, the reader.

Traits of a Protagonist

Now that we know the definition of a protagonist, let's take a look at some key characteristics that are often associated with these leading figures. While these traits can vary greatly—after all, every protagonist is unique—there are a few common elements that many protagonists share.


One of the most defining traits of a protagonist is that they have a goal or objective. This goal is what drives the story forward. Whether it's saving the world, solving a mystery, or simply finding happiness, the protagonist's aim is the heart of the story.


Protagonists often share experiences, emotions, or traits that we, as readers or audience members, can relate to. This helps us to connect with them on a deeper level, and makes their victories and defeats all the more impactful.


A protagonist is typically a dynamic character, meaning they undergo significant change or growth throughout the story. This development is a crucial part of the narrative and is often tied to the protagonist's goal or objective.


Protagonists usually face significant obstacles or challenges on their journey. The way they handle these challenges and their ability to bounce back from setbacks is a key aspect of their character, and often a major factor in why we root for them.

In summary, while the specific traits of a protagonist can vary greatly from story to story, it's their goal-driven nature, relatability, dynamism, and resilience that often define them. But remember, these are not hard-and-fast rules. Some of the most memorable protagonists in literature and film break the mold, offering new and unique takes on the classic protagonist definition.

Examples of Protagonists

Let's bring the definition of a protagonist to life by looking at a few memorable examples from literature and film. Each of these characters embodies the traits we mentioned earlier, though they all bring something unique to their stories.

Harry Potter from "Harry Potter" Series

Harry Potter, the boy who lived, is a classic example of a protagonist. His goal—to defeat the evil wizard Voldemort—is the driving force behind seven books' worth of adventures. He's relatable because of his struggles with school, friends, and growing up, and he undergoes significant personal growth throughout the series. Finally, Harry's resilience in the face of adversity is legendary, making him a compelling protagonist.

Elizabeth Bennet from "Pride and Prejudice"

Elizabeth Bennet is another fantastic example of a protagonist, this time from classic literature. Her goal is to find genuine love and happiness in a society that often values wealth and status above all else. She's relatable in her wit and independence, and she undergoes a significant shift in perspective about love and judgment throughout the novel. Despite societal pressures, Elizabeth remains resilient, staying true to her values.

Nemo from "Finding Nemo"

From the world of animation, Nemo is a protagonist who's easy to root for. His goal—to reunite with his father and return home—is simple yet deeply compelling. As a young, adventurous fish, he's relatable to many kids (and adults, too). Nemo grows through his experiences and learns about independence, friendship, and trust. Despite being away from home in a vast ocean, he shows remarkable resilience.

These examples illustrate the many ways the definition of a protagonist can come to life. Each protagonist, while unique in their own way, shares a common thread—a compelling goal, relatability, personal growth, and resilience in the face of adversity.

How to create a protagonist

Creating a protagonist requires a good deal of thought and planning. You want to make a character that's not just interesting, but also drives the story forward. Here are some steps to guide you in the process:

Establish a Clear Goal

Every protagonist must have a clear goal. This is the driving force of your story. It could be anything from saving the world to finding a lost item. Just remember, this goal will guide your protagonist's actions and decisions, so choose carefully!

Make them Relatable

Relatability is key in a protagonist. Your readers should see a bit of themselves in your lead character. This doesn't mean they need to be perfect; in fact, flaws can make a character more relatable. Maybe they're clumsy, a little too forgetful, or struggle with self-doubt. These traits make them human and endearing to your audience.

Plan for Personal Growth

Personal growth is a vital part of the protagonist's journey. Through the challenges they face, they should learn, change, and grow. This could be learning to trust others, discovering their courage, or even realizing they've been wrong about something all along.

Test their Resilience

Last but definitely not least, a good protagonist needs to be resilient. They're going to face challenges—some that may seem insurmountable. But it's in overcoming these adversities that they prove their mettle and show us what they're made of.

Once you've thought through these aspects, you're well on your way to creating a protagonist who's not just engaging but truly unforgettable. Remember, the definition of a protagonist goes beyond just being the main character—they're the heart and soul of your story.

Protagonist vs. antagonist

Let's explore the dynamic between the protagonist and the antagonist, the two key players in any narrative. It's vital to understand their roles and how they interact. This isn't just about good versus evil; it's a dance of conflict and tension that keeps the plot moving.

Defining the Antagonist

While we've already established the definition of a protagonist, the antagonist is another beast altogether. The antagonist is the character or force that opposes the protagonist and creates the primary source of conflict in the story. This doesn't mean they're always the 'bad guy.' They could be a well-intentioned character who simply has a different viewpoint or goal.

The Conflict

The antagonist exists to challenge the protagonist. This conflict is the heartbeat of your story. It could be a physical struggle, an ideological disagreement, or even an internal battle within the protagonist themselves. Without this conflict, your story risks falling flat.

Contrasting Characteristics

Often, the traits of the antagonist contrast with those of the protagonist. This contrast helps highlight the protagonist's strengths and weaknesses. For instance, if the protagonist is shy and reserved, an outgoing, assertive antagonist could serve to draw them out and force them to grow.

The Balance

Remember, it's important to keep a balance between the protagonist and the antagonist. The antagonist should pose a real challenge to the protagonist, but not be so powerful that the protagonist's victory seems impossible. Likewise, the protagonist shouldn't always outshine the antagonist, or the conflict may seem trivial.

Understanding the definition of a protagonist and their interaction with the antagonist is essential in creating a gripping, well-balanced story. A well-crafted protagonist and antagonist can turn a good story into a great one.

Why protagonists matter in storytelling

Now that you know the definition of a protagonist and how they interact with the antagonist, it's time to delve into why protagonists are so important in storytelling. A protagonist is more than just a 'good guy' in a story. They are the heart that pumps life into the narrative. Let's explore why.

Connection to the Audience

Protagonists serve as the bridge between the story and its audience. Readers or viewers often see the world of the story through the protagonist's eyes. This makes the protagonist a vital tool for making the audience care about what happens in the story. If you've ever found yourself cheering for a character or feeling their pain, that's the power of a well-crafted protagonist at work.

Driving the Plot

Protagonists are the engines of the plot. Their goals, actions, and decisions determine the direction of the story. Whether they're trying to solve a mystery, win a competition, or save the world, it's their journey we're following. Without a protagonist, you'd have a car with no driver.

Theme and Message

The protagonist often embodies the theme or message of a story. Through their struggles and growth, they communicate the underlying ideas or lessons the writer wants to share. For example, in a story about the importance of friendship, the protagonist might start off as a loner before learning to value companionship.

Character Development

Protagonists usually undergo the most character development in a story. They start with certain traits and beliefs, face challenges that test them, and emerge changed by their experiences. This character arc can be one of the most satisfying parts of a story for the audience.

So, understanding the definition of a protagonist isn't just about knowing they're the 'main character.' It's about recognizing their crucial role in connecting with the audience, driving the plot, embodying the theme, and undergoing development. They're the heroes, the dreamers, the fighters—they're the heart of the story.

If you're looking to deepen your understanding of protagonists and character creation, don't miss the workshop 'Creating Characters: The Design Process' by Kit Buss. This workshop will guide you through the process of designing memorable and authentic characters, providing valuable insights to help you bring your protagonists to life.